WIRED: Open Source is Like Burning Man

Is there something in the air? It seems that the theme for this Spring is tech moguls dropping Burning Man references. Burning Man, the Maker world, and the tech world are about to converge for a weekend at BurnerHack. Some people trace the demise of Burning Man to 1996, with the event’s first coverage in WIRED magazine in Bruce Sterling’s article. WIRED and Burning Man have always gone hand in hand, as have Burning Man and  tech. Despite the naysayers, they’re all still going strong. Right now it seems to be de riguer to work Burning Man into whatever you’re promoting to the technology world.

WIRED has recently done a story on Monty Taylor of Hewlett-Packard and OpenStack, the NASA backed offspring of the Rainbow Mansion that aims to run much of the infrastructure of the Internet. Monty is the engineer in charge of “Continuous Integration” for the OpenStack project, meaning he’s the gate keeper for all the developers out there who submit code to be integrated to the core. He’s a Burner, he wears pink sunglasses (Robot Heart, one wonders?), and he likens the open source movement in the software world to Burning Man:


Monty Taylor posing on New York’s fashionable High Line (photo Wired/Andrew White)

Though engineers are so often caricatured as single-minded introverts, Monty Taylor is an extrovert with a taste for more than software. “He’s super-technical,” says Mark Collier, who worked with Taylor at Rackspace and is now on staff at the OpenStack Foundation, the not-for-profit that oversees the project. “But he’s also so personable.”

No, you wouldn’t call him a typical software developer. But he’s not as far from the norm as he may seem. Whatever the stereotypes, software development is a social activity, and this is particularly true of massive open source projects like OpenStack. Taylor compares OpenStack to Burning Man, where a vast array of individuals, each with his own agenda, come together and share common ground. The OpenStack CI service is the tool that keeps this community going, ensuring that the collective doesn’t turn to chaos.

I’m always making big Burning Man metaphors,” Taylor says. “We want to give developers as much freedom as we can, but if you give them too much freedom, it turns into anarchy. You have to have a certain amount of structure and rules.”

Open Stack seems to be a combination of several “skunkworks” type projects being conducted by NASA, Google, and others, all rolled up into one in the salon at the Rainbow Mansion. It’s open to the world, and backed by more than 150 companies, including some of the tech world’s biggest:

So much software they needed a container

So much software they needed a container

OpenStack has many founders across NASA, Rackspace, and beyond. But several of the most important players were a regular part of the tech commune that thrives at the Rainbow Mansion, including Chris C. Kemp, 34, one of the freethinkers who founded the Mansion when they joined NASA’s Ames Research Center in 2006. “We were just looking for a place to live,” says Kemp. “But it turned into a place where the idea was to recruit interesting people — interesting people to have dinner with, to run into in the common areas, to be around a lot — people who could expand our understanding of the world.”

Kemp went on to become the chief information officer at Ames and later the chief technology officer of NASA as a whole. While there, working alongside several others with close ties to the Rainbow Mansion, he spearheaded the creation of NASA Nebula, an effort to bring Google’s web genius to the rest of the world. And after two years of struggle, a key part of this project — an open source platform called Nova — would merge with a complementary platform from Rackspace and give birth to OpenStack.

Like Linux, OpenStack is a bit of a miracle. The odds were against Kemp even getting Nebula off the ground at NASA — not only because it’s somewhat tangential to the agency’s mission, but because the NASA bureaucracy was so unsuited to the creation of something openly shared with the rest of the world. And NASA is only half the story. It’s even more remarkable that a project created at NASA would so quickly find a home among the giants of the tech world.

“This could have fallen apart in a million different ways, from the beginning. In fact, it all seemed impossible,” says Rick Clark, who worked at Rackspace when OpenStack was in its infancy and now helps drive the project at Cisco. “You have to please NASA and the NASA legal team and the Rackspace legal team and the Rackspace board of directors, and you have to do it in a way that still have something that’s palatable to developers everywhere else. It’s amazing that it actually happened.”

