“Burning Man is Silicon Valley. If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.” – Elon Musk
I’ve heard variants of this sentiment from many friends over the years. So I’ve intended to go to Burning Man when the opportunity presented itself. 2015 was that year.
I should preface my impressions of Burning Man with one important qualification: I was only on the playa last week for 24 hours total. Due to the last minute decision to go, I didn’t have time to prep, arrange proper sleeping accommodations or fix my schedule to enable a proper multi-day stay. All I brought fit in a school-sized backpack which contained two Whole Food sandwiches and some cliff bars. I “slept” in a friend’s mid-size rental car. Most important, I didn’t have time to go to any of the famous lectures, classes, and other one-time events that tend to require a bit of pre-planning over a few days. So me commenting on Black Rock City (the name of the pop-up city that the festival represents) is like someone commenting on what a major city is like based on a short layover in the airport in between flights.
All that said, I did spend a full dozen hours walking around amid dust storms during the day and night. I did talk to a bunch of burners. I did check out dozens of camps and art installations and I did my time on an art car. I think I earned the right to have at least a few impressions.
First impression? Awe. The awe was felt most acutely at night, standing atop an elevated platform at the “altitude camp,” looking out at the city beyond. It really is a city: 80,000 people who have set up tents and RVs and camp sites, with their pop-up structures and art installations. At night, the lights on each camp shine for as far as the eye can see. It reminded me of driving to Las Vegas and seeing all the hotel lights as you approach the city. Except at Black Rock City the lights go on forever and ever in every direction.
Anyone with libertarian sympathies can’t help but be in awe of the scale of self-organization and self-reliance. Tens of thousands of people show up, build an entire city, and then take it all away, not leaving a trace. To be sure, there is a central power structure — the founder and a “committee of six” who make key decisions — along with some full time staff in San Francisco and a $10mm+ annual budget. But there are also thousands of volunteers who, in my conversations with them, did not appear to be all too coordinated with the powers that be. And of course 95% of the work that makes Burning Man what it is — the art structures, the supplies, the events, and so on — is voluntarily offered and coordinated by the 80,000 participants who derive meaning, not money, from their efforts.
Second impression? Hardship. Dust storms make challenging those mildly important tasks of breathing and seeing. Dust particles pollute your lungs and eyes; wind bites at your face and chafes your lips. The desert climate means you sweat during the day and shiver during the night. Pilots who charter planes to Burning Man call the area “Afghanistan.” What’s remarkable about Burning Man, as others have said, is you have some of the nicest people on earth populating one of the most inhospitable places on earth for a full week. And because you’re not allowed to buy or sell anything on the playa, all you have to deal with this hardship is what you bring with you, including food and water and face masks and lotion for chafed feet. Oh — and your cell phone won’t get service, so forget about calling your loved one for help. There are several moments where you ask yourself, “Why on earth did I come here?” Then you see a Pacman art car driving around in the desert night and you think, “Oh yeah, to see that.”
Third impression? The values. Radical inclusion. Radical self-expression. Leave no trace. A gift economy. They’re stated values but as we all know, stating values is easy. After all, one of Enron’s core values was integrity. Walking the walk on values is harder. Best I could tell, the Burning Man values really do permeate the behavior of those who attend. The Burning Man values are good values: the world would be better if more people adopted them.
Would I go back for longer? Yeah, I’d go back. I’d sleep in an RV. I’d coordinate in advance with friends to meet up. (Because of how you must dress to deal with the wind and sand, and the sheer scale of the place, serendipitous social occasions with friends doesn’t happen unless planned.) I’d schedule time to go to different lectures. And I’d spend at least 3-4 nights in order to get the full experience. To do it this way, it’d be expensive. Several thousand dollars, probably. I get the irony in that. As one friend put it, Burning Man is, in a funny way, an homage to capitalism: it’s sufficiently expensive to participate that it’s people spending their fruits of capitalism to participate in what otherwise feels like a non-capitalistic experience.
I’ve said it before after certain trips and I’ll say it again here: awe is an amazing emotion. Burning Man induces awe: at human creativity, at people’s willingness (including your own willingness) to push themselves amid harsh conditions, at the power of cultural norms and values to shape an entire population. Burning Man is worth seeing for yourself. I know there’s more for me to see.