Burning Man may be the future, but it’s not an escape

Great book. Facile comparison with Burning Man.

In a recent Io9 article, futurist Jamais Cascio says that Burning Man “is often the ‘default’ scenario for tomorrow’s culture among many futurists.”

Huh.

It’s taken a over 25 years for a small organization to build an annual event that attracts some 60,000 people, and they’re still struggling to build a non-profit cultural movement out of it … but now there’s a group of “visionaries” who consider the culture we’re building together to be the “default scenario” for the future of mankind.

Hey look, everybody:  we’re inevitable!

I suppose that’s a compliment.  But … hey, what kind of future is that exactly anyway?

“It’s one of ‘expanded rights,’ with mainstream acceptance for everything from gay marriage and group marriage, to human-robot romances and even more unusual relationships. It would also involve ‘acceptance of cultural experimentation, and the dominance of the leisure society [where] robots do all of the work [and] humans get to play/make art/take drugs/have sex.’”

Huh.

Are we sure that’s us?

The writer’s sure, going on to compare the “Burning Man default scenario” for the future with Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

In some ways, this vision hasn’t changed much since Aldous Huxley wrote about a hedonistic pseudo-Utopia in his 1932 novel Brave New World. Freed from necessity, humans can experiment with new kinds of social arrangements and turn life into a game.

Is that really what we’re like?

It’s hard to tell, at least going by the things Burning Man is compared to.  Which is to say, just about everything.

At his blog “Fest 300,” where he explores the world’s greatest festivals, Burning Man Project board member Chip Conley has compared the Harbin, Manchuria, “Ice & Snow” festival to Burning Man (Night is preferred over day for visual splendor, and people labor for thousands of hours to create structures that will either burn or melt), come up with five things that Bali and Burning Man have in common  (1.  both involve “fire and redemption,” 2.  both have an “it takes a village” ethos, 3.  both suggest that everyone is an artist, 4.  both seem to have the environment magnify what’s in your soul, 5. both focus on “collective joy.”), and written about the commonalities that Burning Man shares with the world’s largest Hindu festival.

Before that Frances Z. Brown made an implicit comparison in her amusing L.A. Times article “All I really needed to know about Burning Man, I learned in Kandahar,” while the introduction to a February GQ article compared Burning Man to “The big fishing excursion” and “The road trip down Route 66.”

Wikipedia’s entry for Burning Man says it is “a visual display similar to Las Vegas at night,” while in a recent comments thread discussion several posters wrote that Burning Man has a lot in common with academia – which is not known for its blinking lights.

Put all this together and you come to the inescapable conclusion that the future is like Burning Man – which is the Hindu academic Route 66 through Vegas on the way to the Kandahar Ice & Snow Festival of robot sex.

Right?

Is that what you signed up for?

What’s particularly interesting is that none of these comparisons are entirely wrong;  I can’t disagree with Conley on any particular point, I enjoyed Brown’s article, Burning Man is like Route 66 to the (limited) extent to which it is a modern cultural pilgrimage, and I have compared Burning Man to Vegas myself.  These varied descriptions of Burning Man may not add up to a coherent picture, thus suggesting what a difficult time we have talking about Burning Man, but they aren’t wrong per se.

The one that sticks in my craw, though, is Aldus Huxley and “A Brave New World” – which I don’t think is correct for the exact same reason that the others are.  “A Brave New World” is NOT like Burning Man, which is why almost everything else is.

And it has nothing to do with the robots thing.  I’m sure if we had more robots, we would have sex with them.  Or light them on fire.  It would really depend who brought them.  Don’t deny it:  I’ve seen what you do with your bicycles.

But that’s okay, because – as the comparison to the society in “A Brave New World” suggests, Burning Man society is generally very open to unusual relationships.  Someone may disapprove of your lifestyle … in fact I’ll all but guarantee it … but the only people who cast stones are Camp Stone Cast, and they make you wear a safety helmet.  Otherwise any relationship between consenting adults is generally accepted – and often proposed.

