When Burning Man Gets Boring, Silicon Valley Should Worry

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. 

It has done so in the time of “luxury software” like Superhuman, Silicon Valley’s mainstreaming of both meditation and more direct consciousness hacking practices, and, equally importantly, increasingly unavoidable economic inequality. To say that Burning Man is, as French social theorist Michel Foucault would put it, a heterotopia–a playful space in which the dynamics of San Francisco are mirrored–is not entirely an original observation. If anything, though, that’s now too optimistic a take.

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.

My modest proposal is that it is the kind of person who is drawn to the kind of event that Burning Man used to be that Silicon Valley needs. The decline of Burning Man’s principle of radical self-expression into a kind of spectacular conformity–”burning” according to an increasingly prescriptive cultural recipe for producing what are loudly proclaimed to be “transformative” experiences–is mirrored in the standardization of startups that, as Del Johnson put it, tends to lead to a situation where “Boring investors pattern match to slightly less boring founders and call it innovation.”

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.

I’m sure Steve Jurvetson had a great time flying into the Burn this year, dancing at the notorious 747 art car (as we can see in his picture below) and enjoying the galaxy of lights and faux-fur clad executives that Burning Man has become.

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.

Burning Man, at its best, was a product of the same “High Weirdness” that spawned some of Silicon Valley’s greatest innovators. The mix of genius, weirdness and adversity that the event (and San Francisco, and Northern California more generally) once afforded has been lost in the productization of so-called “exceptional” experience, whether that’s the reduction of Black Rock City to block after block of catered “hotel camps” or the taming of visionary experience in the name of enhanced productivity.
I see “playing Burner,” succumbing to the lure of expensive, low-effort luxury and falling into a classic conformity trap–insisting that one is practicing radical expression by dressing and acting the way Burners are “supposed” to–as the same cultural tendency that leads to “playing startup.”

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.

In 2014–the last year before Burning Man “sold out,” literally in the sense that it did not reach the cap on the number of attendees and, in many eyes, figuratively in that this was the last year before the event became the spectacle it is today, Sarah Buhr wrote in TechCrunch, under the headline “Burning Man Is Silicon Valley,” that

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.

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