I sat down with the intention of penning something about how shit-the-bed cool these latest 360 degree, virtual reality GoPro videos are, but I feel I should change tack slightly. They are stunning, no doubt, and they throw up a heap of interesting questions which are worthy of a post to themselves. What sort of impact will they have on coaching? Could they eventually be used in the judging of pro surfing? Will they de-mystify barrel riding to such an extent that it is tainted?
All worthy discussion points, but it might be more important to question why we are so obsessed with capturing images of ourselves surfing in the first place? It is one of the many contradictions in surf culture. We are relentlessly standoffish when it comes to discussing surfing, we bend over backwards to surf alone, and we shun those who claim waves or – heaven forbid – crack a smile in the line-up. Nevermind the nonsensical way in which we downplay the measurement of waves. Yet when it comes to getting pictures or video of ourselves surfing we’re all over it like dogs licking gravy.
This contradiction was highlighted by a piece William Finnegan wrote for the New York Times recently. He laments the possible inclusion of surfing in the Olympics and offers damning criticism of the competitive format. But his basic gripe seems to be that surfing is now too popular, which prevents him from feeling like some renegade outlier. (Incidentally, this is very much the overall tone of his surfing memoir Barbarian Days.) Finnegan undoubtedly loves surfing, he just doesn’t quite want to accept that others feel the same way. This is a feeling which runs rife among surfers, so why do we feel the need to constantly capture and promote ourselves?
Finnegan goes on to say: “Surfing photographs well. It makes mesmerizing video…” I’m not sure I agree. Surf images can definitely be beautiful, but they can equally be homogenous, dull even. Surf films are the same. With very few exceptions, I tend to find them quite boring, especially if they don’t have a good deal of insight into people and places. Endless shots of surf action are not particularly interesting.
I do appreciate the appeal of capturing images in hard copy, but I place far greater value on moments that sit separate and vivid in my memory, without need for analysis or explanation. Often you find that the moments you will remember are not the waves you rode the farthest, or performed the most critical turns on, and it doesn’t matter why this is the case. You don’t need to understand it. But something in them would almost certainly be lost if they were committed to film.
It’s why I’ve never bothered with a GoPro. I see too many people concerned about how things look in the virtual world to enjoy their experience in the actual world. I don’t ever want to be the guy I once saw sitting in the line-up, doing his best Blue Steel towards his board mount whilst he smoothed his hair back.
Surfing is a petri dish for narcissistic personalities. I remember an interview with Dave Parmenter where he compared every surfer to “the lead guitarist in his own rock band”. It’s a pretty solid metaphor, and it captures the self-absorption and selfishness that goes hand in hand with surfing as soon as you reach a certain level of competence.
But no matter how hard we try, it’s impossible for a GoPro to capture an experience that has more to do with consciousness than simply pretty visuals. I’ve not seen a GoPro POV yet that’s made me think they are worthwhile. The arguments, of course, will be that they have opened up barrel riding and other unique experiences to the world, but why would we want to do that? As I said in a previous piece, when I go surfing I do it mainly to escape from my screens. I don’t want to come home and upload my narcissism into pixels, for myself or anyone else.
I’m afraid, however, that selfie surfing is here to stay. There’s no doubt that virtual reality is the next big technology boom, and maybe it will suit some surfers just fine. Perhaps it’ll get so good that landlocked dads will be hassling their kids to build them a perfect, reeling point in future generations of Minecraft, and we’ll all be riding a foamball on the edge of reality. I just hope we make it out.