Likewise, as the comparison suggests, a great many participants in both Burning Man and the society of A Brave New World play, make art, and take drugs.

But these superficial comparisons are where the resemblance ends.   In A Brave New World, all the goods of the society are provided for the recipients – at Burning Man, coffee is provided.  “Radical Self-Reliance” is a concept utterly alien to “A Brave New World”:  indeed, much of the plot centers around a series of demonstrations of just how dependent upon the drug-and-sex pushing government the citizens are.

That’s also why there is an iron clad caste system in “A Brave New World”:  one’s birth caste determines one’s intelligence, social opportunities, and life’s work.  Nothing even remotely like that exists at Burning Man.

There are plenty more differences where that came from.

But the central misunderstanding exhibited about Burning Man by the comparison to “A Brave New World” is this:  the whole point of all the leisure activity in Huxley’s masterpiece, all of the sex and all of the drugs and all of the lying around, was to distract the citizens, to keep them from noticing that they had no opportunity to make any meaningful choices about their lives at all.

It was a consolation prize for a lack of options.

This is 180 degrees off from Burning Man.  When you arrive at that desert city, when you have unpacked your gear and set up your camp, when you look around at the people and down the roads and up at the art and hear the laughter and the shouts and the dance music … then you are faced, always and ever, with the most basic question in life:  “What am I going to do now?”

There’s no guide.  There’s no program.  There’s no requirement.

You may have responsibilities, but they’re something you volunteered for.  The result of choices you made.   Of commitments you hold.

Any future envisioned to be “like Burning Man” will have to wrestle with this fundamental fact:  Burning Man forces you to make meaningful choices.  Some people do this well, some people do it poorly, and some don’t really know how to do it and just follow the herd they’re with.  But the option to make a meaningful choice … here, right now, in this moment … is constant at Burning Man.

Burning Man is not an escape from personal responsibility – it is an embrace of it.  How else would you explain the mass numbers of people who take their “leisure” at Burning Man by building vast and elaborate camps, or spending the entire year designing a massive sculpture or crafting an art car out of scrap?

This has nothing to do with sex and drugs and leisure:  these people made a choice.  No one forced them to.  In many cases no one even asked them to.  No one said it would be easy, and it virtually never is.  They did it anyway.

Burning Man is perhaps too often thought of as a vacation or escape when in fact it is a series of ongoing existential choices.  Given the chance to do anything … anything at all … in a place where almost anything is possible, what do you do?

Are we surprised that so many people choose to dance?  To play?  To screw? No.  Should we be surprised that so many choose to make art, or serve their fellow travelers?  No, we should not.

These are what humans beings do, given real choices.

The fact that Burning Man is this series of fundamental choices explains why so many of the ways it’s described and the things it’s compared to seem so disjointed:  the same burn really is a fundamentally different experience for everyone, because they’re making radically different choices and reacting to the consequences.  That creates a multitude of puzzle pieces, all of which are accurate, that will never fit together into a cogent whole.

But those who are looking to Burning Man as a model for the future need to understand that they’re not looking at a leisure society where everyone has successfully abandoned responsibility to frolic in the Elysian Fields while someone else takes care of them.  They’re looking at a desolate landscape made rich by people confronting their capacity to make meaningful choices – mostly to serve, give, and create – and then living with the consequences.

That’s not what the futurists seem to have in mind.  But it probably should be.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  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. He is not an official representative of Burning Man, or even an employee, and does not speak for the organization. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com

17 thoughts on “Burning Man may be the future, but it’s not an escape

  • Burning Man is no more a model for the future than is Disneyland. Both are holiday retreats, nothing more.

    But no one is stopping anyone from blowing smoke up their asses at either destination. Whatever fantasy you want to have that will help you escape the reality of your dreary, workaday lives for 1 week out of the year is fine. Have at it – pretend something more is happening. It’s your fantasy.

