Sitting On Top Of The World – A Strategy for Life (and Business)

A Southern California Life

I’ve never been a surfer, but having grown up by the beaches in Southern California, I have many friends who are surfers… pros, punks, filmmakers and Gidget. Many of them like the fact that I don’t surf… because there are too many people on the waves, at least at the good spots. But surfing is kind of a parable for life… and media.


Things come in in waves, if you catch them, you can ride for a while. Once the ride is over, you can paddle out and look for a new ride. Sometimes you wipe out, sometimes the ride seems like it will never end. But the ride is the thing. Waves without rides are meaningless non-events.

Surfing Disruptive Innovation

Clayton Christensen, of Harvard Business School, uses a chart that he uses in his disruptive innovation theory that starts on a single plane. In his model, businesses succeed until they are disrupted by other businesses that are operating on another plane of competition. It’s easy to look at the chart as a snapshot, but by adding time and a little imagination the chart starts to look a cross section of a wave with businesses peaking and crashing through their intermingled hydrodynamics.

Disruptive Innovation - Copyright 2008 Clayton Christensen
Disruptive Innovation – Copyright 2008 Clayton Christensen

My career has always centered on media, technology, human behavior and the ways those things interact with each other. For years, the discipline that I practiced used Hasselblads and supermodels to get people to buy clothes; the medium was photography, and the message was “buy this and you will be like the person in the picture”. The business that drove my segment of image-making was something called direct-mail. In the 70s and 80s, department stores made a huge push in direct mail to sell clothing. Catalogs would fill everyone’s mailboxes. But as individual specialty stores got better at honing their brands and “big box” retailers took away profitable market-share, department stores began to collapse, and with it, much of the direct mail business that supported my photography segment.

Fortunately, I dallied in college as a computer science major, so as the new wave of digital innovation started to break I made the jump from photography to bits, catching a new wave. It may seem anathema to move from beauty to binary code, but the common thread that runs through my experiences using technology to effect human behavior. My adventures have taken me from Kodachrome and cameras, to Macs and visual media, PCs and games; from the darkroom to the floppy disk and eventually onto the broadband web. Across many mediums, but in many cases, the same messages. If you do (this), you will feel (that).

Richard Dawkins Got One Thing Right

Popular memes are very often good business.
Popular memes are very often good business.

Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme‘ in his book “The Selfish Gene”. The word generally means an idea (or meaning) that spreads like a virus. An example of this is a catchy tune that gets stuck in your head. You may actually go to iTunes or a store and buy it. Your foot taps when you hear it on the radio. It moves you. It reminds you of something or someone or someplace. You feel good, you feel bad, you feel. Some memes stick, some don’t like colds or the flu. They also seem to be super charged by business.

I consider memes as life forms, in and of themselves. They reproduce; “did you hear that song?”, they hibernate; in books, tablets, CDs, people, etc., and they can spread virally.

A medium is a technology for conveying memes. Technology is an invention or process for doing something, contextually, “better”. With our opposable thumbs and bicameral brains, we humans are technology too. Humans are a mediums for memes, and memes use humans as hosts. Surfboards use human beings to surf waves, to make them better, to have better rides, just as much as humans use the boards.

One of the definitions of the word “quantum” is a discrete, indivisible manifestation of a physical property”. Memes have a quantum effect in that they change the physical nature of humans that they infect. The right word from the right person can change your blood pressure, put an idea in your head for a moment… or a lifetime. These physiological changes are real and measurable. The electro-chemical structures in your body change as information is processed by your consciousness.

As we wander through existence, our eyes, ears, mouth, nose and skin are constantly inputting new data. Some of this data is cognitively interpreted as an idea, considered, stored or forgotten. Those memes that bubble up to the top of our consciousness compete for human attention.

Humans have a limited amount of attention, constrained by our cognitive bandwidth, so competition between memes creates a dynamic zero-sum system of perception and memory where the success of one meme (attention) means the loss of another (forgotten). Waves of perceptions and ideas pass through us, some we catch, some break on the beach, creating currents and undertows, and others just swell out to sea to meet some other fate.

Microsoft CEO Summit 2009
Shapers Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch with Clayton Christensen at the Microsoft CEO Summit 2009

Creators of messages specialize in the disciplines that are required to master each medium, they become craftsmen. Surfboards are designed by “shapers” that tailor a board for a particular kind of wave. The stick you use at Pipeline is not the same one that you use at Maverick’s.

The culture of business is to optimize values, processes and interfaces of a discipline, creating specialization in those crafts to increase profits. As craftsmen become more specialized, there is a danger of over-optimization, where the discipline becomes inextricably commingled with the messages, and messengers. That is, the craftsmen stop seeing themselves as message creators, and see themselves as medium specialists.

When new mediums (waves) appear, established stakeholders use known crafts and what they know from an established medium and try to force it’s models into the new medium. Marshal McLuhan and Clayton Christensen both refer to this “cramming” phenomena. This creates noise in the new medium, as business models try to establish themselves. It’s like riding the wrong board, on the wrong wave.

When new forms of messages compete in the marketplace of attention, other forms suffer by comparison. Often, the wreckage left in the path of this new attention is those specialists and craftsmen that have over-specialized on older mediums, wiping out. Disciplines attached to diminished mediums suffer and often die. If you ride a wave long enough, you’re sure to wind up on the beach, and if life is about the ride, then this is surely death.

In the big picture, that’s okay, because resurrection and rebirth requires loss, but in the short term, lives and careers are disrupted. Resurrection for the medium specialist occurs when there is a recognition that the message, the meme, and the ride are not the medium, the wave is.

They get back on a board, paddle out and look for a new ride, they might need a new board though. I’m always looking for waves in media and business, and checking to see if my clients and I have brought the right board… the one that will give us a good ride. Namaste.


  1. Guest says


    That may be the most intersting blog/article I have ever read. I have been in the Transportation software business for 17 years and think I had the right board 15 years ago but now I seem to be caught in a constant rip tide, definately not catching any big ones thats for sure. Mayeb it’s time to talk to a board shaper like yourself in order to get back in the curl of the next set?


    Lewis Cooper
    BMS Solutions

    PS. Great shot of the guy with suit on surf board, did you take it?

  2. Peter Duke says

    Thanks for the compliment Lewis! I’m not sure I’m a shaper, as much as a constructive critic of shapes… but I’m always up for a good meme… The picture is from one of the greatest, and most mis-pronounced books, ever, “The Medium is the Massage” by Marshall McLuhan, I couldn’t find a credit for the photograph, so I’m not sure of it’s origin…

  3. Lisa Gaskin says

    Jeez Peter! You’re so smart, and witty, and wonderful!

    I married a surfer so I get all the analogies but those are just side notes for the genius behind the message. I love smart people 😉

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