The Walrus Blog

Burning With Desire

In Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, it is better to be awesome than rich

The view from Burning Man: in the Black Rock Desert, it is better to be awesome than rich

The Heart MachineJon EvansThe Heart Machine

I’m just back from Burning Man, the surreal festival of 50,000 artists, anarchists, hippies, ravers, engineers, and gawkers who gather annually in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert to build a temporary city, throw the world’s biggest party, and show off their latest artistic creations. Whatever you may have heard about the bacchanal is probably true… but there’s more to it than that.

The event’s ephemeral metropolis, Black Rock City — one of Nevada’s five largest urban areas, during the week that it exists — defies all rational economic analysis. Even its least-involved citizens spend about $300 for an entrance ticket, and much more to carry their own food, water, and shelter to and from one of Earth’s most barren pieces of real estate. Those who construct their own art, technology, and/or theme camps — playgrounds for passersby, essentially — collectively put in many thousands of hours of hard labour, and millions of dollars more in materials.

Why? Not for money: commerce is strictly forbidden in Black Rock City, aside from a few essential services provided by the Burning Man organization itself. Instead the city runs on a gift economy. Its many bars, for instance, are hosted by groups who buy carloads of booze, drive it into the desert, construct some kind of (frequently extremely elaborate) structure, and spend many hours pouring drinks for endless crowds of random strangers, while expecting nothing in return. Art created for or during Burning Man is rarely if ever sold afterwards — in fact, much of it is burned — and I’m not aware of any startups seeded with technology originally built for the playa.

(Mind you, attendance can have unexpected benefits; Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, hired Eric Schmidt as their CEO in part because he was the only candidate who had been to Burning Man.)

Instead, this epic frenzy of creation and construction is fuelled by purely personal (and routinely unselfish) desires. People dedicate money and countless time to projects like Syzygryd, the Kinetic Cab Company or Toronto’s own The Heart Machine. They do it to give back to the community; to show off, and earn bragging rights; and, most of all, to be part of something awesome. Call it a reputation economy.

Those desires aren’t limited to Black Rock City. During the last decade, a whole community of open-source, build-it-yourself artists and engineers has erupted. The explosion has been chronicled by both Make magazine (which now hosts regular Maker Faires, designed to “celebrate arts, crafts, engineering, science projects, and the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) mindset”) and Wired — whose editor Chris Anderson’s latest book is, not coincidentally, Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

Anderson has been accused of plagiarism because he copied much of Free from Wikipedia with minimal attribution — and he has blithely admitted as much without a trace of guilt. He does, after all, claim membership in a collective, open-source movement; building on the work of others is not just accepted but assumed. Hackerspaces such as San Francisco’s Noisebridge, Toronto’s Hacklab.TO, Vancouver’s HackSpace, and Montreal’s Foulab, along with art spaces like Site3 in Toronto, act as focal points for entire collaborative communities of makers.

Tinkerers and hardware hackers have always been around — but today’s are far more ambitious than those of yesteryear. I have friends with their own space program, but even they pale next to the all-volunteer Danish group that plans to launch its own passenger-capable rocket into space from an ocean platform towed out to sea by their homemade submarine.

Why now? In part, the movement is a collective backlash against our money-obsessed, mass-produced society in which almost no one knows how to build anything anymore. But it’s also because that same society’s technology — e.g. Italy’s wildly successful Arduino open-source hardware platform, cheap new 3-D printers, and lasers cannibalized from PlayStations — has quietly made making things a whole lot easier. Most of all, it’s because today’s relatively wealthy creative classes increasingly care more for accomplishments and esteem than cash.

As the world slowly but steadily grows wealthier, our reputations will matter more, and money less; in other words, at some point it will be better to be awesome than to be rich. Burning Man is so different from the real world that it might as well be a parallel dimension — but at the same time, Black Rock City is an interesting testbed for tomorrow’s reputation economy. So keep an eye on what’s happening in that desert, and on today’s community of makers. They just might be the vanguard of the future.

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  • Will Chase

    Excellent post. Thank you!

  • Jim

    I’d rather be awesome than rich, great post!

  • Paul Swek

    Nice post. I believe your views to be true, but it will take a long time for the rest of the world to catch up to this idea.
    Thank you!

  • http://brodyqat.wordpress.com Brody

    “at some point it will be better to be awesome than to be rich”

    At least in my group of (mostly Burner) friends, this is the case now and has been for years. Creating art by scrounging and fundraising and wheeling/dealing and scavenging and finding creatively-cheap solutions feels much more authentic/rewarding than just being able to pony up cash for new materials. But, both feel better than just mindlessly consuming, I suppose!

