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Exploring the potential for alternative worlds at Burning Man
George Dvorsky   Sep 17, 2011   Sentient Developments  

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

bm1Okay, 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

bm2Burning 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 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

bm3Which 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

bm4There’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.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.



COMMENTS

I went once. 2 weeks in the desert (had a job on an art project - so I was there a week early). Love the festival, hated the desert. I mean, I really hate black rock desert. With a passion. Playa is the deevil.
I’d hope to see a Burning Man in a better clime. A secluded woodland setting, or the ocean.

Burning Man doesn’t really end when the festival is over. If you’re in the bay area, you can meet everyone who spend literally all year preparing for the next festival. Fire Arts in Oakland and so on. Steampunks. They throw lots of smaller parties and festivals all year long, culminating in Burning Man.

Rather than looking at Burning Man in isolation, which is incredibly impressive in it’s own right, look at the festival culture that exists everywhere and is intertwined.

Also, Burning Man is not as anarchic as you might think. Money is a big factor (not for participants - but the sponsored art installments - lots of drug money involved).

Still, everyone should at least try it out. If you’re not used to extreme climes, I suggest going for only 3-4 days rather than the entire week. A fun way to experience it is to work for any of the large art installments (I worked on Crude Awakening in ‘07, the second largest art project next to the Man itself that year - we had a refrigerated truck full of organic produce, personal showers, satellite telephone, and lots of other perks).

This was my 8th burn and the evolution of the event I’ve seen in that time is startling. I’ve learned a lot about it’s history too, and it is a fascinating tale.  The event used to be a celebration of total freedom and anarchy.  People drove at 100mph between camps, shot guns, and randomly blew things up.  Through 1996, when the first deaths at the event occurred, it was a genuinely dangerous place.  (something resembling this early phase of the event still exist on the playa,  but it happens at a different date in the summer.)

But what happened after the casualties of 1996 is where the real interesting story starts, in my opinion.  All the civic structure and normalized culture you see now really started taking shape then and there are many factions within the ‘burner culture’ which lament those changes.  I guess the point I’m making is that the event you see now didn’t come cut from whole cloth. It truly is an experiment in alternative culture and it changes every year…so what you saw in 2011 was a snapshot of a living thing, not the whole thing itself. In another 10 years who knows what it’ll look like.

If you treat it as a continuous place, black rock city has existed for only 21 weeks in the desert and in that half-year period the population has gone from 300 to ~54,000. Civic organizations and cultural mores have sprung up and evolved and the city has gone through more change than you can imagine.  If you look at it that way, it’s rate of change is nothing short of breathtaking.

I’d also like to mention the regional network and the BORG’s current dilemma.  In your article you said “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.” Well, in case you’re not aware, this is already happening. There are dozens of culturally-connected yet totally independent BM “regionals” which happen around the world every year. None of them are anywhere near the scale of Burning Man itself, but they do offer the same style of experience in different climates and with certain local flare.  The experiment is already spilling over the edges of the black rock desert and spreading out into the world.

This is due to the effort of a lot of people wanting to bring a bit of Burning Man back to the default, but it’s also a concerted effort by the organizers of the event. They support and help organize these regionals and are planning on doing even more of it in the future. Currently the LLC that “owns” Burning Man is in the process of starting up a Non Profit called “The Burning Man Project” and they plan to transfer all assets, trademarks, and organizational capacity from the current corporation to the Non Profit within 5 years, then dissolve the corporation.  The non profit will have a much larger and diverse board of directors and one of their stated goals is to support and expand the regional network even further. They think that’s the future of the event rather then TTITD (That thing in the desert) which as you state, may eventually become unsustainable.  It’s a purposeful diaspora of the Burning Man ethos.

Also, here’s a fun video that captures something great about the burning man expereince and may communicate a taste of it if you haven’t been: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQPQn9TLpPY

At 91 years of age it was a marvelous and re-juvenating experience. Here’s to BM 2012. I am attending. lois hollywood

veo, I think you’re overplaying the role of the LLC in the regionals. They certainly want regionals to grow and are pushing them as the “future of Burning Man”, but they do practically nothing to support and organize the regionals (which is fine). It’s ALL done by volunteers in their local communities. The LLC provides a link on the Burning Man website to regionals that have “official recognition” and provides some leadership training for sanctioned Regional Contacts, but that’s it. It’s up to the Regional Contact (and their community) whether they want to organize a regional event, and if they do organize one, they are entirely free to make it an “unofficial” event.

Andrew,

I said explicitly that the regionals are “culturally connected yet totally independent” of BM and that they are put on by local people, not the org. In fact all I said the org does is “support and help organize the regionals.” As in they support those interested in running a regional by providing some leadership training as well as organize the group of them by having global regional summits where all the regional contacts can meet each other and the org and network as a community.

I suppose what I said could be construed to mean that the BORG runs the regionals, but that was not my intention at all. I apologize for being unclear in that sentence.

That being said, one of the new non-profit’s stated goals is to expand and work more closely with the regional events.  Once it gets up and running, who knows that this will actually mean?  BRAF art grants?  Actual logistical/legal/insurance support?  Who knows?  It’ll be a whole new ball game.

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