Big Brother is Counting You

Since 2002, at the instigation of Maid Marian, Burning Man has had a Census, run since 2004 by the Countess. Volunteers could answer questions at Center Camp, and the information (well, some of it) would be released in the Afterburn Report.

In keeping with this year’s Fertility 2.0 theme, and today’s broader political theme of replacing hard-won freedom with corporate-sponsored imperial government, Burning Man has changed the way they implement the Census.

Now Google phone-wielding statistics stormtroopers will be raiding your RV to interrogate you.

Don’t be surprised if a group of lab coat-clad scientists descends upon your vehicle as you approach the Greeters station this year. You might just be one of the lucky ones selected by the Census Samplers! These eager burning nerds are keen to include you in a scientific probability sample of Black Rock City’s population. They’re gathering data to get a more accurate picture of who is attending Burning Man this year.


Note that nowhere in the announcement does it say “you may opt out of the Census” if you’ve been selected by the lab-coated nerds. Just like the TSA doesn’t tell you that you have the right to turn around and walk out of the airport, if you don’t want a pat down.

Why the change? It seems they don’t believe what Burners have told them in the past. Perhaps they want to validate the information they’ve collected on the Playa, with the secret census results collected during this year’s ticket lottery process.

We don’t know if the people who voluntarily filled out the Census were truly representative of the citizens of BRC.

So, this year Census volunteers (this could be you!) will conduct a systematic random sample of vehicles entering the event. Census Samplers will ask a small number of participants to answer a small number of questions. They will enter the data into a smartphone and then be on their way. The statisticians at the Census Lab (located in Center Camp) are going to use the data collected by the Census Samplers to correct the results of the larger sample. In the end, we will have a scientifically valid picture of the population of Black Rock City. And as they say at the Census—knowledge is power!

You know what knowledge we in the Burner community would like?

  1. Who’s on the World’s Biggest Guest List?
  2. What theme camps were bestowed with “ticket love” from BMOrg, and which were given the cold shoulder?
  3. How was the ticket lottery algorithm used to separate tickets between newbies and experienced Burners, and Bay Area residents and everyone else?

Something tells me, these questions won’t be in the Census, and BMOrg has no desire to share this knowledge with the Burner community, no matter how powerful it might be.

Who does get the data on us? Quite an extensive list:

Volunteers include professors, students, staff, and researchers from UC Los Angeles, University of Denver, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Essex, Florida International University, UC Berkeley, University of Victoria, Royal Roads University, and Université du Québec à Montréal. The results are distributed at the Census Lab in Black Rock City, in the AfterBurn report online, and in academic publications. The information is also used by the Burning Man organization to better represent the interests of the people of Black Rock City.

The way they describe this, it sounds like it’s all warm and fuzzy, it’s solely for our benefit and the community owns all the information…but this is not true. For example, the reason stated for the change in policy is that 42% of last year’s respondents described themselves as an “Artist”, and BMOrg wants to statistically validate that with random samplings. However, the results of this question do not appear at all in the 2011 Afterburn Report.

Why not share all the data?

In the past, I have freely volunteered my details, answering the Census gives you something to do in Center Camp while you’re waiting for your coffee to cool down to a drinkable temperature, or waiting for your mates in the line.

No more. It’s bad enough when governments try to force us to compulsorily provide personal information to them in a Census, let alone a bunch of dusty hippies with recycled Androids. Next Burning Man will want to strip search me and grope my genitals, to protect me from terrorists. If you are selected for “special questioning”, fight back against the Man, with bullshit answers.


7 comments on “Big Brother is Counting You

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