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  • First off…is that my Tigger (BO?)
    Second, I have to wonder if the ‘futurist” in question has either been to Burning Man or read “Brave New World”. First off “Brave New world” was written prior to Huxley trying drugs and was his attempt to criticize those who used them. After he tried mescaline (years later) he wrote Doors of Perception” and, more to the point “Island”. The later describes a utopian society whose eyes who use drugs and Eastern philosophy to open the minds and hearts of members. While I WOULD HOPE Burning Man could have a positive influence on our society, I see that as a heavy lift. If it does however, the resulting society would look virtually nothing like “Brave New World” and much more like “Island”. BTW the society in “Island” was destroyed because they’re embrace of non-violence left them undefended when a two-bit dictator decided to take over the island. A society modeled after Burning Man would be a golden age, but it probably could not last. Then again, we have Death Camp.

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  • First off…is that my Tigger (BO?)
    Second, I have to wonder if the ‘futurist” in question has either been to Burning Man or read “Brave New World”. First off “Brave New world” was written prior to Huxley trying drugs and was his attempt to criticize those who used them. After he tried mescaline (years later) he wrote “Doors of Perception” and, more to the point “Island”. The later describes a utopian society who use drugs and Eastern philosophy to open the minds and hearts of members. While I WOULD HOPE Burning Man could have a positive influence on our society, I see that as a heavy lift. If it does however, the resulting society would look nothing like “Brave New World” and much more like “Island”. BTW the society in “Island” was destroyed because they’re embrace of non-violence left them undefended when a two-bit dictator decided to take over the island. A society modeled after Burning Man would be a golden age, but it probably could not last. Then again, we have Death Camp.

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  • Caveat, there’s been a pattern here in recent posts where you question the validity of anyone’s attempt to explain or classify Burning Man. I kind of get it, but really, as special as it is, Burning Man is just another gathering of humans, one that people seem to like to read about, especially those who haven’t and most likely will never attend. I know I love reading about festivals that I’ll probably never get to. And for what it’s worth, all of those descriptions you quote are pretty apt. Are they comprehensive? Of course not. But they do describe aspects of Burning Man pretty well.

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  • This is a perfect example of what I’ve been saying in previous posts. I guess a “futurist” can be considered an academic, but this guy just sounds WRONG. He obviously completely missed the point of “Brave New World”. A point that Aldus Huxley later said was wrong (see Pooh Bear above). So big deal, the guy is wrong, how is that going to effect Burners? What Caveat hasn’t done is show a study, or a paper, where he thinks the researcher got it right and then demonstarited how that is a problem. Is all the academic work done at Burning Man wrong. I have to doubt that. There is bad research, there is bad art, there is bad music. Some of it ends up at Burning Man, but who gets to decide which is which and who is deserving of a place at Burning man and who isn’t?

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  • i’m thinking of the uncertainty principle, when it comes to burning man. the more we look at it, study it, think about it…the less we know. because the whole thing is open to interpretation. what it means, what it’s about, etc. it’s always been deliberately ambiguous…perhaps.

    we all can come up with our own meanings. that’s one of the things i love the most about it.

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  • Hear hear!

    And Tigger, you seemed to have missed the entire point of the article that I think pretty well sums up how BRC is *not* a vacation or escape.

    Disney is.

    I was just at Disney a couple of weeks ago. I had a great time. But it is not remotely comparable to Burning Man.

    “I’m sure if we had more robots, we would have sex with them. Or light them on fire.”

    *laugh*

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  • Many traditions and principles of Black Rock City are absolutely the future. Of course it’s always the minority that comments on blogs like this. The usual snarky eplaya/tribe.net crowd, that so deeply fears people getting that much more out of the event. The principles of burning man are nothing new, it’s just the natural way the human race was intended to live.

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  • I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of people view Burning Man as an escape from the drudgery of ‘default’ life and that the “the dominance of the leisure society” is an obvious part of the festival because of that. I agree that Burning Man is definitely much more than that but the propensity for self non-control, self-indulgence, sloth etc. are rampant at the burn. I think it’s worth considering the rest of the article as a parallel to a certain segment of burner culture.

