September 11, 2011

Exploring the potential for alternative worlds at Burning Man

I recently returned to Toronto from my first Burning Man experience and I have to say that the trip was as close to science fiction as it gets. It was a world of alien landscapes, extreme conditions, bizarre modes of transport, and a local population right out of Tatooine's Mos Eisely spaceport. Add to that a dash of Mad Max, Dune and Woodstock, throw in some glow sticks, flamethrowers, and shiny metallic pants, and you get the picture.

More interesting than that, however, was how otherworldly the place felt from a civilizational perspective. For the week that I was at Black Rock City I truly felt like a stranger in a strange land, a foreign visitor to a place far removed from my home-world. Indeed, it didn't take long for the cogs in my brain to start churning away in reaction to all that I was witnessing. Burning Man is a fascinating event on so many levels, including its sudden emergence from the dust and the rise of an alternative society that exists in virtual isolation from the real world—albeit one that lasts for just a week each year.

Welcome to Black Rock City

Okay, for those who have been hopelessly stuck in a dark hole for the past ten years, Burning Man is an annual counter-cultural festival that takes place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Yes, that's right—right smack dab in the middle of nowhere. For some twisted and seemingly inexplicable reason, over 55,000 people from around the world arrive at this place and, quite literally, construct a thriving city from scratch, only to tear and burn it all down a week later.

Once Burning Man gets underway, Black Rock City rises from the desert in the form of a semi-circular patchwork of tents, yurts, RVs, trailers, vans, kitchen sinks and anything else that can be cobbled together to create temporary living conditions in what is truly an unrelenting desert environment. The days are excruciatingly hot, the nights unbearably cold—and it's all frequented by regular sand storms just to rub it all in.

The festival itself is an intense celebration of sights and sounds in which participants, called Burners, create what is without a doubt the largest party in the world (try to name another party you can see from space!). Everything that happens in the city is a product of un-cordinated individual efforts; aside from a few things (such as the Temple and Center Camp) it's a completely self-generated event. For a brief one week period, Black Rock City erupts into a spectacular showcase of art displays, elaborate costumes, performance art, dancing, live music, and much, much more (including the racy stuff that happens behind the scenes). The event serves as a platform for Burning Man's central tenant: radical self-expression. The possibilities are nearly endless given such an open precept.

As a first time Burner, I quickly learned that no images or words could prepare me for the spectacle that is Burning Man. You truly have to experience it yourself to appreciate the scale, context and brilliance of it all. And this includes the organizational and social aspects as well. Black Rock City is a truly remarkable place when viewed through sociological, cultural and anthropological lenses. During my short time there I quickly came up with a hand-full of potential studies that could easily fuel PhD theses. It's truly a mind-expanding social experiment that's worthy of academic inquiry.

Emergent and spontaneous order

Burning Man is something every futurist and transhumanist should be aware of. Black Rock City is a model that could serve for the development of entirely novel alternative communities and societies. Indeed, the Burner term for the real world is "default society," and after a few days at Burning Man one can't help but gain a growing appreciation for what that actually means.

 Take the sheer numbers for example. Over 55,000 people are packed into an area no more than five square miles (roughly the size of downtown San Francisco). While this is a moderately impressive feat at best, it's the civility and functionality of the community that is impressive. Despite the fact that many of Black Rock City's inhabitants are simply there to party, the place remains remarkably well maintained and orderly over the course of the week. I would dare say that it's probably the safest city of 55,000 people in the world while it lasts.

A central credo of Burning Man is that each Burner is responsible for taking away what they brought in and to "leave no trace." Consequently, there are absolutely no trash cans in the city. Waste is a personal responsibility (except for bio-waste—the organizers provide porta-potties). Moreover, should any trash hit the playa (a term for the desert floor), it is immediately identified as MOOP (matter out of place) and dealt with. What's even more astounding is that, in the event that some garbage gets away, there are Burners who, completely unasked, pick it up themselves and deal with it. I met one woman who over the course of one night picked up over 65 cigarette butts without anyone asking her. A friend devised an internal rule in which she picked up an extra piece off MOOP for every piece of her own she dropped. It goes to show that, given a strong enough cultural imperative to keep the place clean, there will be enough people out of the 55,000 who will, of their own volition, deal with it themselves. Call it an emergent effect of having a strong culturally bound population.

