Looking ahead into the distant future of surfing
Surfing has certainly changed in the last forty years. It has become a mainstream sport, rather than a pastime or a passion framed by a counter-culture movement. Surfing has been sanitised, packaged and sold to the masses, and this is no more evident than in WSL webcasts cut with Jeep commercials and Samsung Galaxy smart-phone ads.
It’s a brave new world we find ourselves in, and all this looking back makes me wonder what could be in store for us in years to come. Since it’s publication in 1931, Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World has come to serve as a blueprint upon which to compare any dystopian imaginings of a technologically misguided future. I’m wondering what surfing’s version of Huxley’s World State would look like?
A population of surfing devotees perhaps who have learnt to surf exclusively in wave-pools? Who can pull-off perfect air-reverses but who don’t have the skills to negotiate a shifting line-up? Surfers who have learnt their surf lingo from WSL commentators, who congratulate one another on their speed/power/flow? Could there be a strict division between surfing species? The futurists and the savages – the latter being those wild folk who still confront the perilous waters of the great saltwater seas. Climate change has altered the layout of reefs and beaches, swallowing up the South Pacific, while the seawater in many areas is toxic due to nuclear waste leaks that have become commonplace. The futurists are made up of rich kids from land-locked countries, the egalitarian nature of surfing quashed by entry fees into pools. Surfing techniques are streamlined, the predictability of the artificial wave celebrated. Kelly Slater is venerated as the creator of a new world order, while the executives at Surfstitch have control over all media outlets. Beyond the Surfing World State, the savages honour Rasta, their spiritual and freethinking leader. They shun technology and read paper books such as Tim Winton’s Breath, lusting for a time when surfing was like a dance with no set figure.
If you think this is ridiculous, you’re right. A less far-out and probably more likely prediction came from controversial surf journo Lewis Samuels in a now 6-years old interview I read in The Surfer’s Path. The interviewer asked Samuels what he thought was next for surfing. Samuels answered:
“What's next for us? I'll be optimistic for a change and declare that economic turmoil will contribute to a mini-apocalypse for the surf industry. Companies will collapse into themselves like dying suns. Magazines will become dangerously thin and then irrelevant, like bulimic reality TV stars. Surf Hipster culture will take over, embracing do-it-yourself ethics. Backyard shapers, off-brand clothing, independent surf films and alternative surf media will become the norm. And then, just like that, something else will become popular, and surfing will become tragically unhip, like roller-blading.”
As it turns out, many of Samuels’ predictions have been on the money. Many major surf brands went bust, while several magazines shut up shop or became passion projects. Alternative surf zines popped up, being sold in boutique surf shops/espresso bars. The white, 5’10 thruster was replaced in many a board rack by a hand-shaped burgundy single fin. And now, as pro surfing resembles more and more the American Baseball League, will Samuels’ final prediction come true? Will surfing become uncool?
Surfing is developing and dividing into sub-categories, much like skateboarding. Skating has the X-games and street-league, as well as the guys who are out there filming in the streets.
Both sides have their own followers. The two types of pro surfing, free surfing and tour surfing, can of course co-exist in a similar fashion. As surfing evolves and grows as a culture, sport and way of life, it develops new identities, each with their own nuances. It can be easy to get sour on the path surfing has taken, but in reality it is possible to lead a surfing life (mostly) free of surf industry and media influence if you choose to. We are no longer a single species with one mindset that connects us all, but perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Will surfing become uncool? Certain aspects of surfing will be uncool to certain people, depending whether they define themselves as a futurist or a savage. •