Mining the Minds of the Founders

cargo cult ticketsWe’re the ignorant natives, and they’re John Frum. Or, at least, the flying saucer is. That’s what it’s all about this year with Cargo Cult – my favorite theme ever, I’m hoping when we get there in just over a month, it’s gonna be Burning Man meets the islands meets even more spaceships than usual.

Recently, Burning Man Founders Larry Harvey and Marian Goodell were in Paris for the Le Web conference. At a public meeting at La Dame de Canton, organized by the French Burners association, they give an entertaining and revealing interview. The French audience want to know about the links between Burning Man, hallucinogens, the tech industry, and the “hippy intelligentsia” of California:

french burnersLet me summarize some of the things I found interesting.

Marian’s comment that “when the company started to create the culture, not the Burners, we had to start a new non-profit structure for control“. I absolutely agree, as we’ve been saying from the start, Burners create the party, not BMOrg. It’s our culture, not Black Rock City, LLC’s. If it develops and changes in the future, it will be because we create and invent and play and paint and take it there. Bureaucracies don’t foster innovation.

This is a great message to hear from the real leadership of Burning Man. I think this is a clever move on their part, and it gives me hope for the future. The future of Burning Man might not be merely a linear extension of the current trajectory: more people, more rules, more bureaucracy, more petty politics, and, of course, ever-increasing ticket prices. Maybe a fresh new team can create a “Burning Man 2.0” from the interplay between the Burning Man Project and the Regionals that Marian hopes will someday be bigger than the Black Rock City event. Something that preserves the essential elements of this culture that we all love, and lets us consider a reset of some of the things that have overshot too much in one particular direction… so that the “good” Burning Man is the one that grows and spreads around the world, without some of the dead weight.

When asked “how did you come up with the 10 Principles?“, Larry’s answer is not at all about the event – his answer is about how to organize Burners into smaller, collaborative groups, when they go back to their lives outside Burning Man. “In the Burning Man community, people aren’t eager to follow what’s told to them by authority…and history since then has convinced us that the 10 Principles describe those actions by which we manifest which we want…”

“…people will go home and they won’t want to stop being the way they were there, they’ll want to do something together with a purpose, with something transcendant at the center, with all these values…be your own app. We’re not going to feed you the app. We’ll just help everybody work together”…that is, unless your purpose is working together to put on a fundraiser for your camp, in which case you’d better make damn sure you don’t use the words Burning Man or use any photos that look like they could be from the event.

Larry says, “I was doing Burning Man well before the project”. I would talk the teachers into letting me do things with others, recruit people to make scenery, do something subversive in the projects, then explain to the adults so that they would see that…in that sense I’ve wished for Burning Man since I can remember, I just didn’t know what it was…We never think about competition – if it’s like us, then it is us

I find Larry’s comments insightful. They see themselves as social engineers. OK, so they’re throwing a party for a week, 60,000 people are coming, they have to cultivate a pleasant cultural experience for those people, in exchange for their $400. Right? Well, no. All they do for that, in terms of social engineering, is come up with a theme every year. We do the rest. Larry and Marian have their eyes on the big prize: our hearts and minds. Their interest is in engineering our social lives in the other 51 weeks when we’re in the rest of the world away from the Playa. We are all like little apps in the iPhone  Google Play store. What app we want to be when we go back to the world as different people with our lives changed forever, is up to us. When we go back to Meatspace, we can create world history, through the creativity and collaboration Burning Man has taught us. They can help everybody think more alike towards each other, and change the way money is used in the world.

I don’t know about you guys, but when I get home from Burning Man and see my credit card statement for all that shit I bought on the way up – all that gas, grass, Goose and glowsticks – I’m all too aware of how money is used in the Default world. Reality comes back with a thud.

