A new surfing app highlights our ultimately unfulfilling obsession with data.

A new surfing app highlights our ultimately unfulfilling obsession with data.

While trawling the internet for content recently, I came across a new iPhone app, Glassy Pro, that promised to do for surfers what happy hour did for problem drinkers.

This perfectly formed, 4.2mb chunk of digital coding offers “tons of information and forecasts about 4000+ [sic] surf spots worldwide. Forecast data includes wave height, swell direction, wind speed/direction, wave period, sunrise/sunset times, tides and tidal coefficients.” Damn, that’s pretty handy if you think about it. If you’re a surfer wanting to find the best waves around, then Bob’s your mother’s lover.

But this wonder app started to go down in my estimation when I saw it actively encouraged users to log their ‘sessions’ and work their way up ‘levels’. The spiel explains it all: “You can upload details of your surf session and browse your history of past sessions, including the total amount of surfing time, average wave height, weather conditions, surf buddies, equipment used and the spot and location of the session, among others.” The promo video shows off the depressingly inevitable conclusion of this data quest when at 0.39 minutes two silhouetted watermen indulge in a beachside dick swinging contest by way of their iPhones to find out who’s more of a surfer – and by default who’s a more worthwhile human being.

This is not really Glassy Pro’s fault though. With everything nowadays, there needs to be a ‘social’ aspect to any piece of technology. No matter what you’re doing, you’re actively encouraged to ‘log’ and ‘share’ what you’re up to with your ‘friends’. Of course, as a free app, Glassy Pro’s continued survival relies on amassing data on an audience to sell to an advertiser – like, say, magazines and websites do – so that’s kinda forgiveable that you are asked to do someone’s marketing job for them and help proliferate the product to a new group of suckers… I mean, surfers.

My real problem with this app is that it’s trying to measure the unmeasurable. It’s gaffer-taping on stats, data and rankings to an experience which can’t be easily defined by numbers. I’ve always found surfing – along with other pastimes like snowboarding, skateboarding and knock-a-door-run – is more about pursuit of a particular feeling than the amalgamation of stats and the working towards one particular goal.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no moon-in-a-bucket-pour-it-away luddite when it comes to using apps for sport. I regularly use a GPS tracking to record cycling and runs to find out how far and fast/slow I go. But they are very different sports: ones where distance, time and how many not-yet-banned pharmaceuticals you can eat matter. But with surfing, do you really need to know how many ‘sessions’ you’ve had, the average time you spent in the water or the average height of the wave you surfed? Do those figures mean anything whatsoever to the ethereal calm of bobbing up and down in between sets, the visceral burst when the water starts rushing underneath your board, and the unforgettable stoke that lasts for hours after when you’ve reached dry land?

The eternally witty Oscar Wilde once noted that certain people know the “price of everything and the value of nothing”. This wry observation is applicable to the likes to Glassy Pro and the world beyond, as seeming obsession with data takes over our digital lives and assigns worth to everything merely on a numerical basis. You see, price fits nicely with statistics and data. It’s objective and comparable, whereas value is more subjective, intangible and it doesn’t fit nicely into a spreadsheet.

But value is far more important. If you are constantly chasing better data, facts and statistics on what you are doing, you’ll end up forgetting why you’re doing it in the first place – and whatever impressive data you gather, it will never be enough. You’ll always be wanting more. And like the surfer whose surfing their arse off to reach Level 1,000,000 on Glassy Pro, there’s a good chance they would have missed something along the way.