Burning Man: When the individual and Silicon Valley meet in the desert

If you were trying to understand Silicon Valley, your first instinct would not be to camp out in a desert for a week with no money just to watch a human sculpture burn. 

But the Silicon Valley titans see it differently. “Burning Man is Silicon Valley,” said Elon Musk, who explained that if you have never been there, “you just don’t get it.” 

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What is Burning Man

Burning Man 2021 will be occurring between August 22September 7, and for the second straight year, it will be a virtual event. 

The event began in 1986 when Larry Harvey and Jerry James burned an eight-foot human effigy on a San Francisco beach. Since then, it has developed into a major annual festival in Black Rock City, in Northwestern Nevada.

The catalyst for turning this small event into the major event it is today can be traced back to the “Suicide Club,” which later evolved into the Cacophony Society — a radically inclusive club. By the third year of the burning man ritual, a member of the Cacophony Society, Michael Mikel, took notice of the event and the next year publicised it in the Rough Draft Newsletter which attracted a few hundred people to the event. By 1990, Larry Harvey was having trouble getting permission to burn the effigy on the beach. Kevin Evans, a member of the Cacophony Society, suggested taking the ritual to the Black Rock Desert, and integrating it with one of the society’s “Zone Trips.” A zone trip was an idea conceived by Carrie Galbraith, a cacophonist — where the zone was an area where anything could happen.

Once in the desert, the Burning Man Festivalwould merge with Desert Site Works a group comprised mostly of Cacophony Society members. This would influence the direction of Burning Man to become a more artistically oriented festival. Now, there was a festival in the middle of the desert, with radical inclusiveness, where anything can happen, artistic expression and no rules. The “no rules” aspect would last until the late 1990s when more than 8,000 people attended the event. It was at this time that some basic rules and some structure were added to the event.  

The last live event was in 2019 and attracted almost 80,000 attendees, quite an improvement from the first years when it attracted less than 50 people.

Silicon Valley in the desert

Over the years, Burning Man has attracted many big names from Silicon Valley and beyond. One company that has been significantly influenced by Burning Man is Google which “was almost literally founded at Burning Man.”

Google CEO Larry Page praised the culture of Burning Man and hoped it could be brought to other places. “I like going to Burning Man…an environment where people can try new things. I think as technologists, we should have some safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society. What’s the effect on people, without having to deploy it to the whole world.”

When Google founders Page and Brin were searching for a CEO, candidate Eric Schmidt was the only one who had attended Burning Man. “We thought [that] was an important criterion,” said Brin. For many years, the atrium of Google Headquarters was filled with pictures of Google workers and their Burning Man art projects.

Stanford Professor, Fred Turner has studied Burning Man and its connection within the tech world for more than a decade. He explains how a visit to Google headquarters piqued his interest on the topic. “On my first visit to Google in Mountain View, I saw lots of pictures of Burning Man in the company’s lobby. I’ve found over the years that what companies put in their lobbies tends to say a lot about what kind of company they hope to be. And so I started exploring the connections.” 

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Turner sees many parallels between Silicon Valley and Burning Man. One is the intense project-oriented teamwork which occurs in both places. In Silicon Valley, it can be about building a complicated tech product, whereas at Burning Man, the same teamwork is used for sophisticated artwork. However, herein lies a major difference. While at their tech companies, many see themselves working to fulfill other people’s visions, at Burning Man, these techies work to create and fulfil their own vision.

The trajectories of both have also been noticed by Turner. The countercultural aspects of both have become more difficult to see as the years passed and more money has been infused into both. For Burning Man, it was going to great lengths to ensure the event was a brand-free environment, although it had turned into an event where brands were everywhere. In Silicon Valley: “The utopian, extra economic aspects of the early Internet have so morphed as to bring us a system that has become for far too many people an ad-supported highway on which to deliver mainstream media goods,” says Turner.

No Money

One of the unique things about Burning Man is the “no money” rule. Listed among the 10 principles of Burning Man is “Gifting.” It states: “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.” There are only two items that can be purchased at Burning Man: ice and coffee. Founder of the event, Larry Harvey, explains this idea

“Burning Man is like a big family picnic. Would you sell things to one another at a family picnic? No, you’d share things. […] So we said, ‘let’s say everything is a gift, and you can’t buy or sell anything in our city, and see what that feels like.’ And lo and behold, we discovered that people began to have experiences that were revelatory. It creates a world which is saturated with meaningful encounters, free from the commercial obligations of the default world, where almost every action has a profit motive hanging over it.”

While money is important in daily life, Burning Man provides a temporary opportunity to escape that reality and live in an environment of unlimited giving.

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The Burning Man economy

While money may not be changing hands inside Burning Man, the event organisers  took in approximately $40 million and spent $39 million.

The price to attend the event can be costly. There is the attendance fee, which can range from approximately $200 for a low-income ticket to almost $2,000. Then, there is the plane ticket, rental car fees, costume fees for those that buy, vehicle passes and accommodation fees which could be for a tent or an RV.

The absence of money inside the event means that “Burners” need to stock up on all the essentials for the event prior to arrival. Most burners fly into Reno Lake Tahoe International Airport. The week of the festival is an annual stimulus for the local economy. The airport alone brings in about $10 million from pilgrims traveling to Burning Man. 

All along the route to the festival, attendees empty out grocery stores with supplies needed for the festival. Gas stations are filled to capacity. Various makeshift marketplaces pop up selling things for the festival. Hotels are also filled up. All these last minute expenses were estimated to be about $35 million in the past.

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The man will burn

One of the main attractions at Burning Man is when a huge sculpture of a man, albeit with unique measurements and looks, is burned each year. 

In the early years, the sculpture of the man was less than 20 feet high, however, in 2010, the burning man reached a towering height of more than 100 feet.

The process of assembling the Man, the pyrotechnics and ensuring a safe burn represent an arduous process. Many efforts are made not only to provide for the safety of those watching the Burning Man, but also to ensure that the ceremony did not leave a mess on the playa the ground of the desert.

The Burning Man was a spectacle that drew people around the unique sight in the beginning, however, there was never any symbolism attributed to the burning man ceremony. The various ceremonies and customs that would grow around the burning man developed organically. The 10 principles of the event were only penned in 2004, almost two decades after the first event.

The Principles of Burning Man

In 2004, 10 principles of Burning Man were published by Larry Harvey. These were not dictates of how people must behave. They were a reflection of the community’s culture and ethos that had developed since the event began in 1986.

These principles reflect the inclusivity of the event and the effort to create a community based on a certain culture and values. The principles express a responsibility that a person has to himself and the community. The radical self-reliance, expression and immediacy all seek to encourage a person to experience their inner self and the unique gifts and qualities each one has and to rely on those as a way of giving to the community. There is also responsibility which relates to making sure no trace of the festival can be seen from the area, civic responsibility for the welfare of the group as well and following the law. Participation and communal effort ensure that the values of the community and the potential for transformative change are facilitated. 

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Like in 2020, Burning Man 2021 will be a virtual event. A virtual event loses the uniqueness of being at the actual site in Black Rock Desert. However, by not being confined to a certain place and costing a lot of money to attend, Burning Man may increase its community for the years to come and spin out in various unforeseen directions. Either way, as in previous years, the Man will burn.