Do you ever think about the first time a concept really stuck for you? Not the first time you heard of the concept, but rather the first time it resonated and had meaning. I think about this all the time. We are inundated with a flood of ideas and words all the time, but what makes them stick? What memories or experiences make this possible? Take, for example, the concept of “commodification,” an idea that always gets me thinking about the strange, complex, symbolic, abstracting behaviors of humans.
Commodification. I think I know the moment I was first confronted with that strange idea…but I didn’t really know it at the time. I just knew there was something there, something equally fascinating and revolting, that needed to be examined, picked apart, and dissected. It happened in the early 1990s. I was 16 years old. I remember opening a copy of a new surfing magazine, and laying my eyes on the photograph above, taken by photographer Tom Servais, of the greatest surfer of all time, riding a logo-free surfboard in full defiance of the (then) highly commercialized world of professional surfing.
This photo was a Big Deal when it came out. For the world of professional surfing, the 1980s were booming (relatively). The magazines were jammed with ads, ads, and more ads. Neon-colored surfboards, neon-colored sandals, neon-colored wetsuits. Sunglasses. Sunscreen. Bathing suits. Clothing. In the 1980s, it was neon and commercialization all the way down.
The magazines back then were thick booklets full of ads. Everything was for sale. Surfing was getting media attention and making money. All of the professional surfers (and pretty much everyone else too) followed suit by putting a ridiculous number of stickers and logos all over their boards. And many of them spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get photographers to take pictures of them with those ad-laden boards. It was all about exposure and getting noticed. Do you see where this is going? More pictures in magazines with more visible ads meant: MONEY.
It was all about money. And then the 1980s were over and suddenly we were in the 90s. Early on in this new arbitrary timeline, this guy named Curren—recognized as one of the best surfers in the world at the time—paddled out on a logo-free board at a famous spot on the North Shore of Hawaii and reminded the world of surfing that it wasn’t, actually, all about money. Curren was a two-time world champion by that time, but he was notoriously reclusive. Here’s what photographer Tom Servais had to say about him:
Tom’s really elusive to get photos of. He almost seemed like he was making it difficult to get photos of him, although I don’t think he was doing that on purpose. He just wasn’t comfortable with people taking his picture all the time. I think he almost avoided cameras.
That photograph is considered one of the most iconic images in American surfing. It should have been a cover image, but, as Servais explains:
Within a week or two I started realizing that it was a really special shot. I thought it should have been a cover shot, and I think most everybody on the staff thought it should have been a cover shot. But I think because Curren didn’t have the logos on his board the magazine didn’t want to put it on the cover. They didn’t want to piss off the advertisers and put out a cover shot of a guy with no logos.
At that point, the world of surfing had not quite come down from the over-commercialized high of the 1980s. This photograph was one of the moments that broke the spell…for a while at least. The boom ended in the 1990s, and Surfer magazine, for example, took on a slimmer, more “soulful” look for much of the decade. This was how I remember people talking about the anti-commercial turn of the 1990s. “Soulful” meant something like “less ads.”
As I mentioned above, I was 16 years old when all this happened. I’d joined the world of surfing at 11 years old, happily, to escape the rigorous, rule-bound, endlessly monetized world of baseball. Surfing, for me, was everything that baseball was not. There was something about surfing that could not be reduced, broken down into bits and pieces and bought and sold. Surfing contests, for example, have always seemed so alien and arbitrary—it never made sense to me to take the whole experience of surfing, of being in the water, and chop it up into little parts that could be assessed according to a 10 point scale. Put in other terms, for me surfing was something that existed largely outside of the world of capital and markets. Or so I thought.
The concept of commodification can be boiled down to something along the lines of “the process of turning something into an exchangeable good.” Or the process of putting monetary values on things that don’t (or some would say shouldn’t) have them. I like Keith Hart’s definition: it is the “progressive abstraction of social labor.” A commodity, for Hart, is the “means through which we work for other people” (2011:10). Think about that.
Then consider how this relates to something like surfing, which lies somewhere between a recreational activity and a way of life for many people. What the process of commodification does, in effect, is abstract all of the billions of moments and experiences that go into surfing and turn them into things through which we work for others. Or, that’s what can and often does happen. This process of abstraction begins with all of the professional surfers and their logo-laden boards, and the photographers who shoot endless photographs of them, all of which feeds into all those ads in magazines. So a tension develops between surfing for fun/pleasure and doing it to generate revenue in one form or another. But I’d argue that this process of commodification extends beyond the professionals and shapes what surfing means for many, many others.
In my own case, I remember that I used to copy my favorite pro surfers by putting a bunch of stickers on my boards. That’s pretty odd if you think about it. I even went to the point of actually cutting out logos from magazines and sticking them to my surfboards by waxing over them…all to emulate my idols. And I was, at some level, actually working for other people by becoming a willing human billboard. At some point, I began to realize that there was something incredibly strange about what I was doing. I give Tom Curren credit for that realization, and, in hindsight, for clueing me in to the strange process of commodification, in which (some) humans try to put dollar signs on the entirety of human experience. Looking back, it seems sort of amazing that it was such a revolutionary act for one guy to have the gall to paddle out on a logo-free surfboard and catch a few waves. But then, in these days of the endless commodification of everything, that moment was just a small harbinger of so much else to come.
Hart, Keith. 2011. Building a Human Economy: A Question of Value? Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 36(2):5–17.
 This is pure unadulterated opinion.
 Looking back, this is a pretty naïve perspective, since the world of surfing was, and had been, fully enmeshed in the market economy. But this marketization was never complete and, like many things, people live out their lives in those gaps.
 Hart uses the term “commoditization,” but he uses it in the same sense as commodification, not in the American business sense, which apparently has a different meaning. I generally treat the two terms as synonyms. Where do you stand on this?