September 11, 2011
Exploring the potential for alternative worlds at Burning Man
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
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
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.
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.
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.