Monday, September 07, 2015

A Capitalist Visits Burning Man

"You?  And Ben?  Going to Burning Man?"

When my friend, co-author, and business partner Ben Casnocha and I announced that we were going to Burning Man, the reactions we received, both in person and on social media, ranged from disbelief to shocked disbelief.

My typical in-person response was, "Why are you so surprised?  Is it because I hate the outdoors?  Despise hippies*?  Don't do drugs?  Avoid parties?  Enjoy sleeping?  Dislike electronic dance music and any dancing outside a ballroom?"

* It's important to understand the context of my allergy to hippies; I grew up in Santa Monica, with classmates who had names like Rainbow, Cinnamon, and Blaze.  Wealthy hippiedom was the dominant culture, and was less focused on generosity and giving and more on ostentatious self-righteousness.  Throw in the fact that hippiedom during this era was anti-science and anti-technology, and you can understand how my feelings developed.  Spending the summer in Santa Cruz in 1999 didn't help.

The irony is that I believe that many of Burning Man's attendees go for the hedonism, cloaked in the guise of community.  Since I don't have any vices that Burning Man satisfies, the only reason to go was for the art, community, and experience.  I can't speak for Ben, but judging from his own Burning Man post, we went for the same reasons.

When people ask me to describe Burning Man, I've taken to calling it, "a crowdsourced bizarro Disneyland where the attendees run the attractions."  What I mean by this is that Burning Man shares a couple of crucial characteristics with Disneyland, but differs in almost every other way.

How Burning Man is like Disneyland:

  • It's a safe environment.  I wasn't worried about anything, other than choking to death on the omnipresent dust, or getting run over by an art car.  Part of this may be due to the Burning Man spirit; more cynically, I'd argue that the price tag and inconvenience make Burning Man unattractive to criminals.
  • It's clearly distinct from the everyday world.  Just like Disneyland, passing through the entrance takes you to another world.  Money isn't allowed.  Normal rules of behavior don't apply.  You expect everyone to be friendly.
  • There's an endless array of things to do.  Everywhere I went, there were exhibits, ranging from the half-assed to the breathtaking.  With 70,000 attendees, there were probably thousands of camps that welcomed visitors.
How Burning Man is not like Disneyland:
  • No central organization.  There's no helpful cast members who ask if you need help if you look confused for a couple of seconds.  In fact, the least friendly, least helpful person that Ben and I met the entire time was the volunteer who was staffing the central information building.  When I asked him how to find the "Geek and Greet" dinner for BRC's tech staff and vendors.  He answered gruffly, "Look on the map."  When I couldn't find it and went back, he said, "Try harder."  If that happened at Disneyland, he would have been summarily executed.
  • Constant hardship.  The dust is an enormous pain.  Even on the rare occasions when there isn't a dust storm blowing, the dust gets everywhere and makes any and every activity difficult.  I can't even imagine trying to have sex while covered in dust!  I also spent the entire time carrying a heavy backpack (to make sure I had enough water) and futzing around with my goggles and scarf to make sure they weren't leaking dust.
  • Wildly varying standards of quality.  Camps and exhibits ranged from carefully engineered to slapdash, and from awe-inspiring to profoundly lame.  The highs are higher, but the lows are lower.
  • Not family-friendly.  Duh.
I'll post my raw notes at the end of this piece (written down at 7 AM in the driver's seat of a Toyota Avalon, which is where I slept the night), but I'll focus on the highlights, lowlights, and lessons learned.


  • The spirit of radical inclusion.  I love welcoming communities, like Stanford or the Unreasonable Institute, and I found a similar feel at Burning Man.  One guy, Jeff, politely asked us to move our car (it was on top of his canvas tarp), then gave me a three-minute silent hug to welcome me to Burning Man.  I love this kind of openness (though as I noted to Ben, if he had started to move his hands down my back, I would have broken things off--not that there's anything wrong with that).
  • Enthusiasm.  Ben and I both noted that there's something incredibly appealing to us about sincere enthusiasm, whether from the scientist who told us about the geography and ecology of the Playa, or the burner who was getting ready to celebrate her 10th wedding anniversary at Burning Man.  She and her husband met at Burning Man, got married at Burning Man, and celebrated their anniversary every year at Burning Man.
  • The maker spirit.  Simon Fire Edition 2.0 was what people love about Burning Man--enthusiastic engineers who put their electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering skills to work to build a delightful and whimsical attraction.
  • The enormous scope of the event.  The playa is 2 miles across, making it the size of downtown San Francisco (but a lot more logically laid out and navigable).  I especially enjoyed the view from the 4th floor of the Altitude Lounge, which let me see nearly the entire playa.  I went in the afternoon, then went back at night to check out the night-time view.
  • The view at night.  When the sun goes down, the entire playa becomes a bizarro version of Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade.  Flashing colored lights and gouts of flame are everywhere, and rather than lasting 30 minutes, they go all night.
  • Did I mention the dust?
  • When a port-a-potty in the middle of the desert has been in use for the better part of a week, it's not a pleasant sight or smell.  Each stall contains a small mountain of human excrement which is all too visible and pungent.  I can only imagine the horror of being a woman in that environment.
  • For me, the nights, while visually stunning, are pretty unappealing.  It ultimately depends on how you feel about raves, drugs, and EDM.  The entire playa becomes a gigantic, psychedelic rave.  To me, this is the least interesting part of Burning Man.  The party sounds and feels like any other party, just in the middle of the desert.  Parties rarely offer the chance for thoughtful conversation or reflection.  (In fairness, if I were in the market for a Playa girlfriend, perhaps I would have felt differently, since then the vast quantity of gyrating, scantily-clad, intoxicated women would have been a feature, not a bug.  One of my campmates was incredibly affectionate with the woman who was obviously his girlfriend.  She was an interesting character, who was a circus acrobat from New York who did nude photography of other circus performers.  When we asked her how she'd met her boyfriend, she replied, "I met him yesterday night.")
  • Not truly a lowlight, but it did strike me that Burning Man is a remarkable case study in capitalism.  Rather than a monetary economy, it runs on an attention economy, and there is only so much attention to go around.  Attracting visitors to your camp is a winner-take-most affair; just like at a trade show, the biggest parties sweep up 90% of the party-goers.  Tons of camps were open for business, but were completely empty.  At one point, Ben and I walked past a puppet show, where the performers were performing without an audience.  (To be fair to the audience, the puppeteers weren't very good.)  When someone actually stopped, the performers were ecstatic.  Attendees who set up camps for visitors invest colossal amounts of money, time, and hard work with uncertain psychic return.

