An edited version of this article also appeared in The Inertia.
Unless you’ve been living on a remote island in Indonesia for the last three years, surfing perfect barrels while living off rice and coconuts (well done, if you have, by the way), you’ve heard someone talking about an industry being “disrupted.” It’s shorthand for technology finding more efficient ways of doing things.
In many of ways it’s pretty punk – techy kids in jeans and checked shirts sticking two fingers up to the man and asking, “Why can’t I just stay at someone’s house instead of a hotel?,” or “Why can’t someone make a bit of extra cash giving people rides in their truck?”
Everywhere you look the bullshit processes that keep the big guys in the money are being replaced by faster, leaner and cheaper ways of doing things. In the finance world they’ve called it fin-tech. In property it’s prop-tech. And with waterproof watches that can tell you your top speed and surfboards that allow competitors to talk directly with their coaches, is there now a surf-tech? And more importantly - do we want there to be?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last three years, mainly because I have been building a surf-tech product of my own. As I’ve written about before, the whole thing came about very much by surprise. I pitched an idea at a start-up event and, before I knew it, I was CEO of a tech start-up. I found myself with a team of developers and designers helping me to make my idea a reality. I didn’t have a tech background. In fact, I didn’t even have a Facebook account. But it seemed like a fun thing to do and I ran with it. Three years and many late nights later we’ve finally launched.
What we’ve built is pretty simple. It’s an app that lets surfers keep a private diary of the conditions at all the spots they surf. I had the idea when I came back to Wales after a few years away and was finding it hard to remember all the conditions that made my favorite spots work. I called it Johnny on the Spot because, well, that’s another story.
Of course, having turned this idea into a business, I have a specific interest in the topic. But at the end of the day it’s just an app, and there’s a bigger point that I think should be recognized. That point is this: I think we need to make very thoughtful choices about how we bring tech into surfing and into our lives.
I think surfers actually occupy a pretty unique position in this paradigm shift. Our lives are becoming more integrated with tech every day, but our pastime of choice is more closely tied to nature. We can’t control tides or weather conditions, so we’re connected to the natural world on a daily basis in a way that many people aren’t. We keep an eye on how the clouds are moving. We might, like the rest of the world, check our phones an average of 221 times a day, but at least half these times it’s to check the webcam at our local beach.
Like I said, the whole social media thing had passed me by until I started out on this journey. I had no idea everyone was sharing everything from their sandwich fillings to their political sway. When I pitched the idea for Johnny on the Spot, the developers got very excited at the idea of surfers sharing their experience with the rest of the world.
It took me a moment to explain why this wasn’t a good thing. I was adamant from the start that Johnny on the Spot would always be a private diary. Every surfer I’ve told about the idea says that’s what they wanted, and I respect them for it. We might be the last breed of people who believe some things are worth keeping secret.
It’s not just what we consciously share that we need to be aware of either. Every time we sign up to a new app, website or service, we’re often signing over the right for that company to know where we are, who we’re with and sometimes what we’re saying at any given time. This data might not be directly useful to the company, but it sure is useful to someone. As my colleague and friend points out on his excellent Free Lunch blog, Axciom, the partner company to Facebook is worth more than all the stock in all the Wallmarts in the USA put together. But it has no stock. Just a shit load of data.
Pete’s Free Lunch blog of course is so named because, as Milton Friedman said, there is no such thing. Companies make the decision to make their product free, either because they are going to try and sell you something down the line, or because your personal data is more valuable to them than what they could sell you an app for. We realised early on that if we were going to live by our mantra of complete privacy, then we couldn’t do this. So rightly or wrongly (and probably wrongly from a business standpoint) we decided to charge. It’s kind of an old-school approach where people pay for something they like the look of. But with us, the transaction ends there.
My second objective is to simply uncover what actually makes the experience of surfing enjoyable. The idea for Johnny on the Spot came to me when I’d just scored some peachy waves at a semi-secret spot which only works a couple of times a year. That day I’d taken a punt, woken up early, hiked across the hills and I got lucky. Just a couple of other guys were out with long right hand walls for as long as the Welsh tides allowed. I remember getting out feeling like that was the best surf I’d had in years. And at that moment I wondered whether an app could help me remember when the conditions might come together to make that spot happen again.
But how good were those waves in reality? Pretty good, but probably no better than they had been a couple of weeks before at the local beach break. I’m pretty sure there were a lot of other factors contributing to my experience that day; how long it had taken me to finally score that spot, the distance I’d had to walk to get there and the fact I’d resisted pressing the snooze button.
It was a perfect example of the factors that are often overlooked when we talk about what makes an experience enjoyable, and it’s something that surfers know better than many others. Effort equals reward. Very often it’s the time and calculation that we put into finding good surf that amplifies our enjoyment.
Since we launched a few weeks back I’ve received the odd email from users asking why they can’t just add all the spots and have it tell them the perfect conditions. My reply is always the same – you still have to put the effort in to search and find the spots and their perfect conditions. This will just help you remember them a little bit better once you have. It’s something that will preserve that little bit of magic in the hunt.
Disruptive tech is becoming so popular in so many fields because it is making difficult processes easier. This is great in something like finance or renting a property. But what happens when we take away the difficult part of surfing? Does it detract from the experience? Would a piece of surfing’s beauty be lost if we could just be told the best spot to go on any given day? I don’t know the answers, but I think these are questions worth asking.
Some people may want more tech in their surfing, some people less. It’s not for me to dictate the guidelines. But I do hope to at least give people something to think about. How much is worth giving up for easy and free?
Ultimately the choice is an individual one. But perhaps thinking about how we use tech to enhance our experience of surfing will help us accomplish the same in other areas of our lives as well.