The gifting method

Which brings to mind another indelible aspect of Burning Man: it runs on a gift economy. Money is absolutely no good at Burning Man (except at Center Camp where Burners can purchase ice and coffee—pretty funny if you think about it; talk about your basic needs). This doesn't imply a barter economy. There is no trading at Burning Man. People simply "gift" things to people whenever it is needed. Sure, given that it's in the middle of the desert and that there's only so much you can bring in and give away, this practice is fairly limited, but I was astounded at what was being offered in the city: ice cream, freezies, snow cones, alcoholic drinks of all sorts (I even had some Patron tequila at Barbie Death Camp — but that's another story), hair washing, butt cleaning station (again, you'd have to be there to understand this), and even an inter-city post office, FM radio station, and dating service. And plenty more. Basically, if there was a need for it, someone pretty much prepared for it.

 I also took part in this gift economy. As a member of FutureCamp I gave three presentations as part of my contribution to the larger community.

Gifting, it would seem, can include goods, services, and even the sharing of ideas and expertise. It would seem that, in a land of extreme scarcity, and where gifting is the only means of exchange, people naturally fill in the gaps. And to say that there is nothing given in exchange for contributions is not entirely fair; human interaction (which is high value at Burning Man) and the satisfaction of helping others is certainly part of the equation. The desolation and harsh environment, along with the extreme scarcity of food, goods, and other creature comforts, is a strangely indelible component of Burning Man. It adds to the alien and otherworldly sense, but it also binds the community together, both in terms of shared hardship and in the increased need to look out for one another.

Maintaining order

One of the neat aesthetics of Burning Man is the seemingly invisible or complete absence of authority. Yes, there are Nevada state troopers patrolling the city, but they're largely ignored in much the same way that money is (annoying props to remind Burners that the outside world still exists). Burning Man does have a force of Rangers—a group of volunteers who walk around the city providing help and guidance when needed. But they have absolutely no authority. In fact, they won't even offer an admonition if they see a Burner doing something potentially dangerous. But they'll stick around in case help is eventually required.

Indeed, excruciatingly simple rules, norms, and an implicit code of conduct seem to be all that's required to keep it all together. Perhaps it's the limited population, short timeframe, and harsh conditions that allows for this. Or maybe it's the strict zoning rules that are put into place (bad apples don't get to come back). Burners may also comprise a highly filtered group, the demographic nature of which needs to be better determined. These are certainly important variables to consider, including the overarching question as to how far the model can be extended before a kind of critical mass is reached and it all starts to fall apart.

In fact, it does start to fall apart, but not until the last day. Once the Black Rock exodus begins, sign-posts are torn down and the civility that had previously characterized the place all but disappears. It would seem that, among the variables required for long-term sustainability, a finite timeframe is required. I strongly believe that given its current parameters (dwindling food and water supplies notwithstanding) Black Rock City could successfully function for weeks—if not months—but that a specific length of time needs to be clearly defined.

 The question of sustainability

The topic of sustainability is a concern to many Burners. The question as to how long a community like this can be maintained is a pertinent one, particularly when you find yourself in it. A central sentiment that runs through the culture is that it can't really be sustained and the best that one can do is "bring a bit of Burning Man to the default world."

I've got a different take on the matter. As a futurist who foresees such things as the end of scarcity and the complete automation of production, the idea that we can actually create a viable and permanent vacation world is an intriguing one. As it stands, Burning Man can't exist without the resources that are provided by the Burners themselves. Consequently, it's a leech economy. Black Rock City has virtually no real economy of its own in terms of local production. Everything that exists in Black Rock City comes from the default world, whether it be material goods or even individual skills and talents. The default world, and the efforts of Burners while they're there, is the engine that drives Burning Man. The trick, therefore, is to decrease the real-world burden on the Burners themselves—and that's where disruptive technologies like robotics and fabs (desktop molecular assemblers) come in. Alternative societies—those communities that have essentially no internal production economy and exist in relative isolation from the mainstream world—can only exist across expanded time domains as the time required for its inhabitants to work in the default society decreases.

Advanced technologies that will result in such things as increased automation will serve to enable this. Eventually, an alternative society like Burning Man could exist in perpetuity so long as the means of production in the default world comes at a zero cost. In other words, the inhabitants of alternative worlds will finally be able to stay there only once the real world can sustain it without burden.

Looking forward

There's a lot more to Burning Man than I've let on here. I've completely ignored some socio-cultural issues that I'll expand upon in a subsequent post. But let it be said that Burning Man is an absolute treasure that's worth preserving, if not expanding upon altogether. Even if the current model of Black Rock City is unscalable, it is certainly possible to create multiple versions that can run in parallel and independent of one another.

I admit that my musings here might seem quaint and even naive. Burning Man could completely collapse in the coming years should "tourists" start to dominate the city instead of actual contributors. It may even open up to corporate interests who will set up shops, a development that would completely undermine the concept. Such a development would truly kill the spirit and point of Burning Man in an instant. Or perhaps the idea of a permanent get-away place is not really a desirable or worthwhile goal. But we won't know until we try.

