The organizers of SPAR 3D no doubt were unaware their event fell on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. It seems appropriate considering Jefferson is the author of the Land Ordinance of 1785, which established and has governed land surveying practices in the U.S. for over 200 years.

What would Jefferson say if he were sitting in the audience in Houston?

The inventor Jefferson would be intrigued by the technology in the exhibit hall and would join his fellow surveyors poking and probing and asking pointed questions about how the technology works, what it can do and what is next.

The architect Jefferson would have listened, enthralled by the descriptions of virtual reality and augmented reality and how he could project a model of a proposed building in virtual space, walk around it and examine it from all angles. He’d marvel at the ability to place the model in a virtual landscape and see how it would integrate with its surroundings. He’d welcome the ability to adjust his design and the location and orientation of the building to optimize its beauty and location.

The legislator Jefferson would be pleased to see that the principles he laid down in 1785 still govern the surveying profession. Though he might be less happy to see how complex society had become and how much new technologies have contributed to that complexity. But, he might also volunteer again to help sort matters out and simplify the governing rules to allow the surveying profession to grow and thrive.

The surveyor Jefferson might be pleased to see some familiar tools among the mix and learn that practices he could recognize were still part of the professional land surveyor’s tool kit. But he would be dismayed to see that these were not familiar to the majority of people, but only to a small, select group of dedicated professionals.

Jefferson would have expected that a consequence of land ownership would include the responsibility to have certain knowledge of the rules and practices of land surveying, which were at the heart of the Land Ordinance. Because private land ownership was as novel to some people in Jefferson’s time as virtual reality might be to some in our own time, he might have expected that we would have continued to take a direct interest in the factors affecting ownership. These would, no doubt, include the growing complexities of the legal factors affecting the title to the property.

What might be most interesting is not how much things have changed, but how much things have remained the same. There are some important core elements that date back to Jefferson’s time and to Jefferson himself that have changed very little. Our ability to execute on some of the visions of Jefferson and his peers have taken astronomical leaps. One of the challenges of today — and tomorrow — is to recognize those central principles that change very little while we attempt to deal with the dramatic, dynamic change that swirls around them, threatening to obscure our view of those core values.

Jefferson would truly revel in the technological advances, but not at the expense of core principles and best practices. And listening to the discussions at SPAR, there are some Jeffersonian elements in the form of questions about quality assurance, process and policy. I think he would be at least cautiously optimistic about the outlook.

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