Burning Man and geek culture

Silicon Valley and it's links to the radical Burning Man festival in the desolate outback of Nevada.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor
Mother and child sculpture

Mother and child sculpture

This week is Burning Man week, and in many ways, this is Silicon Valley's unofficial alternative festival in that there are tremendous numbers of people from the Bay Area attending.

This is where Silicon Valley blows off steam. Yet Burning Man is far from a relaxing place. It is located in one of the most inhospitable places in the world, a huge dried out lake bed two hours drive outside Reno, Nevada.

Nothing grows here. This could be the surface of Mars. The temperatures at this time of year range from scorching hot, to teeth chattering freezing. Dust storms can leave you chocking on alkali dust and disoriented. And sudden rainstorms will leave you waddling through mud.

Yet out of this hellish place rises Black Rock City, which for about a week, it becomes one of the largest cities in Nevada. It has multi-story buildings, daily newspapers, dozens of radio stations, and an entire infrastructure of people and services.

And then it disappears leaving no trace at all.

It is born out of nothing, yet out of this emptiness sprout amazing art projects, theme camps, and so much more, more things than you can imagine.

Last year about 50,000 people took part. And "took part" is key to understanding Burning Man. Participation is expected of everyone, spectators are discouraged.

In one way it is a blank canvas similar to the Internet. You can build anything at Black Rock City as you can build anything on the Internet. The only bounds are safety, your imagination, and your resources. People will band together to create immensely intricate structures and theme camps.

No sponsors

Importantly, there is no commercial activity at all. You can buy ice and coffee at the central camp and that is all. You have to bring everything you need with you, and you have to bring everything out.

No commercial messages are allowed. There is no such thing as "This theme camp sponsored by Microsoft." The radio stations have no advertisements. People cover up the brand names on moving vans.

Being away from commercial messages for a week is quite an experience -- as soon as you leave you start noticing how many commercial messages we are bombarded with every minute--it's extraordinary how painful it becomes.

In many ways, the Burning Man culture mirrors the proto-communist, Digger-like cultures of the geek software engineering community and its celebration of open-source, sharing, and distrust of leaders.

Critics and naked hippies

The most vocal critics of Burning Man are always those people who have never been there. They are the ones that know all about Burning Man and they will tell you everything you need to know. To them it is just naked hippies taking drugs in the desert.

Sure, there is some nudity, but there's so much more. The amount of creativity that people bring to Burning Man is jaw dropping.

The vast expanse of the playa -- the empty space at the heart of Burning Man, acts as a canvas for spectacular art projects. My favorite part of the Burning Man experience is cycling across the playa and discovering new art.

Good for job hunting

There are a lot of Silicon Valley people that come here. This is a favorite place for Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. [It's one reason that Eric Schmidt got his job at Google, because he had been to Burning Man.]

It's been a few years since my last trip. I've been three times and each time it seemed so fragile as if it could easily be ruined by the next year. Yet it continues to survive and continues to change.

Its culture has spilled out into many regional festivals around the US and the world. And its message of "leave no trace" becomes ever more important as we grow to understand our fragile global environment.

If you get a chance to go please take it. You won't find anything like it anywhere.

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Please see:
Burning Man: A temporary world blooms in the desert

Today's Burning Man: Anarchy? Not so much

Silicon Valley's festival of Dionysus...

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