Open Water Diver - tuesday 2012-05-22 1708 last modified 2012-05-22 1719
Categories: Daily Grind
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I can breathe underwater. The watery world is my oyster. At least the top sixty feet of it. And as long it sits below 1000 feet of altitude.

Just a short while ago - it feels like several years, I'm not sure why - I read Joi Ito's ebullient entry on learning to dive and took to heart many of the positives he happily listed, particularly the skill ladder and achievement system associated with PADI certification. About a year later, he was already a dive instructor (and this all in combination with taking up a post as the head of MIT's Media Lab).

Joi wrote his post after going through seven separate certifications; I've just done my one. And I'm not sure I'm going to continue with any others. I agree that PADI materials can be used to do some very effective instruction, though we saw ample evidence to the contrary out at the Catalina Dive Park (trying to swim down to depth with a full BCD, leaving rigs upright while unattended, not paying attention to other divers and landing on their heads), and whomever came up with the idea of an achievement-based system of advancement put a brilliant business plan in place.

But that's what PADI and scuba generally strike me as: a very effective way to make sure somebody is making a profit. (This, by the way, should be ample explanation to Joi's point for why there are so many resources available for scuba instruction in comparison to public education; scuba is a for-profit enterprise.) Once you're hooked into their framework, that's how you'll see scuba from then on. There is no reframing. There are other certification agencies out there, but PADI is the 800 pound gorilla in this commercial space, so much so that it seems entirely synonymous with scuba. Yet less than a third of all open water divers continue on to other forms of certification; this means the great majority of all divers are ignorant of how to effectively control their buoyancy, which is the root of all underwater activity. It also means it's to PADI's economic advantage to do as little as possible to get you certified in the first place; with a less than a third chance that you'll take on additional courses, better to give as little in as little time and charge as much as possible for that first step.

That's the root of my distaste for operating in this model. From here, the rest of the certifications look more like a pyramid than a ladder. I don't want to rain on anybody's parade; clearly those who pursue further education are getting a great deal out of their experience, and it's always great that from amongst those there are so many who want to impart their joy to others. Our instructors were fantastic at teaching and enjoyable people to be around.

But it is by design a monopoly of a commercial system to create incentives to keep investing in your level of recreational enjoyment with the side effect that you might become a salesman in the process. Thinking about PADI and scuba has helped me realize how much more I favor more egalitarian interests - beer, open source software, rock climbing. These are all things that are open to anybody, and anybody could do them with minimal investment and great interest (well, in the developed world). Scuba is only open to those with great interest and great investment.

It's fun, no doubt, but I don't want in on this system. So I'll teach myself to shoot photos underwater if I ever get around to it, thanks.

So it's clear: scuba certification in southern California in 2012 dollars came to around $750 for instruction, personal gear, rental, maintenance, transport, lodging, parking, gas, and food over two weekends. I'll update once I get a sense of what it takes to do this twice a year locally (the minimum, by the way, for PADI's satisfaction that you're keeping your skills current).

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