The Burning Man festival held every year on the desolate salt flats of Nevada is usually associated with the culturally avant tech crowd of the Bay Area – an image that is accurate as far as it goes. But the event is really much richer in implication than that. Burning Man is a rare space in modern industrial culture that actually invites people to give expression to some of their deepest artistic impulses and cultural fantasies while requiring them to show significant self-responsibility, cooperation and social concern. It is an immersive enactment of a different spirit of living that actually carries over into "real life" after the event itself.
Burning Man is a one-week commons of 60,000-plus people that has occurred every year since 1986. The event is, as Peter Hirshberg puts it, “a pop-up city of self-governing individualists.” That’s the title of his chapter in a new book, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond: The Quest for Identity and Autonomy in a Digital Society, which I co-edited with John Henry Clippinger of ID3. (The chapter -- copied below -- is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonComercial-ShareAlike license 3.0 license. The book is available in print and ebook editions, and also at the ID3 website.)
Hirshberg is a former Apple executive and tech entrepreneur who is now chairman of Re:imagine Group and cofounder of the Gray Area Center for Arts and Technology in San Francisco. He’s also been a Burner for years.
When Hirshberg told me more about Burning Man (which I’ve never attended), I was astonished when I first read the “Ten Principles of Burning Man,” which cofounder Larry Harvey wrote in 2004 to convey the cultural ethos of the encampment. The ten principles have enormous moral and social appeal and serve as a functional blueprint for a better way of living. The principles (discussed at greater length below) call on all Burners to honor radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.
As you will see by reading Hirshberg’s chapter, the Burning Man principles are not idle abstractions; they are a lived reality for one week in the desert under extremely harsh natural conditions (heat, blowing sand, no water, only the stuff that you’ve brought along). The ten principles of Burning Man are a wonderfully vivid, passionate elaboration of some of the core design elements that sober-minded social scientists often ascribe to the commons.
Burning Man helps us remember that design principles of commons need not be MEGO experiences (“My Eyes Glaze Over”). They are the essence of what it means to be fully human.
Burning Man: The Pop-Up City of Self-Governing Individualists
By Peter Hirshberg
When friends first started telling me about Burning Man in the 1990s it made me nervous. This place in a harsh desert, where they wore strange clothes or perhaps none at all. Why? Whole swaths of my San Francisco community spent much of the year building massive works of art or collaborating on elaborate camps where they had to provide for every necessity. They were going to a place with no water, no electricity, no shade and no shelter. And they were completely passionate about going to this place to create a city out of nothing. To create a world they imagined – out of nothing. A world with rules, mores, traditions and principles, which they more or less made up, and then lived.