Emily Witt from the New York Observer is going to have her first book “Future Sex” published next year. