Oh Screen, I Wish I Knew How To Quit You

I still don’t really know whether science fiction imitates real life or if it’s the other way around. Would the tech world design autonomous cars, creepily capable robot soldiers, and handheld devices relaying endless data if those things hadn’t been dreamt up by visionary and (probably) drug-addled sci-fi writers in years past? Or are the futuristic products and services that we live with today simply inevitable technological advances? More importantly, are such shifts necessarily good for our physical, mental, and cultural well-being? These may seem like questions better suited for philosophers than outdoor writers, except our outdoor lives are gradually being reshaped by these advances—especially by the proliferation of social media.

One of the most baffling symptoms of this culture shift is the strange compulsion by surfers, skiers, cyclists, etc., to post photos of their good fortune every single time they score quality waves or pow, or newfound trails. These posts are often complete with vague hints as to where they are, or even brazenly hashtagged spot names, which are surely having an effect on crowds. One casualty may be a secret-ish break near my Northern California home that was jealously guarded a few years ago, with plenty of windows for empty sessions available for those in the know—a group of people that didn’t even include me at first (I stumbled across the wave accidentally while fishing one day). But good luck getting an uncrowded session out there today, even when the wave is barely breaking.

I can’t prove that there’s a direct relationship between over-sharing on social media and this hitherto-unknown break now crawling with people, but I can put two and two together when I see surfers standing above the break with their phones pointed right at the surf. Every so often, while scrolling through my Instagram or Facebook feed, I’ll see photos of similar spots, with cheeky hashtags betraying the photographer’s guilt at adding to the inevitable crowds: #shhh or #nottelling or #icouldtellyoubutidhavetokillyou, mocking the gods of overcrowding in exchange for a few likes.

I’m mostly viewing this through the lens of a lifelong, grumpy surf local, but our social-media addiction puts a strange buffer between us and some of the best parts of our outdoor experiences. A Huffington Post article recently asked its readers, “Does our addiction to capturing the moment with external devices detract from the vacation experiences we wearily yearn to attain?” Replace “vacation experiences” with “surf experiences” or “outdoor experiences” and I think the answer for many people is: “Holy shit, yes.”

How many times have you arrived at an idyllic beach while a set of perfectly tapered waves came marching in and your first instinct was to fumble through your pants pocket for your phone in an attempt to fire off a quick Instagram post, rather than just sit there in appreciation? Same could be said for stumbling across a perfect campsite on a backpacking trip.

Hopefully it’s not just me doing that.

I doubt that anyone on Earth believes more screen time is beneficial to their life, yet here we are, filtering our experience—the joyous natural wonders of surfing and all other outdoor adventures included—through our phones. You know you’ve got it bad when you find yourself physically immersed in a beautiful moment, like, say, witnessing a beam of light cut through a wave’s translucent lip as you prepare to dive beneath it, but mentally all you can muster as the wave throws over your head is “Damn, wish I could Instagram that.”

Do you really wanna be filtering this incredible image through your phone, when you could just, like, look at the sunset instead? Photo: Processingly/Unsplash

But perhaps the most troubling thing about the sheer volume of surf and outdoor-centric social media we subject ourselves to today is the insatiable appetite it instills. We so much as stop at a traffic light and our phones are out so we can thumb through an endless scroll of photos and videos, perfect waves and freak slabs, climbers sending insane routes, surf icons and beginners clinging hilariously to their pop-outs as they leap from sketchy rock sections into the surf. Sure, that might be an enjoyable way to pass the 30 seconds it takes for that stoplight to turn green, but it’s certainly not providing us with any kind of lasting satisfaction. We “like” them, or we don’t, then continue scrolling down, forevermore, scrolling, constantly scrolling.

What exactly do we hope to find after all that scrolling, I wonder? Anytime I’ve been away from my phone (or, more accurately, can’t find a signal) for an extended period of time, the moment I reunite with Wi-Fi I’ll sit slack-jawed in front of my phone, trying to look at all the Instagram shots I’ve missed while away. Gorgeous wave after gorgeous wave rolls through my feed, each one getting a glance, a brief pause, perhaps a comment if I’m particularly moved.

But that thirst is never, ever quenched. It’s also rare to stop and consider the wave or the person surfing it, the story behind the image or video, or why any of it is even compelling at all. It just becomes surface-level distraction—often very titillating, sure, but nothing more. And that little smartphone screen has increasingly become one of my our important connections with the rest of the outdoor world. Especially in our socially distanced zeitgeist.

Which is a significant change, and a real shame. Granted, I’m a surf-and outdoor-history dork, but I’ve still got a massive collection of surf, hiking, and fishing mags from the last 20 years or so cluttering up my dining room and annoying my wife. Every so often, the mood will strike and I’ll page through an old issue of a magazine, re-reading a favorite article like the one the hairshirt-wearing ascetic surf monk Dave Parmenter wrote in Surfer Magazine about an early surf trip to Alaska back in 1993, when cold water surfing was a true frontier.

Why? Because the first time I read that article, I spent lots of time with the piece and thought a ton about it, unlike the thousands of Instagram pics I’ve probably looked at just this weekend alone. I won’t remember any of those social-media images let alone cart them around with me in cardboard boxes for the next few decades. But I’m never getting rid of that Alaska issue.

Don’t get me wrong, I also get plenty of enjoyment from social media, and appreciate the ways in which it can, in fact, connect us. Increasingly, it’s becoming a vital tool for media outlets to tell stories. For that, I’m certainly thankful. As a tool for sharing stories, social media is a welcome and invaluable addition to the media toolkit, especially as those of us in outdoor media get better at taking advantage of it.

But that’s as far as I’d like it to intrude on my adventure life. I don’t want to rock up to a gorgeous place and feel that itch of the phone in my pocket, the insatiable need to share, to scratch my name into the digital space that photo takes up: Justin Was Here. Instead, I’ll go back to the days of just being there, in that instant, letting the moment stretch forever in time, the weight of it being recorded in my brain, not my screen.

Top photo: Luke Moss/Unsplash

A version of this essay first appeared at the now-defunct Surfer Magazine. 



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