  • http://materialdsign.com/identitfarm/ Leonardo Canneto

    As a 5 year Burning Man veteran and Theme Camp leader I would add that giving freely of your talents and money is a way to earn a place in the Black Rock City economy and to feel like a true citizen of that temporary world, or else you are just a tourist stagnating the flow of wealth by just taking and not giving. The amount of joy you get from blowing people’s minds is tenfold whatever amount you may have spent in supplies/gear to make it happen.

  • Bri10

    Awesome>Rich. Ace!

  • betty

    We work all year to go to Burning Man, full stop.

  • http://dmitryshapiro.com Dmitry Shapiro

    A few thoughts :

    Black Rock City is the REAL world, and the rest is the “Default World”.

    The Gifting Economy IS the only sustainable economy!

    It is already SO much better to be awesome than rich!

    )’( Two Time Burner

  • http://albertideation.com Nutmeg Alfredo

    11 year burner. one of the funniest pieces of schwag from this year is an aerial image of the City, with the words “show up, party, and leave” on it.

    ah, the gifting economy. that and so much more. thank you all for 11 great years. my write up from this year lives @ http://tinyurl.com/septtheeleven2010

    Nutmeg Alfredo
    BRCPO
    We do this every day
    http://brcpo.com

  • http://Goovehoops.com Groovehoops

    Wanna see a fun little video project from this years burn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvda56aTB9U&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    • Charlie & Enigma

      Truly awesome! :D thank you! tears of happiness…

  • sharon

    Love this! A beautiful event, beautiful because it is all about the joyful giving, and it’s counterpart, gracious receiving. An art dealer for many years, I found out that people with money don’t necessarily have art or an understanding of it. You can’t buy this awesome, but you can aspire to meet it. Burning Man is full of inspired creators and genuine appreciators, to complete the equation.

  • Bree M

    This was my first year, and I was completely moved by everything at burning man. I had never in my life felt so comfortable around so many people, I have never trusted everyone around me like I did there. that is the way we should be living life, no judgment, no greed, just people honestly loving and taking care of each other. I know deep in my heart that burning man will become a permanent life style, until than I will be going home once a year from now on!!

  • http://www.firebulb.com Spectra

    Leonardo hits the nail on the head when he mentions “joy.” While esteem and accomplishments may matter to some, and they are often a part of bringing a large art project (which I did on this, my second year) or theme camp or even a waffle cart, the real thing that “feeds” those of us who contribute is JOY and, dare I mention it…LOVE. Love for art and creating. Love for our fellow human beings. Joy at seeing their creativity. Joy at giving something that is deeply moving or well-appreciated by others. While esteem and accomplishment are nice and all, they aren’t the sort of emotion that feeds the soul enough to commit 9 months of your life, a monastic poverty lifestyle (while spending gobs of money on lumber, fasteners and steel) and the risk of someone hurting themselves on your piece and suing you into oblivion.

    The other part of it that Leonardo mentions, and I think is a fundamental value, is *belonging* to something. Being a citizen of BRC allows many of us who have never found a true home for our creativity in the default world, a chance to visit a completely new culture where our values and mores are the fundamental by which the whole place operates. We belong there, some perhaps moreso than wherever we live the rest of the time.

    It thrills me that Burning Man values are leaking their way back into the culture. The other thing is that the creativity bursting forth there has upped the ante so strongly that the quality and complexity of the art being made continues to explode. Ordinary people do something awesome, and it inspires other ordinary people to tap into their own creativity. If this could resonate throughout the world, it would be an amazing thing indeed.

  • Stew

    I don’t know if anyone else thinks I am awesome, but after my second year at burning man, and full on participation where I contributed every talent and hour I had available, I fee AWESOME! already deep in planning for next years burn and looking forward to being a part of the culture. How nice for 7 days to be considered for who you are and what you do that represents that ‘who’ rather than the amount of bling you may have or the car you rode in on!

  • Javaman

    The ephemeral body couples with the spirit in a joint quest for fulfillment and immortality. The traces we leave behind become our legacy. In the end, our reputation is the sole and eternal product of our journey, either deemed worthy of preserving or discarding by those who follow after. May your legacy be worth preserving.

  • Carolyn Basha

    This is an excellent post and so encapsulates my own feelings after only one burn. I cannot wait to go back. The seven days are like a whole year full of living. The richness of the experience is in your soul not your wallet.

