Hypocrites on Wheels

I’d like to think that a radical social movement could run a successful bike share program.

Burning Man 2011 has proven me wrong.

After a certain point, watching people horde, hide, and lock their “yellow bikes” gets downright embarrassing.  And the more “radical” their lifestyle, the worse it looks:

  • People who do an hour of yoga every morning, recycle like a socially conscious hoarder in a box factory, and visualize world peace so often it’s taken out a restraining order, will spend a week hiding a bike that doesn’t belong to them.
  • People who advocate for an overthrow of the corporate oligarchy, speak so much truth to power that it erodes the enamel on their teeth, and march with any group that has the word “anti-“ in their mission statement, will put a lock a bicycle that they’re supposed to give away.
  • People who are unafraid to walk around naked, are so polyandrous that anthropologists are studying their mating habits, and are so sex-positive that sex has asked them to tone it down a little, will clutch a yellow bike to their side all week and get offended if you look at it funny.

In some ways, Burning Man’s bike share program may be a better measure of our community than all the high-minded rhetoric and big gestures we make. 

High-minded rhetoric requires no sacrifice:  just think of Martin Luther King Jr. and open your mouth.  Then go to lunch.  Big gestures are surprisingly easy:   corporate executives and corrupt politicians make them all the time.  They generally involve other people’s labor and money you’ll never miss.

But giving up a bicycle that you want to use later, just because you’re supposed to share it?  That’s a personal sacrifice – even a major inconvenience.  As burners, we’re happy to tell corporations to put people before profits and lecture about the need to decommodify … but decommodification is about putting people before a commodity – especially when it’s inconvenient. 

Burning Man has created an environment where it is easy to live according to the principles we claim to espouse – they even bought the bikes.  At the time I saw it as a nice civic gesture, but now I see it as a more fundamental challenge:  do all the hair extensions we wear actually signify something real, or are they just hair extensions?  Does all our talk about decommoditization actually lead to more sharing in ways that aren’t glamorous?

Having an environment in which it’s easy to live up to our principles doesn’t mean much if we’re still not doing it. 

I’ve asked myself what Burning Man can do differently to make people share the shared bicycles … which is absurd.  You can’t make people share.  Burning Man, in addition to being a huge party and an extraordinary psychological challenge and somewhat magical, is an opportunity to become better than we are.  To be the people we want to be.  For many of us that involves big gestures drenched in nudity and sex;  for many of us, it involves single-minded dedication to an art project.  But the future of our movement will also depend on the small gestures that determine whether burners really make good neighbors. 

As a “festival,” these small gestures are irrelevant to Burning Man’s success.  The event was amazing without a bike share program, and it’s still great with a bike share program that’s widely abused.  But Burning Man’s success as a cultural movement hinges on whether Burners make compelling cultural ambassadors … especially to people who have already been burned by crooks with soaring rhetoric and big gestures

The world doesn’t care (beyond a tabloid fashion) how much yoga we do or how much sex we have or how lofty our rhetoric is.  The world’s been there and done that.  But the world desperately needs people who are serious about decommoditization in all the small ways. 

Is that us?  It’s certainly some of us.  But in the big picture … I don’t know.  I look forward to finding out.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

59 thoughts on “Hypocrites on Wheels

  • Charles – that camp with the RENO sign wasn’t the maintenance camp. There used to be a bike shop in Center Camp, but for some reason it wasn’t there this year. Not sure why.

    Maybe in future years we can attach a little instruction card to each bike!

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  • Hello all, I am the manager of the YB program. Thanks for taking the time to post your ideas. I’m glad to see most of you appreciate the bikes, and their rules. Let me clarify a few questions from above, then I’ll continue monitoring this thread for new ones.

    1. Burningman did not buy the bikes. The Program was initiated in 2006 by the Black Label Bike Club. In 2007 a large donation created a sizable expansion of the project. This resource is a gift from those who care to make it happen. Just as any other project or camp on the playa, this is our way of participating at the event.

    2. To say the project should end because it draws attention to the populations failure to live up to the ideals of the project and event is non secquiter.

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  • Hello all, I am the manager of the YB program. Thanks for taking the time to post your ideas. I’m glad to see most of you appreciate the bikes, and their rules. Let me clarify a few questions from above, then I’ll continue monitoring this thread for new ones.

    1. Burningman did not buy the bikes. The Program was initiated in 2006 by the Black Label Bike Club. In 2007 a large donation created a sizable expansion of the project. This resource is a gift from those who care to make it happen. Just as any other project or camp on the playa, this is our way of participating at the event.

    2. To say the project should end because it draws attention to the populations failure to live up to the ideals of the project, and principles of the event, is not a logical conclusion. Instead we should embrace this as an opportunity to recognize our short comings, and address them. Ignoring our problems only leads to them manifesting in new ways.

    3. Yellow Bikes are only a one way guarantee. Just assume that the minute you stop riding it, it will be used by someone else. That’s the whole point. Even if you are on an art tour, even if your going to the bathroom. Learn to accept the gift for what it is, not what you want it to be. Even here in the posts I see folks referring to them as “my yellow bike”. Their is no “mine” in yellow bike. The bikes belong to the project that created them, and are merely on loan to the population.

    4. Decorating YB”s is one of the worst things you can do. It is a combination of theft, and vandalism. If you find a decorated YB, please remove it from the person trying to claim it as their own. Next, immediately take whatever steps possible to un-decorate it, so you are not accused of the offense. If this is not possible,(maybe the bike has been painted), please deliver it to a ranger outpost and request they contact Travis, or anyone on the YB crew. We will collect it, and return it t service. If you witness YB’s being painted or duct taped, etc…find a ranger, and have them contact Travis on DPW 4. Spread the word that theft and vandalism are both crimes in NV.

    5. Most of the bikes have rules attached, but we ran short on replacement tags this year. All YB’s will be clearly labeled with the rules, and these rules are also clearly stated online, in the Survival Guide, etc…Expect further coverage from all BM related media sources for 2012.

    6. Some of you requested #’s. This information, although not shared publicly, is tracked and reviewed by the group managing the project, a non-profit known as Yellow Bike Works.

    7. We all talk a big game about being some type of idealized society. Time to live up to the claims (as most do fairly well). Civic Responsibility is a principle that is often overlooked by more exciting ideas. Take the time to determine what you think it means. To me it means pushing myself and others to become the best citizens we can be.

    There are many, many more things I could say on this subject. Instead I will welcome your questions regarding all bike related topics. I am currently drafting a bike policy manifesto for the event. Your ?’s and input will help assure this document is the long awaited, answer to all ?’s regarding bikes at BM.

    Travis
    President-Yellow Bike Works
    yellowbikeworks here: yellowbikeworks (at) gmail.com
    DPW Bike Manager
    travis here: travis (at) burningman.com
    Citizen of BRC

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