Lessons Learned for next time:
  • Rent a trailer with a toilet, sink, power, and air conditioning.
  • Noiseproof your sleeping area (if you're a light sleeper)
  • Treat it like Disneyland.  Get a copy of the guidebook, and plan out which camps you'll visit and when.  At the very least, mark the places you want to visit on the map.
  • Take advantage of the mornings--it's not yet hot or dusty, and there's still plenty to see and do 
Ultimately, I'm glad I went to Burning Man.  I freely admit that I optimized my trip to minimize downside, rather than maximize upside.  I kept the visit to 24 hours (which is actually up from my original plan of 8 hours, which would have allowed me to avoid trying to sleep in the middle of the desert).

Ironically, Burning Man was less of a physical challenge than I expected; the worst part of the trip was actually the charter flight back to the Bay Area, where I became ferociously airsick, and had to pull a Ziploc out of my backpack in case I needed an airsickness bag.

If I were to return, I'd follow my own lessons learned, and spend longer on the Playa.  We actually spent a little time in the trailer of an experienced Burning Man staffer, and it both incredibly pleasant and a huge relief from the external hardships.  Of course, renting a luxury trailer to eliminate the hardships of Burning Man is both a) expensive, and b) against the Burning Man ethos of self-reliance, so I don't know when I'll make a return trip.

Of course, if one of my readers is a member of a luxury camp and has an extra spot, let me know!  Same time next year?

Raw notes:
  • Insanely dusty.  Dust storms are constant.
  • Hands are constantly dry and covered in dust 
  • Not as hot as expected (though this year may have been unusual)
  • Trailers are awesome (provide shelter, refrigeration, air conditioning, a toilet)
  • Port-a-potties suck, and fill up with excrement
  • It's easier to interact with people during the day, versus the nightly raves
  • Lots of EDM, especially at night.  Occasionally heard a little jazz or 80s music.
  • The Playa is visually stunning at night--colored flashing lights and flames everywhere. 
  • The radial structure makes it easy to navigate, but it's still hard to find stuff
  • It's an attraction where all the attendees *are* the attractions
  • People send vast amounts of time and money to set up free clubs, art galleries, restaurants, etc.
    • I speculate that they are seeking meaning, or at least meaningful connection
  • Attracting visitors is a winner-take-most affair; just like at a trade show, the biggest parties sweep up 90% of the party-goers.  Tons of camps were open for business, but were completely empty 
  • The view from the 4th floor of the Altitude Lounge was amazing. 
  • Simon Fire Edition 2.0 was what people love about Burning Man--enthusiastic engineers who put their electrical, mechanical, and computer engineering skills to work to build a delightful and whimsical attraction.
  • People meet at Burning Man, get married at Burning Man, and celebrate their 10th anniversary at Burning Man!
  • Silently giving and receiving a three-minute hug is a very interesting experience.  You are communicating with another human being in a very unusual way.
  • I can see the appeal of Burning Man to celebrities--you have the chance to be anonymous (especially during a dust storm) and yet still be treated well
  • A party at Burning Man still sounds like a party, and if you don't like drinking, drugs, and dancing to ear-shattering EDM, they still suck
  • Over and over again, we kept saying, "That looks like something out of Mad Max."
  • I actually wished I had worn a watch; I was afraid that the dust would kill my phone!


    albertchon said...

    Great post! By the way, this too was my first burn too and I used the iBurn app which made navigating and finding interesting things a lot easier.

    I'd say that one poignant feature of Burning Man that you didn't include is the sheer serendipity that can arise if you're open to it. From bonding with people you just met on the playa or at a bar to learning about so many interesting things (Holotropic Breathwork, Internet of Things business models, psychedelic research, and yoga to just name a few of my experiences at this burn), it was great to experience more than just hedonistic pleasure.

    Definitely there are plenty of downsides (I still have playa dust on most of my things haha), but I'd say it's been worth it!

    - Albert

    Chris said...

    iBurn sounds like a lifesaver. Unfortunately, I don't have an iPhone!

    I agree that the serendipity is very powerful. Both Ben and I regretted not having time to drop in on classes, etc. I'm a big fan of unconferences, and Burning Man is the biggest unconference there is.

    David Zetland said...

    Good that you came; sad that you didn't "give it time." The BEST part about BM is the way that it wears you down til you give up (dust, noise, control etc) and then you just ARE THERE... with LOTS of other people. That's the magic.

    cfc said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Christopher Carfi said...

    Sounds like you took a lot away from the experience, Chris. What did you contribute to it?

    Chris said...


    I'd love to spend a lot longer at BRC next time. And judging from the number of veteran burners who have extolled the virtues of their trailers, I think that's the route I'd go.


    I was an appreciative audience member. Someone has to be the audience!