  • http://www.lesliemccarroll.com Leslie

    Well done! What an amazing experience! I’d rather be awesome than rich too! :) Can’t wait to return.

  • Q

    Citizens of a country (the United States) who are relative kings compared to much of the rest of the world, who have enough disposable income that they can afford to spend anywhere from hundreds to millions of dollars with no expectation of any return? That sounds less to me like transcending wealth, and more like reveling in it. People may not go to Burning Man with the intent to make money, but the only reason they can attend in the first place is because they already have large amounts of it. If it weren’t for our “money-obsessed, mass-produced” culture, and their success in exploiting that culture, they wouldn’t be in a financial position to participate. Let’s not forget, Google’s main business is advertising—the very bedrock of materialism and capitalism. Burning Man is a great event with some wonderful creativity put into it, but let’s not lose perspective of the bigger picture.

    • Jason

      It’s refreshing to hear, now and then, a thoughtful questioning of the orthodox interpretation of Black Rock City. I don’t know what “transcending wealth” means, but in eight dusty years I’ve never seen anyone reveling in their wealth. What I have seen are personal resources deployed on the scales you describe, quietly and at the high end anonymously, for the benefit and enjoyment of the whole community.

      Comparing with data from Wikipedia, the people who filled out the census form at Burning Man this year are overall better educated and wealthier than the national distribution. Interestingly though the biggest difference between national demographics and BRC’s aren’t at the low income end but in the economic middle. It’s the “middle class” who are most underrepresented.

      Your bigger picture… a rich west long wasting itself and abusing or failing to use its power for good while other places struggled… and now in decline? We have serious cultural problems. If you spend a few weeks or months working in the desert alongside the people who build BRC and then remove all trace I believe you’ll experience an incubator of cultural remedies.

      • Q

        “It’s the ‘middle class’ who are most underrepresented.”

        That’s only if you ignore other demographics like race.

        “I believe you’ll experience an incubator of cultural remedies.”

        Here’s hoping that those flickers of inspiration can survive outside the playa. Otherwise it’s the folly of the rich and/or privileged.

    • Kay O. Sweaver

      I’d also like to thank Q for representing another side of the equation. WalMart makes a mint off of Burning Man in Reno, not to mention funfur and EL wire vendors across the land.

      That being said I’ve been unemployed for six months and still managed to mount a theme camp that served 1000 poutines on the playa – free of charge. Me and 20 other people just pooled our resources and made it happen. Some of us contributed more, some contributed less, but it worked out and the rewards were minor rockstar status which in turn helped us to get some of our equipment fixed on playa among other more intangible rewards.

      Yes a lot of rich IT folk come out and pour obscene amounts of cash into making Burning Man work, but there’s also a big band of penniless hippies who also come and enjoy the voluntary redistribution of wealth and good times. Something about the lack of cash at the event itself makes the altruism somehow more genuine. Nobody’s getting a tax break or brand awareness out of what they do at Burning Man, so clearly something else is going on.

      The economy of it all is certainly more complex once you consider what happens outside of the gates and the other 51 weeks of the year, but the fact that it happens at all is worthy of further contemplation.

      • Susan Larcombe

        Thank you so much for the poutine, dear. :)

      • Q

        “I’ve been unemployed for six months and still managed to mount a theme camp that served 1000 poutines on the playa – free of charge.”

        What kind of unemployed person are you—the well-paid advertising executive or otherwise financially well-off person who has had the benefit of education and the foundation of privilege to cushion large risks? Or the just-barely-scraping-by unemployed person who has lived on the brink of homelessness while battling discrimination as well as emotional and educational poverty? For these two people, risk has an entirely different meaning.

        Again, I’m not trying to rain on the parade, I’m just trying to put it in perspective. This article reads to me more like a bunch of well-off people patting themselves on the back for being so awesome, than any real attempt at improving the world. If the economic depression has shown me anything, it’s that the world steadily grows wealthier—for a smaller and smaller group of people.

  • Reev

    Fantastic article. Short, simple and easily one of the best pieces I’ve read on Bman.
    This was my first burn and I had an incredible experience.
    Thank you Jon for writing this piece so that I could send it to all the ppl I’m trying to convince to come next yr!!

  • Philamonjaro

    Nice write up. So often the media seems to miss the point. Thanks for speaking to the gift economy. This aspect is important and generally overlooked.

  • itaintwhatyouthink

    Thanks for the great writeup. I’ve attended 5 times and always found it stimulating. However, I don’t believe burningman is in any way a blueprint for a new society. Sure, it is impressive that 50,000 people get along well for a full week and largely leave no trace. But there’s a reason: a minority support the majority.

