How Real Surfing Has Changed Because of Web Surfing

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What difference has the Web made in our lives? Sometimes a specialized example tells as much as the best-known stories. For the game of chess, it has helped countless aspiring players around the world hone their skills against each other as well as machines, making access to a handful of big-city chess clubs less essential for achieving master status.

A Los Angeles Times obituary of the surfing guru Sean Collins shows another pattern. Collins was a pioneer of offering accurate wave predictions using a variety of data and secret methods he had developed:

"Most young people today have grown up in the Internet age," Collins told the Huntington Beach Independent recently. "They don't realize what it was like in the '70s and '80s.... It was really like the Dark Ages. It was hard to find data to forecast storms, let alone swells."

The Web did not create the method, but it radically changed how the results were distributed, following a familiar "freemium" pattern. The surfing site offered a free level of service supported by advertising plus subscription-based advanced services. Together, they replaced the old fee-based telephone and fax services.

But in sports as elsewhere there is a downside to the new information-rich, free-access environment. Some creative drift is lost in the information rich world. As another LAT article put it:

Yes, wave forecasts help surfers plan, but that has resulted in overcrowding at popular spots and more intense competition for waves. What's more, says veteran San Francisco surfer Mark Renneker, forecasts are rendering obsolete the unique thrill of the wave hunt. Without forecasts and detailed reports, surfers are more likely to wander up the coast searching for waves, he says. In seeking out better surf, important discoveries are made. "You'll learn something about the place," Renneker says. "Maybe you'll get to know the people up there because you didn't surf but just talked. The whole subculture of surfing depends on that."

Collins made sure to leave some challenge, but an issue remains. How relatively important are sheer performance in a sport (or any other activity) as opposed to the indirect benefits that accrue from being part of its culture? Information that's too readily available and too precise can be counterserendipitous, just as automated job candidate screening saves time while also weeding out some unconventional but great matches. The philosopher Bernard Suits once defined a game as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles." And even the most high-tech golf enthusiast doesn't really want a robot to overcome the unnecessary obstacle of putting the ball in the hole.

Image: National Library of Australia. "Surf Sirens."


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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