[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man's 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]
Every now and then someone proposes a new technological fix for what many at Burning Man don’t see as a problem in the first place. The debate that results usually boils down to a parody of intellectual discussion, as performed by a sparkle pony named “Meerkat” and a shirtcocker named “Thunder”:
MEERKAT: “YOU AND YOUR PHONE DON’T UNDERSTAND OR RESPECT THE 10 PRINCIPLES!”
THUNDER: “YOU’RE A LUDDITE TRADITIONALIST WHO DOESN’T APPRECIATE TECHNOLOGY!”
MEERKAT: “HEY, LOOK, A GIANT PIRATE SHIP PILOTED BY COOKIE MONSTER!”
THUNDER: “I’M GOING TO POST ABOUT IT TO ALL MY FRIENDS!”
MEERKAT: “DAMN YOU, TRAITOR!”
THUNDER: “WHY CAN’T I GET A SIGNAL? OH CRUEL WORLD!”
This is a lot of fun to watch at three in the morning, but it’s not productive.
If we’re going to have a productive debate about technology, the terms of the discussion really need to change.
The first thing to realize is that an event in the desert founded on radical self-reliance can’t be anti-technology. Technology is a form of radical self-reliance. What you can’t do yourself you develop tools to do, and tools become machines, and machines become systems – and systems become “technology” as a whole. We absolutely rely on our tools to survive, let alone to build and thrive, and the idea that Burning Man culture is incompatible with the development of better tools is ludicrous.
The appropriate response to new technology is not to angrily retreat into the corner hissing and gnashing your teeth: it’s to ask “Okay, how should we use this?”
But note that this question, “how should we use this?” doesn’t automatically assume that any use is good – that a new technical capability, simply by being a new technical capability, is good or right.
The tech culture of Silicon Valley is the embodiment of “can” equals “ought” – if we can do something, we ought to. All advances in technology are seen as good advances, and no use of technology is considered out of bounds. Does that strike you as a sweeping statement? It shouldn’t: Facebook and OK Cupid have both been caught running social experiments on their users without their permission, Google never asked permission to take street photographs and happily collected wi-fi data as it went. They’re all spying on us.
Which isn’t a criticism – it’s a way of pointing out that there’s absolutely no reason we should look to technology, or the technology industry, for moral leadership or social guidance. That’s not what they do. What they do is advance and build new technology, and they’re damn good at it. But much in the way that government bureaucrats tend to see every situation as requiring a government program, and that law enforcement tends to think that every situation needs stricter enforcement, the technology industry tends to regard everything it encounters as a technical issue requiring a technical fix.
When your only goal is technical advancement, “can” absolutely equals “ought.” But outside of that mindset it doesn’t make someone either a Luddite or a traditionalist if they take the question “should we do that?” seriously. It makes you thoughtful.
“Can” equaling “ought” is simply not a moral calculus that works for Burning Man. On the contrary: we ask ourselves questions like “is it inclusive?” “Does it support communal effort?” “Is it participatory?” Those are just the most simple, basic, questions, but they illustrate the point: We have standards well beyond “can we do it?” to determine if it should be done.
One could suggest that the world would be well served by having its own standards on when and how to use technology. But that’s a debate far beyond Burning Man.
The principle that trips up new technology most often is “immediacy.” “Stop staring at a screen” has become a cultural cliché far outside of Burning Man, but often substitutes for critical thought about technology within it.
In fact technology can both heighten and dull our ability to experience the world around us in an immediate and profound way. In the 1960s, it was televised images of the Vietnam war and the brutal assault on civil rights marchers that galvanized a nation into action: staring at your screen, far from being a way out of immediacy, was in fact crucial to the dawning realization that this was actually happening, and that this could happen. I would have a hard time saying that people transfixed by images coming out of Ferguson, Missouri, at this moment are using technology to dull their experience of immediacy instead of enhance it.
So technology is not innately incompatible with Immediacy. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily compatible with it either. The problem isn’t that the digital world exists, it’s that (as William Saletan has written) we tend to privilege it over the physical. We all too often look out our phones in a way that diminishes our attention to the world around us, and communicate virtually as a way of avoiding in-person contact. It’s the difference between sex and cyber-sex – or (if you’re more cynical) breaking up with somebody in person or by text. If you don’t think there’s a difference, you’re kidding yourself. In each case one is far more intense, personal, and immediate.
Maybe that intense, personal, and immediate experience is not what you’re looking for – and that’s fine. But this is Burning Man.
The defense of technology on the playa is often as facile as the case against it. Writing about how enough people could use the iPhone’s mesh networking technology to bring an internet to the playa, one virgin Burner concluded that this is compatible with Immediacy this way:
Traditionalists believe that there’s a principle of immediacy to be upheld, and that it’s important to directly experience what’s right there in front of you.
That’s cool. But when I’m having that mind-blowing experience, I want to send out a call to my friends to come experience it with me… immediately!
I call self-serving bullshit. By this definition, “Immediacy” is no different from “instant gratification.” By this criteria everything meets the criteria of Immediacy because you want it now. With this idea, what you want is far more important than what you’re actually experiencing – selfishness trumps real life. Instant gratification is, in fact, a near perfect inversion of Immediacy: a siren call to ignore what’s actually happening in favor of what you think you’d rather be doing.
Saying that technologically enabled instant gratification has no place at Burning Man isn’t the argument of a Luddite traditionalist who doesn’t understand technology – it’s the argument of someone who understands technology perfectly.
The compliment to Immediacy (rather than the inverse) is serendipity. Synchronicity. Letting the weird, wonderful, and sometimes terrifyingly compelling things that happen on playa lead you, rather than trying too hard to shape them in advance. And hey – technology can do this too. I can absolutely imagine scenarios in which a network of connected phone at Burning Man could support these things: getting people to interact in new ways with complete strangers, to participate in projects that they’ve never imagined, and to do things that they had no idea they were going to try. I have no doubt that the artists and pranksters of our community are up to the challenge.
But it won’t happen *because* of technology. It will happen because somebody made a conscious decision to use a given technology well. Neither shouting “Immediacy!” at each new technology nor shouting “Luddite!” at everyone who wonders “is this a good idea?” is helpful to that process.
I personally think that humanity’s future depends on our ability to manage our technology – which means being able to say “no” to it. The question is first, can we even do that? Do we really have the capacity any longer? And second: when is the right time? When is it wise to say no?
In the case of Burning Man, simply wanting to find your friends or keep up with the news back home isn’t good enough. “I want it” is not a good enough reason, and takes us away from Immediacy – and possibly more. We already use technology to cocoon ourselves in the comfort of the familiar too much off playa: only reading the news we want to see, screening out everyone we don’t already know.
Which is to say: Some of the limitations we put on ourselves when we come out to the desert are not problems to be solved. On the contrary: we came here on purpose.
But when that same technology is used to connect you to strangers, and their strangeness, in a direct and personal way … when it is used to help us participate in real world endeavors in a direct and meaningful way … when it helps us acknowledge the reality around us and connect with the natural world … then a case can be made that not only is it compatible with Immediacy, but is enhancing it. It may seem contradictory, but to walk towards Immediacy you often have to walk away from notions of instant gratification. Immediacy lives in unknown territory.
Caveat is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com