hive cubeOpen Source software means anyone can contribute to it; this shift in the concept of intellectual property has revolutionized the software industry, gutting the market for application software developers who are now lucky to get $3 in the App Store for their masterpieces. Google and Facebook were built on massive server farms running Linux, the variant of the UNIX operating system kernel developed as Open Source by Finland’s Linus Torvalds in 1991. The low-cost, easily modifiable software stack meant their server farms cost less to build and operate than their competitors. It’s safe to say that most of the Internet runs on open source these days – which still hasn’t stopped companies like Microsoft and Oracle making money. Their profits have increased, but some of their monopoly has been passed back to the people. This model is what is needed as evolution careens on its unstoppable course towards the Singularity…information wants to be free. The infrastructure and systems that govern our lives should be created by the people, and transparent to all – not purchased from IBM and Accenture for multi-billion dollar sums, the same systems sold over and over again to government departments and large corporations. Open source software is always evolving, can always be improved. It is free, made by the people, by those who want to share their skills and efforts for the benefit of anyone else who appreciates it.

slow progressSound like anything familiar? In likening the open source movement to Burning Man, Monty makes the point that “without some rules, it descends into anarchy – which is true, but misses the larger point about the organization of human beings. We need leadership, not just rules. Sure, we need rules. Without leadership, rules descend into bureaucracy, blandness, even tyranny. Rules for the sake of having more rules. This is kind of like the role Standards play in Open Source – a convenient way for the corporate interests to put their fingerprints all over emerging technologies, slowing down and steering their development in the name of “Open Standards” (which is not the same thing as Open Source). The Open Source projects that seem to work best are the ones where there is a media-friendly character involved, a geek prepared to have a slightly higher profile than the others perhaps. The mainstream media might have no idea who these characters are, but enough of the geeks know that they have the street cred required to get others to follow them.

This same point seems to be missed by Google’s Larry Page, in calling for “spaces without rules” where experimentation can take place. I agree we need these spaces – but even more, we  need the tribes that will fill them, the scouts who will convince the leaders to bring more of their tribe. In the nightclub world these would be called promoters, in the tech world they are called “thought leaders”. At BMOrg I believe the title is “social alchemist”. These tribes can operate in existing spaces and within existing rules, Burning Man is an example of a space (and challenge) that greatly facilitates the formation and connections of these tribes. What do they do to promote these tribes, and help them prosper? What sort of leadership do they provide to the inhabitants of their Temporary Autonomous Zone – and what will that look like in the future?


The Rainbow Mansion (photo Wired/Ariel Zambelich)

Back to OpenStack:

That’s what OpenStack is: a way for the rest of the world to compete with Amazon. “Amazon [is] at war with every IT vendor out there,” says Sebastian Stadil, the CEO of an open source cloud management outfit Scalr, the founder of the Silicon Valley Cloud Computing group, and a former resident of the Rainbow Mansion. “I think one of the reasons OpenStack is getting so much traction — despite, to be frank, iffy stability — is that it represents the industry’s only hope to survive.”

All these massive companies – and NASA! – teaming up just to fight in a war against Amazon, over a business that’s not even doing $1 billion a year? With technology coming to us from the Rainbow Mansion, 15 minutes down the road from NASA Ames? And it’s our only hope to survive? Something smells fishy to me here. This has the pungent reek of 20th century thinking, nicely packaged in a fetid veneer of pseudo-openness. It stinks of open source for the wrong reasons. It seems more like the eternal cycle of computing, from the server room to the client and back again. A whole new excuse to sell hardware and services to customers who already bought them 5 years ago when the buzzwords were different.

Anyway, the point is that  Open Source ultimately wins over proprietary monopoly. If BMOrg want to monopolize their control over Burning Man, they will eventually be subsumed by something more open. People want their voices to be heard. Information wants to be free. The energy and spirit of Burning Man want to be free too, and gifted to the world.

Burning Man is the epitome of the crowd-sourced event. The cremé-de-la-cremé of BYO parties. But in a way, the rules for it get crowd-sourced too. It starts with the 10 Principles – what are they, Rules? Commandments? Then rules get added to the mix from BMOrg, from the authorities, from Burners doing stupid stuff. New ideas, new rules. Every year, more people, more rules. Without leadership, the creativity will be stifled by the imposition of systemic authority. You can see this happen all day long in Silicon Valley – the founders get kicked out of the company once it grows past a couple of hundred people, the early staff quit, because it’s “not the same” as things get bigger and more complicated and the rules come in. This is why big companies can’t innovate – they just buy innovation with their giant treasure troves.