    I’m as up for fields of butterflies and puppy dogs as the next person but let’s not fool ourselves. It’s a party with great art and music. One of the required eddicts of burningman is radical self-reliance but there are lots who get by just fine with radical selfishness. I’ve been left with chairs, bikes, tents and more by those who “had to catch a flight” (as if others didn’t?). I’ve hauled out grey water and garbage left behind by people who back in the city profess they were deeply moved by the experience and are now practicing sustainable living.

    Ultimately, the discussion about which wealthy person does or doesn’t go to burningman isn’t really relevant. It’s not about what you bring, its about what you share, and what you learn.

  • http://www.facebook.com/theheartmachine Christine Irving

    Thank you for the article and photos. Our project, The Heart Machine (THM) , was one of the Honorarium art pieces this year and the first large scale flame effects project coming from Canada. It was created out of that same timeless well of the unexplainable desire to create art. Except from one team member, none of us are full time artists, but collectively we discovered that we actually are artists with day jobs.

    This project for us was a challenge and a gift to an event and community that appreciates, creates and inspires art and experiences. Yes we could have paid professionals to do the parts we did not know how to do but by solving the challenges in making THM, if forced us to work together and exercise our brains. The need to work with our hands and think creatively helps us in both our art and in our day jobs.

    For example, the large black pipes coming out of the heart came about while driving on the 401 thinking of how I was going to make HUGE black pipes without spending the thousands of dollars the HVAC companies were quoting for materials… then it hit me… all that annoying highway construction had big black pipes that I have been driving by every day for 2 months! Two days later the construction company donated small sections of scrap culvert pipe they could not use. I could not have asked for better and more perfect materials.

    The rewards for us were not tied to monetary incentives. We were rewarded in the realization we could make an artistic vision this large come true and learn new skills along the way. We were rewarded in how amazing it felt to see others interact and enjoy our art. We were rewarded when other came up to us with their ideas asking us if we thought they were crazy. Our answer… no, go imagine it and create it!

    I look forward to making more interactive art at BM and in Canada.

    • Dian Carlo “full time artist”

      “As the world slowly but steadily grows wealthier, our reputations will matter more, and money less; in other words, at some point it will be better to be awesome than to be rich. Burning Man is so different from the real world that it might as well be a parallel dimension — but at the same time, Black Rock City is an interesting testbed for tomorrow’s reputation economy. So keep an eye on what’s happening in that desert, and on today’s community of makers.” Awesome POST!

      Let everyone know…THank YoU Christine for allowing me to be part of this.

  • $teven Ra$pa

    Interesting the author chooses “awesome” as a key word here and it’s right on the money! A sense of “awe” has been a cornerstone of this experience. Awe at the proportion of the Burning Man sculpture/effigy and over time the many other large scale art pieces vs. one person contemplating their relationship to a new world and landscape of possibilities; awe at the grand scale of the vast desert and nature which dwarfs and humbles everything and everyone at Burning Man; awe at what people can do when they follow their imaginations to illogical ends and do and be what brings them joy and fulfillment; and awe at what is truly possible when the veil of what is customarily thought of as “valuable” is lifted and we find just how awesome each of us really is and what we can do when we see ourselves and the world through the lens of a new value system based upon the self and giving vs. money and consuming. For many Burning Man is an oasis, but it is happily much more than that. It is the proof many look for and find in themselves. And no words will ever do justice to the experience or explain any of it.

  • Silver

    Excellent writeup!

  • http://dustandillusions.com/ Olivier Bonin

    Interesting concept that “reputation” economy. Although I see many parallels b/w BM and the real world, I also recognize it’s an answer to a feeling that people need more of a sense of community. I also feel that Burning Man is not at the avant-garde but rather riding the wave of change that I think the internet has fostered. People are getting more informed about alternatives, and a lot of things like hackerspaces are also riding that wave. They’re participating, because people are really feeling powerless, but are starting to understand they can say no to the money-driven models.

    But there are things that are at odds there… There are the great groups of artists which I believe are driving force behind that event, but there’s still a very powerful sense of individualism, you can find it in the self-reliance ideas, sometimes in the overpowering constant self-expression (me, me, me) which I feel is sometimes mis-interpreted. There’s no commerce on playa, yet there’s so much consumption before/after the event. Radical inclusion? Still is a very white middle class crowd, sometimes it feels more like the cool/trendy thing to do for a small portion of the population who can afford such an adventure…. so is it simply forming another kind of elite?

