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