When they start talking about tech, the claims start to become, well, eyebrow-raising to say the least. Burning Man and Google are similar, “We and Sergei both started in garages at the same time“. And then Google put some photos of Burning Man in their lobby, and “they began piling up, depopulating Silicon Valley “. Oh please. He thinks the boom in Class A real estate in San Francisco since the market crash of 2008, is related to Burning Man moving their HQ from SOMA to Central Market. Burning Man went to a party in the desert, and got a permit from the government. Then they sold tickets to their event, and promoted it through magazines like Wired, TV shows like Malcolm in the Middle, and word of mouth around the tiny 7 x 7 mile patch called San Francisco that is the second richest city in America. I mean, good on them for their success, but it’s not exactly Nikola Tesla. Or Burner Elon Musk.

Google invented a crucial, revolutionary technology, a patented algorithm that was a breakthrough in computer science; they made some radical early stage decisions on how to grow and scale that turned out to be prescient, and gave them a significant competitive advantage; then they executed flawlessly to build an incredible business that has disrupted hundreds of industries, enabled thousands of others, and made $55 billion in accumulated profits. One of the most successful and valuable companies in the history of the world. BMOrg struggles to even count the take at the gate, getting it wrong by more than a million dollars, after nearly 30 years of throwing parties.

And then…just when you think Larry Harvey’s already drawing a pretty long bow, to associate this desert dance party with either the founding of Google or the mass migration of the tech industry north of Palo Alto…then he compares Burning Man to the Internet itself. “Burning Man’s like the Internet, because they’re both new frontiers”. Of course, although they’re alike, the Internet comes out second in Mr Harvey’s Weltanschauung.

ski goggleSounds like they’re on some good charlie in Paris, if you ask me. Some of that Fashion week shit, you know the stuff where you’re Bono and you wear rose-tinted sunglasses and all of a sudden you think you’re bigger than the Pope. Nice work if you can get it!

8 comments on “Mining the Minds of the Founders

  1. Though I got all teary when Marian marveled about 60,000! Burners in the desert, “amazing!” She exclaims, in awe of it all… I mean it is, quel fou, big ups and all that, but a little gilding of the lily, n’est-ce pas? Yeah, it’s huge, it is a paradigm and a shift, but the ten principles and the navel gazing get a wee bit cloying de temps en temps… Just saying.

    • Founders of what? Founders of Burning Man? Or Founders of Burning Man as a legal entity? Burning Man was pretty well established by 96 or 97. (this isn’t a knock on Marian. she’s worked hard since joining up)

      • I’m just interested in what/who other personalities you consider to be key founders. Larry was there on Baker Beach in the 80’s with effigies of “girl + dog at golden gate sunset”. Which sounds pretty rad to me, I wanted to live in Seacliff for a while

        Thanks to the Burner community, we recently had a Burnileaks style whistleblower, sharing the tale of how the DOOF got brought – shit you can’t get off Wikipedia, capital L Legendary. A story that needed to be told. If you’re into the Raving you can find that somewhere on this blog, ravers know that sometimes they have to hunt for that shit.

        Other key founders? Chicken John? Danger Ranger? John Law? I wasn’t into it back then, so any knowledge you have, please help. I believe there’s always more history than what gets written in the books, and this is an open forum for Burners to share their stories, photos, opinions, whatever.

        No-one at this blog is knocking Marian, they’re lucky to have her and I know she’s a fan of Burners.Me (like about half the party, but maybe 0% of BMOrg). We are 110% behind her comments that when the organization starts to create the culture, it’s time for a new, non-profit organization, and an adjustment of the petri dish so that the new experiment is the way it grows, spreads, and interacts with itself around the world. The creative and artistic hotspots of Gaia will naturally draw Burning Man in…if the current 160 Regionals don’t.

        In the world of software, you usually discard the first one or two prototypes. Not because you were wrong about the engineering; just because you engineered it then with a different set of constraints, from what you must deal with later once you’ve proven the model. When the constraints change, the architecture probably has to change. Adapt, adjust, encourage, support…survive.

  2. FYI… Maid Marian is far from being a “founder”! She first became involved in BM sometime around 1996 or 1997.

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