    There are many questions that I think you forget to ask. I worked on a documentary called Dust & Illusions, that I produced b/w 2004 & 2009, and have tried to ask all these questions:
    http://dustandillusions.com

  • http://www.greencarreports.com John V

    For my fifth burn, I took a deep breath and invited three high-school friends, all virgins, to make a collective camp. We came from four cities, used two vehicles, and joined a pair of my longstanding SF friends who are DJs to camp behind an Esplanade dance club.

    Steven Raspa hits it on the head: It’s about “awe”. My biggest reward was at 2 am deep onto the playa, looking quietly back with my friends toward our collective city of joy, art, creation, celebration, ecstasy, contemplation, and generosity. One of my friends said, “You know, I did a lot of research. I watched dozens of videos. I read everything. But you were right: You can’t really describe it, or know what it’s about until you’re here. You have to experience it.”

    Jon Evans’ original post is maybe as close as I’ve seen to nailing the experience. This is a splendid description, and I thank you for writing it.

  • http://www.thewindmillfactory.com Jon Morris

    7 year Burner, head of The Wedge and many other installations. I am in debt for awesomeness. This has been the case for years because of projects I have self funded, fundraised, and gifted to communities including Black Rock. I’m also grey from scraping by to pay my rent. I have a great life filled with community and joy and wouldn’t trade my debt for it in a million years. But I would say awesomeness is more important than money if you have enough money to survive. This is why Burning Man will always remain a playground for the financially privileged. So happy it exists and so thankful I have the resources to play with you all there. Now let’s take what we’re learning and help others less fortunate build their wealth to awesomeness or help the less awesome wealthy learn to spent it on the awesome to make them more awesome. Funny that I kept saying Awesomenessnessnessnessness as my slogan at the burn this year… Soap box over.

  • http://www.ecoartopia.com gigi blossom

    Best article about Burning Man I have seen in years! Thank you for this perspective which is just scratching the surface of the ways that Burning Man (which has now become a Global event with Decompressions and Regionals in hundreds of cities worldwide) ripples out into the mainstream and is creating shifts in culture, commerce, consciousness, fashion, design, organizational managment and more.

    Alas, money DOES make you cool out there if you donate it to fund a major Camp, art project or art car. (Though mostly funding for these things happens collectively, with 250 people each contributing $150, for example.)

    By the way, a friend of mine sold his startup to Google during a meeting at Burning Man with Larry and Sergei, so startups DO get funded there. And many products we take for granted were created by people who go to Burning Man, which includes the inventors of core technologies inside the iPad, Macintosh, Sun Microsystems, Cisco’s router and more. And it’s absolutely not a coincidence that Hollywood and Bollywood and ad agencies converge at Burning Man and that the fashion sense of Burners has influenced movies like Avatar and the stage shows of Britney, Madonna and Cirque du Soleil.

    I do help co-lead and co-create Burning Man Art Projects. And yes, I am also a corporate PR and social media start up and turn around consultant. Folks, I can do both of these things at a very high level … from managing 150 volunteers building in the middle of a 70 mph dust storm, to helping a start up raise $100 million in VC funding, to managing a paid staff and a budget of $800,000. Most of the projects out there are managed by people who have “professional” experience in the “default world” — but we find that not only are our imaginations stretched out there, but we also reach and exceed our edge and go to very high levels of responsibility and commitment. BECAUSE WE CARE ABOUT WHAT WE ARE CREATING AND WE ARE IN CHARGE. Caring about what you do is the magical elixir that creates magnificence!

  • Nikster

    This is a great writeup. It gets more to the point of what Burning Man really is. I think the few basic rules at burning man – no money, art, and freedom to do as you please – make this into a place where spirits are rejuvenated. Burning man is not about raves, parties, drugs, and not even about art – it’s about the human spirit itself. If burning man seems more real than the “default world” – then that’s because it is. On day two or three, when people have acclimatized, they start to find a joy that comes deep from within.

    At the end of burning man, everyone is beautiful. Quite literally. I was sitting there on Monday after the temple burn, just watching people pass by. And they were a collection of the most beautiful people I had ever seen. Everyone was glowing from within. I remember thinking: What are the odds? Aren’t there all kinds of people? Why is everyone so beautiful? That’s burning man. Your true nature shines through and at the same time, you can see everyone else’s true nature. Bliss. For the cynics: I never take drugs at burning man – I don’t want to miss out.

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  • Cottontail

    Yes, but you can’t eat Awesome. Somebody has to make money/ tokens.

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