Why fear of a tech elite-fueled Burning Man burnout is sooo wrong
The arrival of a new generation of well-heeled techies triggers laments about counterculture ruin in the Nevada desert. Sorry, but you can put a sock in it.
Did you know that after 28 years, Burning Man has officially jumped the shark? Or at least cut the tether with its counterculture roots and become the new Davos, where tech bigwigs swarm the annual desert gathering wearing fancy outfits and bearing fat wallets.
The "arrival" of tech's elite and their money led grumpy chroniclers to complain how the latest Burning Man festival was little more than another venue for Silicon Valley's ruling class to share power lunches. And that, harrumph, harrumph, we are told, is bad. "Is Burning Man the new golf?" tweeted Wired's Steven Levy.
But a little history and context is needed here. Sure, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may have hit the playa for the first time, but Burning Man has always been a meeting and networking place for the tech elite.
This is nothing new, even if The New York Times and Gawker, not to mention San Francisco's own SFGate just looked up and noticed that some of Silicon Valley's biggest names happened to get a little dusty last week.
Burning Man has its heart in San Francisco. And that means that Silicon Valley's (well-funded) heartbeat has long been intertwined with the event. It's no wonder that those who attend Burning Man have long been at the forefront of technological innovation.
For example, the very first ever Google doodle -- those whimsical graphics Google puts up to commemorate various events -- was posted in 1998 as a placeholder while Larry Page and Sergey Brin went to Burning Man. (At Burning Man 2000, yours truly actually saw Google's co-founders head-to-toe in body paint.) Indeed, some of the tech industry's oldest guard are long-time burners, and Wired published a book about the arts festival all the way back in 1997. In fact, it used to be a truism in the late 1990s and early 2000s that Silicon Valley would shut down during Burning Man because so many tech employees would head to Nevada's Black Rock Desert to let it all hang out.
There's no denying, of course, that there's more money than ever at Burning Man. Also, the attendee population has reached proportions that have broken previous records. And yes, there are more "yahoos" -- as nonparticipating spectators are often called -- crashing the event. All that aside, this year offered the best assortment of art since I began attending Burning Man in 1998. That's not to say there have never been better individual art pieces on the playa, But when you consider the totality of what gets put on display, you could not find a better collection.
And that's crucial. No matter what people think Burning Man is -- you can try the phrase generator to come up with your own identification -- it is, at its heart, an arts festival. Luckily, there's no imminent danger of the quality of the art plummeting. One clear benefit of a larger population, and of a huge number of newbies attending, is that there are many more potential artists. And, yes, many of them have substantial resources, both financial and technical, at their disposal.
I still argue that the event is culturally richer. Art is meant to be provocative, though the presence of multi-hundred-thousand-dollar art pieces full of technology has long raised questions about whether that qualifies as counterculture. But that would be to ignore a central truth about Burning Man: This has always been a gathering where people bring their own imaginations to life -- whatever the cost. It's all about talent and imagination. From this corner, that's nothing but a good thing.
Note: I have been volunteering, in various capacities, for Burning Man since 1999.