    First, “Imagine a city street where not one of the hundred people around you sees the same version of reality. the interface systems translating the physical and social environment into something interesting and/or culturally acceptable.” This exact scenario can be accomplished anywhere where there are lots of drugs and a social understanding that lots of people will be on drugs and not be acting normally. )'( also has a wide culture of love and acceptance. Combine those two things and you end up getting a decently large array of repellent and (to most) unacceptable social intents and behaviors (like rape) becoming ignored, tolerated or I expect even accepted in some circles. (Civic responsibility hardly makes it to most people’s minds in these cases as they are so far absorbed by their own perception of what the festival is, they can’t see the bad things happening). The playa is essentially a dream-scape in many ways.

    The Futurists are saying that human technology will be applicable to the physical body to accomplish the same feat without going to the desert with 20 gallons of water etc. etc. etc. etc. They are talking about eventually catalyzing the same type of experience Burning Man provides people through implants: “Smartphones give way to tablets to phablets to wearables to implantables to swallowables to replaceable eyeballs to neo-sinus body-nanofab systems (using mucous as a raw material) to brainwebs to body-rentals…”

    the article concludes by saying “the very notion of death will be redefined to include new criteria for death, including a person who wants to drop out of society for a span of a year or tens of years and then reenter life.” There’s obvious parallels there for leaving ‘default’ life to enter the world of )'(

    So what does that mean for Burners?

    I say it means nothing. but it’s a good reminder to look out for your fellow burners. Make sure things are done responsibly and ethically. take charge when you see someone out of control. help people. shit like that. it’s anarchy out there!

    thank you.

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  • Tigger and JV – you are both wrong. Or right, in your own way to embrace the Burning Man community. Or project. But certainly not “festival”. If you still think BM impacts people only for one week per year, then I’m sorry for you, as you are part of that list of people who live deep into a shity default world with no ethics or guiding principles, if not work, produce, survive and possibly “support our troops”. So sad.

    Myself, and a wide community of burners I know, we live things differently. We truly adopted the BM principles and imported in our daily life, in the way we deal with people, in the way we run our business and, most of all, we experience the community all year round, not just for “one crazy week per year out there in the desert”.

    As a matter of fact, I’m writing from Europe/Italy, where we have a large number of opportunities to connect, gather, and work with fellow burners on collective projects (not just art) – and also to party. Since the beginning of the year we already had several gatherings (in Paris, Milan, Barcelona, London and Zurich). This month we have more gatherings and events (including full weekends) in Barcelona, Paris and Brussels. May is Wales, Sweden and more “Burning Cafes” in several cities. June we hold on, as since the end of the month we’ll all be at Nowhere, the one week long regional in a Spanish desert, for which we are working our arses off since months. And this is all before flying to the States and coming to the playa – after the playa there will be a full wave of Decompressions until the end of the year… and on and on and on.

    One week per year? Yeah, right. Just partying? We have environmental, social, educational and innovation projects going on, and we are pretty proud of them all. Burning Man changed our lives, and for sure the way we connect, interact and engage with the default world – that we are influencing a bit at the time. And yes, we got EuroDisneyland too, but who the hell cares? Burning Man might not be the future for a bunch of people, but its principles are already impacting the present for many others. Worldwide.

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  • I always assumed they were talking about the post apocalyptic survival skills, the off grid ability to function with few resources. That and the ability to get along with people who aren’t at all like you in close quarters under duress.

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  • Well, I enjoyed your post Caveat. Thank you. You write well and clearly………. and clearly, the experience on playa is a difficult one to categorize…… and it certainly is not just one week per year for anyone who carries at least thier own weight there. Or, at least, I don’t know too many who can just load their gear in an hour taking everything they will personally need for that one week, and bling, be there now.

    I believe that most of the 10 principals were part of my upbringing, coming to me via my grands, furthered by growing up in the 60s and 70s…… It took me 12 years to actually go to BRC, but when I got there, I had huge community because I had participated all year. I even brought a couple of my own sparkle ponies…… and was grateful for the shiny beauty they were, even while my sweaty self cleaned up what they left behind…….

    I love BurningMan……. it is my now, and it is my future.

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