It was only ten years ago that I remember buying a Burning Man ticket in a hippie store on Haight Street for less than half the $500 my room in a Victorian a few blocks away cost. That year, though the playa was already far more organized–some would say constrained–than in the early days of the event, the overwhelming majority of participants were largely self-sufficient, with large, organized theme camps and expensive, luxurious “plug-and-play” camps very much the exception.
In doing so, it’s lost the spirit of the frontier which made it legendary.
The connections between the changes on the playa and the shifting dynamics of innovation in Silicon Valley are, I think, increasingly direct–and point to a worrying trend in both spaces.
When I talked to Uber founder Garrett Camp at Burning Man in 2013, it was his 11th trip to the Black Rock Desert: thus, his first experience of the radical otherness of the Playa was in the time of the Hillbilly Freak Show, not the luxurious turnkey camps with which Silicon Valley is associated today.
My argument here, though, is that good startups look more like the AMC Pacer-derived NERF technical above, than the wingless airliner-turned-disco below: cheap, hacked together and totally compelling. And as I said at the start, this is not intended to be an extended metaphor: whatever contribution Burner culture made to the development of Silicon Valley’s spirit of innovation came from active participation in the punk, DIY culture typified by the early, low-budget years of the event, a culture entirely absent, by design, from the paid-for luxury experience of today’s turnkey camps.
What made being a “Burner” a valuable signal to investors and other entrepreneurs in the past was that it showed an appetite for overcoming a physically challenging environment, in the words of the mountaineer, because it’s there–and, perhaps more importantly, doing it yourself, and having fun doing it.
Uncomfortable (often literally) though it may be, simply spending money to solve problems, or rather, to have them solved for you, just isn’t as rewarding as genuinely radical self-reliance–and that means that the value of being “a burner” in Silicon Valley today is reduced to a signal of social engagement, like attending SXSW or skiing in the “right” resort, which says nothing about one’s ability to cope with adversity.
In anthropological terms, you could say attending (formerly: surviving) Burning Man switched from a costly signal of fitness, to mere consumptive display or conspicuous consumption. If you apply the same logic to an increasingly capital-bloated startup world, you can see why I think we should be worried.
Just as Silicon Valley celebrates radical innovation but, through the endless discussion of norms, expectations and how to exceed them, constructs a model of entrepreneurship which is all to easy to don as a costume without actually doing anything novel (particularly with overly generous quantities of capital available), Burning Man’s principle of self-expression apparently does nothing to counteract the emergence of a “gravity well” of relatively dull, conventional, repeatable experience when there’s a market for that product.
For those who haven’t been before, the word “burner” has a certain connotation. To those who have, “burner” encapsulates a greater hope for the human race… Both Black Rock City and Silicon Valley embody a similar cultural ethos — the encouragement of rapid prototyping, a disregard for the status quo and how things have been done before, and the self-reliance to change the world around you for the better.
Sadly, this no longer rings true: at its worst, both now embody an ethos of spending whatever it costs to show just how in tune with the status quo you are, sticking with established models, and even a reliance on underpaid workers who actually understand (and undertake) the work needed to overcome the problems which Silicon Valley takes credit for solving–on or off the Playa. This display of concern for fitting in and accrual of status by simply spending money, all the while proclaiming one’s individuality and creativity, is quite the opposite of the ethos Buhr celebrated, at what turned out to be its twilight.
Worse, the loss of self-reliance which the replacement of DIY culture with plug-and-play commerce exemplifies all too often goes along with the death of concern for “changing the world for the better.”
It may be too late for Burning Man to turn back to its roots, without changes to the event’s implementation of its founding principles which would radically disrupt the multimillion-dollar economy which has sprung up around the event. Were wage labor on the playa to be banned, for instance (perhaps with exceptions for strictly artistic installations and assistants for the disabled), or caps to be placed on camp fees (say at $1,000), I wonder how many of today’s enthusiastic attendees would return?
My bet is that among those who did, and welcomed those changes, we’d find the next generation of true innovators.
Since that proposal would be a tough sell, it may well be time for a disruptive new entrant to the Bay Area’s cultural scene–an event which generates its own strikingly original aesthetic, norms and culture. One which looks nothing like Burning Man, but embodies the same chaotic weirdness that the Cacophony Society brought to San Francisco in the 1980s–a movement which, in its turn, looked little like the Summer of Love.
Today’s cultural innovators have a wealth of material to work with. Silicon Valley should do all it can to encourage them–except pushing them towards product-market fit.