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Pixel by Pixel

Privacy is dead. Technology is king. Resistance is futile.

Light / Dark

It’s a low-key glass-off in Bad Town when I almost murder that drone. Its operator, unseen from our vantage in the water, is tower-buzzing us with the toy—close enough to where I feel the hum of its blades. I slap water in its direction to shoo it away, but the drone just dodges the stream and returns like some prehistoric insect.

It is surely taunting us. Dipping way too close. Coming in hard and fast. Rising way up high. Making a show of it. Baiting the idea that it can all too easily come crashing down on our heads. Watching us the whole time. When it comes back within a stone’s throw, I dive deep and gather a handful of the egg-sized rocks scattered about the reef. Upon surfacing, I huck the smooth, round stones at its crimson eye. The drone flies up and departs beyond the buildings along the bluff, leaving in its wake the shorefront bar packed with plastic divorcées.  

I’m fully aware of our overload, and I generally abstain from complaining about it. If anything, it’s a lesson in submission.

So why get angry? 

Well, that drone invading my surf session seemed to somehow cross a line. And it also got me thinking: What is it about being watched in this age of technology that’s changed the demeanor and perspective of the modern surfer?

Adam Alter, associate professor of marketing and psychology at New York University’s Stern School of Business, put the rise of tech addiction under review—while showing us what we should do about it—in his 2017 book

Irresistible. He also offers insight into the reason behind my emotional outburst.

“Surfing is a private moment for many people—or one to be shared with others immediately around you,” Alter says. “This privacy—of being removed from the world at large—is part of its charm, and that sets it apart from spectator sports that are easier to perceive from a third-party perspective. Being filmed robs you of this private element. It’s never fun to have your privacy invaded, but that’s especially true when privacy is such a large part of the charm of the experience.”

The drone’s peeping Tom presence sullied a moment that had been otherwise special, luring from me a violent reaction. I’d finally been surfing again with my brother-in-law in his hometown, on leave from the Navy and just a few months out from a tour in Afghanistan. At the family house on the hill, watching Catalina dissolve into darkness, we joked about how funny it would have been had I clipped that buzzing intruder. But inside, my umbrage still burned. 

And it got me thinking: Are we just specimens for digital observation now?

Aside from the thrill of it all, I surf because it lets me forget about all of the attachments that await on land. I’m present in a communal sense while being alone in an individual pursuit. It allows me to just be. 

However, the grace of its intrinsic simplicity feels like it’s fading now that we’re all living in frames. The ex-pro doing ollies and spinners on high-performance softies in millennial pink for more likes. The throngs of people, willing or not, who become “kook of the day.” The inflatable “swan slams” in breakneck shorepound. The cliffside “beer send” to the surfer scooting by who cracks it open and chugs it all down to shrieks of laughter from its director. The waterboard swirl of our digitized stoke in 4K resolution. The feeds that purport surfing as “lifestyle” and less and less a life that aligns with true aesthetic. I’m no Luddite, but I can say the majority of what’s unfolding is dissonance that breaks from the rule.

Surveillance, everywhere. Live streaming cameras on thousands of surf breaks around the world. Triple HD cam angles at the premier spots—constantly recording, logging, and streaming. The watching of everything. Amateur photogs wedged into the pier’s outpost hitting burst mode. Tourists at the tideline, posing in the sunset for the perfect silhouette. 

What we experience as surfing on our screens perpetuates the uncooked idea that amplification is everything. That it actually matters. That we must worship the construct of this new way to watch as offering systemic value to society. What happened to tact and discretion? What happened to surfing privately? That all of this motion picture cruft is doing more harm than good isn’t far off the mark.

Don’t overthink it, I’ve heard some argue. Surfing was pillaged of all these things long ago. This is just the world we live in. Our paradigm. A monument to our technological progress and monetary ambition. Accept it. Accept how easy it is now to wake up and check every surf spot on the coast without getting out of bed. Be grateful for your Warholian 15 minutes. Embrace the lens. My, how it loves you.

What we experience as surfing on our screens perpetuates the uncooked idea that amplification is everything. That it actually matters. That we must worship the construct of this new way to watch as offering systemic value to society. 

“Humans behave very differently when they’re being filmed,” says Alter. “That’s why a vacation is different when you capture it for Instagram. You’re not completely living in the present, and part of your attention is devoted to crafting the perfect A/V product for later consumption. In the case of surveillance, you aren’t trying to impress others as much as you’re thinking twice as hard about how your behavior might be perceived. You’re more likely to be inhibited, shy, introverted, and risk averse.”

Consider those inhibitions when the swell finally arrives. Where to go? Which break looks best on the cams? Which cams present the clearest picture so as not to assail expectations? And will we go and look for the live footage of ourselves later? How about the magic ease of opening the app and viewing your time-stamped self? Just a swipe and there you are, a cascade of information in algorithmic symmetry from the GPS tracker in your smartwatch goes straight to video on your smartphone.

At the pier, amid a swell window whose promise failed to deliver, I battle the longshore current on a gray Sunday morning with another of my ilk. We refuse to go in. We’re the only ones left out there, hoping conditions will evolve in our favor. We’re delaying the inevitable.

“It was firing on the cams less than an hour ago,” he says. “Maybe I should have gone farther south. But I’ve been doing that so much lately. Driving around. Parking. Checking my phone. Getting back in the car and driving around again.”

I ask him if he remembers what it was like to just pull up to a break and go out. Head-high or knee dribblers, it was still a bounty. Whether the winds blew or not, whether the direction worked or didn’t, it was always a surprise. It was always worth it. It still is. But for some reason, we always need more now. Evidence. Data. Feedback.

“We’re all very focused now on quantifying everything and analyzing behaviors that were once left to intuition and feel,” Alter says. “Runners track every step. Now surfers can track every wave surfed. We think we want to know all of this, but it also distances us from the immediacy of the experience.”

You’ve probably heard that all-too-familiar quip: “If it’s not on video, maybe it didn’t happen.” But it did happen. It’s happening now—like it always has. There’s no need to show the world. And if that’s the light bulb affectation all this “connection” has afforded, maybe the wave is better off breaking without us.

 What can we do? Because none of this stops and we can’t abandon it. To think otherwise would be an illusion. I take stock of its positive effect, but the sunny outlook quickly spirals into shadow. Yes, it’s wonderful having directions glowing from the dashboard to get me home from the middle of nowhere at night. Or when my voice queues up any song in every room because that’s how you party. How easily I find the new hit show to binge when I should really be asleep. The conversation I have about getting new specs and suddenly I’m getting served ads from five different eyeglass brands in my Instagram feed. My image—my likeness—out there, connecting dots in the ether. That glowing dot always in earshot, always listening.

Back in Bad Town,  I opt for the hit-or-miss break at the city’s outskirts, hoping nothing will find me there. I’m alone in the water, as my brother-in-law is gone on another deployment. 

I look up at the cliffs above the tidepools. I’ve been spotted. The guy has got his phone out. Of course. He toggles between capturing the view and pointing the device at me. There’s a boy at his side. I want to tell him to put the phone down and just take it in. I want to tell him that we can live with all of this, but at the same time be mindful of how we wield its influence. In the end, that’s what will bring us closer and leave us more fulfilled. But he’s too far away and the set is coming. I don’t want to yell. I don’t want to throw stones. I only want to surf.