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