Here’s what Monty thinks about the rules:

Taylor and team have also built a tool called Zuul, a means of efficiently testing the enormous amounts of code produced by the project, and unlike most CI systems, it tests all code before it’s merged into the collective, so that the community can move as one — and move much quicker.

The other key thing to realize, Taylor says, is that the process is automatic. No human can merge new code into the project without the approval of the system. With a massive project like OpenStack, he explains, you need a process that doesn’t favor the wishes of any one contributor. You don’t want anarchy, but you don’t want dictatorship either.

“You can’t have human enforcement of the rules. That lends itself to corruption. We want rules to — as much as possible — be sensible and machine-enforced. You can’t have someone laying down a rule because they don’t like you. They have to be rules that apply to everyone.”

The ultimate aim is to create a project that is truly communal — the sort of thing that so rarely happens in the real world. “We can’t do this in normal human life,” Taylor says, “but we can do it in source code.”


"The Freaks Come Marching-In" - they asked Burners to draw self-portaits. Image credit Todd Berman

“The Freaks Come Marching-In” – they asked Burners to draw self-portaits. (Todd Berman)

We can’t do this in normal human life – but Burning Man has the size, ingenuity, and weirdness that maybe it could be a chance for us to create a project that is truly communal. Not controlled by a small group of privileged insiders. And  not just in one way, repeated ad infinitum…but on an ongoing, repeatable basis. For example, why do we have to build the same city layout, again and again? Is it for occult reasons? We want to change things, then “Jupiter” becomes “Juniper”, and we can all feel more edgy? Let’s mix it up a bit. Experiment with different ways of living together, and see what lessons we learn. Try something new, and burn it at the end. If not at this event, then perhaps other, new ones to come.

Free Software Guru, Rochard Stallman

Free Software Guru, Rochard Stallman

Burning Man can have increasingly more rules and still thrive, so long as there is leadership. They would do well to learn from the successes of Open Source, and ideas like Burner Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons. Burning Man is the ultimate creative commons, in the original sense of the term commons. Now Lessig, and Open Source demigod Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, and even the Pirate Party which is gaining legitimate political support in Europe, are promoting the next big thing: the Free Culture movement. Enrich humanity, by sharing our cultural heritage with each other. Hollywood and the record companies still make money, Burning Man will still make money.

Since BMOrg do not exploit our photos for their own commercial gain, why do they need to have such onerous copyright policies? Why not use a creative commons license, so that we can all share together the rich tapestry of unique culture that we create and add to with every Burn. Sure, there’s stuff on YouTube, but we could do better. Everyone’s experience at Burning Man could be shared with everyone else – if they chose. Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat – we live in a world of sharing now. Not taking, controlling, hoarding. Sharing, giving, remixing, improving. Burning Man would only gain from this way of thinking, and so would the Burner community. It’s the value of the inclusive approach – it’s a party that’s created by its participants, so encourage their participation in the design and governance of the city, and the spread of the movement. Don’t try to own and control; instead give, and share, and open, and include. Its 2013, we speak the Language of We. Sharing is the new owning.

4 comments on “WIRED: Open Source is Like Burning Man

  1. Pingback: The Spark of Controversy | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

  2. Pingback: Dance, My Friends | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

  3. Excellent analysis and prescription for building a better Burning Man!

    We wholeheartedly agree, consider Partying to be the ultimate Open-Source medium, and have focused our energies thus- creating the boombox-powered mobile Party known only as the “Decentralized Dance Party” or “DDP”.

    From our website:
    “Much like Open-Source software, a DDP is a peer-produced, collaborative undertaking. Everyone pools their talents and energies to create and refine an ever-evolving manifestation of their hearts’ desires. People build sound systems in shopping carts and baby carriages, construct insane backpack-borne laser light shows, crowd-surf each other up escalators, construct hilarious costumes, and perform epic dance routines for everyone to enjoy. It all coalesces into an anarchic explosion of collaborative creativity that drives the energy and excitement to unimaginable heights.”

    Open-Source and Decentralization are certainly the wave of the future and principles we strive to promote and exemplify to the greatest degree possible.

    And we’ve recently thrown several Open-Source-Themed DDPs, including one on the Playa at BM 2012.

    Accordingly, you may wish to check it all out 🙂

    Gary Lachance

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