In the meantime, as Burning Man continues to fascinate, it's nice to dream of where it might take us.


nazgulnarsil said...

Well, hopefully this isn't too offensive but...

Yeah, you get a bunch of like minded rich people (they can afford to take a week off from work can't they) for a week and things go relatively smoothly. This shouldn't be that surprising. Is it crimethink to notice that homogeneous, educated communities have less frictional costs?

Pixel said...

I'm interested in your perspective. Thanks for taking the time to write it down and publish it here.

Since you take a particular interest in the culture, the economy (so to speak), scalability, infrastructure and so on of Black Rock City (Burning Man being just a big party thrown in BRC as far as I'm concerned)...

I've had the privilege for four years now of being on playa for three weeks each year working (work = productive play) as a full-time volunteer. The aspect of this that brings me back - spending my entire annual vacation every year going to 7am meetings, doing manual labor in the sun, etc, is the work culture of BRC.

You wrote that apart from the cafe and temple etc. that BRC is a product of uncoordinated individual efforts. This is in significant ways incorrect. Every artwork, art car, theme camp, village, and public service of one kind or another is for the most part created by a group of tens or hundreds of volunteers who organize together to make shit happen and benefit tremendously by personal and community growth in payment.

Work culture: The juiciest fruit of BRC if you ask me. It's one thing for a person to gift another a cocktail, entirely another to lend expertise repairing a laser cooling system, teaching someone to repair their diesel generator, or to pitch in for a day building a sixty foot tall wooden structure, all voluntarily.

Maybe it helps that we're doing all this in a desert, but the outcome seems to be mindfulness on a large scale. Awareness and respect of where one's own or another persons attention is directed. Patience. Carefulness and consideration. Respectful interest in strangers...

Nato said...

I don't think George was ignoring that aspect so much as bracketing it. It's worth noting that modern societies suffer from much less violent crime than those "same" societies did when they were poorer. It seems quite plausible to say "in the future, almost everyone will be like a rich person of today." There are problems with this formulation, of course, but I just mention it by way of alluding to one of many different ways in which Burning Man might presage future communities.

Lili Pang said...

I'm not rich. I saved my pennies and I went. Not all poor people are criminals. I live once and then I die. This was an experience worth having many times over before I bite the dust (pardon the pun)... irregardless of class, money, etc

stuart said...

@nazgulnarsil: I don't consider your comment offensive, but it does seem snarky, narrow-minded and judgmental. I am forced to assume that you haven't been to Burning Man, or you would realize that the city's denizens cannot be easily summed up as "a bunch of like minded rich people". Burners are a wonderfully diverse bunch, and Black Rock City is a rich tapestry as a result of the many interests and inputs people bring.

As for taking a week off work: have you never taken a week off work to do something you find compelling?People prioritize different things. Some go to Disney World for vacation, some travel around the world, some go to Burning Man. In fact, some do all three.

I know many Burners who one might think of as "rich people", but I also know many, many Burners who live paycheck to paycheck, work several jobs in order to get by, or haven't been able to find work for a while. And these folks go to Burning Man too - they get tickets by working on art projects, volunteering for DPW (Department of Public Works, the folks who lay out and build the infrastructure of the city), or are 'gifted' tickets by other, more well-off Burners.

nazgulnarsil said...

it may surprise you to know that jobs with vacations aren't the norm. Also, the existence of outliers does not make a statistical distribution useless for making predictions. I'm not trying to be snarky, just that I have seen many people marvel at what happens when you get communities of people with similar values together. I suggest looking at things like mormons, or to a greater extreme the amish. Some surprising and illuminating things about how stable human societies function are there.

Scott said...

I think your article is excellent and mirrors many of my thoughts as a first-time Burner this year (maybe that's a first-timer's curse. After a few years you just go with the flow and stop analyzing until you get Jaded Burner Syndrome).

I'm reading Arthur C. Clarke's "The City and the Stars," also for the first time, right now. I think the city Diaspar is a lot like Black Rock City. With that, there's always the danger (benefit?)that an alternative society turns in on itself so much that the outside world becomes something to fear ... or even ceases to exist.

We put off going to Burning Man for years because we wanted to explore other places on this planet. Most of those places were undeveloped countries. This year we put off going to India so we could go to Burning Man. Our alcohol purchases for the event alone were probably as much as many Indians make in a year.

Conflict between the "default world" and a community based on Burning Man principles is inevitable. We see that already with BLM contractual limitations, increased law enforcement and more. However, the biggest threat to sustainability for a BM-like community comes in the category of the haves and have nots. The default world will not allow a 24/7, 365 day-per-year vacation/party community to exist as long as there is poverty in the world. Eliminating poverty would change the course of human societal development and open up frontiers of community that we can't imagine. Not an easy task.