The history of Burning Man

  • Iconic site: Neil Shister, a historian of American culture, is the author of the new book Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World

    Iconic site: Neil Shister, a historian of American culture, is the author of the new book Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World

Burning Man, the weeklong celebration in the badlands of Nevada that attracts nearly 75,000 attendees annually, concluded in early September. This year’s theme was “metamorphosis”, which was chosen to mark the next stage in the life of Burning Man after the death last year of Larry Harvey, the founder and éminence grise of the event.

But even before this latest transformation, Burning Man had already transitioned into something radically different from its origins. Initially conceived as a refuge from the modern world, it has enabled the success of tech wizards, whose embrace of the event ironically threatens to undo the humanism Harvey passionately evangelised.

On the night of the 1986 summer solstice, Larry Harvey and a pal dragged a Jerry-rigged wooden concoction down to Baker Beach in San Francisco and burnt it.

A handful of others on the beach gathered around the bonfire, and Harvey was so deeply touched by the shared camaraderie of the evening that he decided to do it again the next year. Burning Man was born. By year four, the crowd had grown so large and the effigy so big — 40ft tall — that the police shut down the event.

Undeterred, Harvey and a crew of San Francisco bohemian anarchists called the Cacophonist Society headed to the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, Nevada. In the vast space of the desert, they drove vehicles at breakneck speed, fired shotguns from the back of moving pickups and — as the climax of their camping trip — engaged in a ceremonial torching of the effigy that provided the whole extravaganza with its name: Burning Man.

In the years that followed, Burning Man became a phenomenon, as thousands, then tens of thousands, of people flocked to the event. The outrageous visuals of Burning Man attracted media attention: attendees wore outlandish costumes or ran around naked, branding Burning Man as bacchanalia in the badlands.

By the mid-1990s, though, something else was going on that the media missed. More than simply bacchanalia and nudity, the event started developing a culture, guided by Harvey’s vision.

The culture encouraged radical initiatives while tempering unfettered individual freedom with a shared sense of collective social responsibility. Harvey developed ten principles to guide the event, not as dogma, but as descriptors of how things worked — a kind of philosophical playbook around which the outlandish culture cohered. These principles held the wild-and-woolly scene together, gave it an architecture and served as guardrails to keep the “citizens” of Black Rock City from rolling over the cliff.

In contrast to its forebears in the mid-19th century, an era when people were collectively energised through the millennial movements, Burning Man inspired a following without becoming a religion. Harvey thought of himself not as a prophet, but a social engineer. His favourite thinker was William James and he embraced ideas from pragmatism in action. As a result, setting out the ten principles led to experimentation rather than rigidity.

Yet there was one key idea that Harvey adhered to and positioned Burning Man to revolve around: humanism. “Soul” was a word he used frequently to celebrate innate human sentiments that he worried were being stamped out by neoliberal consumption capitalism. Through Burning Man, he shared his confidence that if the innate “humanness” of people prevailed, the world would be a better place. His role, he felt, was to create a context where more people could share in a particular version of the human experience.

Many of the attendees embrace Harvey’s humanism and that spirit brings them back to the desert year after year. But there are other Burners, as frequent attendees are called, who enjoy the freedom of the event, but who prioritise technology over soul.

And as the event has grown in scale, and the tech industry itself has become more powerful in US culture, tech-oriented Burners are having an increasing impact on the culture.

In part because of its home in the Bay Area and its quirky ethos, the tech industry has long had a subculture that embraces Burning Man. In 1996, Wired magazine, the bible of the tech revolution, put the event on the cover, proclaiming it “the new American holiday”.

The very first “doodle” to appear on Google’s homepage in 1998 was a stick-figure man that served as an “out-of-the-office” message informing visitors that the entire garage-based company had gone to Burning Man.

The roster of tech icons who are Burners is legion. Sightings of Jeff Bezos are common. Mark Zuckerberg arrived one year by helicopter. Elon Musk is famously quoted saying “Burning Man is Silicon Valley”.

Just this year, Shane Metcalf, co-founder and chief culture officer of 15Five, a digital management feedback platform with clients such as MailChimp and the American Red Cross, offered to buy his employees’ tickets: “We think that going to Burning Man opens your world to higher levels of creativity that you ever knew were possible.”

The links between the tech industry and Burning Man are deep. The desert event showcased a collaborative approach to work that the industry has copied. A process now referred to as “commons-based peer production” in the industry had one of its first iterations at Burning Man. In a scene where “everybody participates, nobody spectates”, creativity springs forth abundantly. Anybody with the right stuff can contribute to the solution regardless of rank, title or position in the pecking order.

Among other Silicon Valley firms, Google borrowed heavily from this approach in its governance. On the eve of the company’s IPO, its founders wrote a letter to investors to make sure they understood what they were buying into. The company intended to give their engineers 20 Per Cent Time, free rein to independently pursue projects of their own choosing “working on what they think will most benefit Google”.

The creativity, humanism and ideals about collective social responsibility of Burning Man appealed to engineers and investors who aimed to create new technologies and new ways of seeing the world. Indeed, inspiration from Burning Man’s humanism propelled the early days of Silicon Valley and helped engineers frame their work as making the world a better, more open, place.

But as the tech industry became more powerful in US society, its humanist impulses have given way to a different world view. For all that Google drew from humanism and the ethos of Burning Man, its engineers also advanced other innovations, like algorithm-driven artificial intelligence — perhaps the opposite of Harvey’s centring of “soul”.

Harvey himself had deep concerns the growing cult of technology. The final Burning Man theme he produced in 2018 was “I, Robot”, a challenge to his community to ponder the consequences of willingly surrendering their souls to AI machines. “There are people who want to have chips in their heads,” he lamented to me in our last conversation. “Can you imagine that?”

As the annual event in the desert grew in scale, attracting tens of thousands of people, including extremely wealthy tech stars who could fund expensive, exclusive camps at Black Rock, it became a centre of power, a place to network and be seen. Harvey’s critiques of neoliberalism, capitalism and consumer culture receded as tech utopianism ascended.

A future where human beings eagerly seek machines to replace themselves was anathema to Harvey’s vision for Burning Man. But, ironically, it was his vision and skill in fashioning an operative humanist culture that helped inspire the very companies that now seek to reduce consciousness to algorithms.

Neil Shister, a historian of American culture, is the author of the new book Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World

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Published Oct 21, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 21, 2019 at 7:41 am)

The history of Burning Man

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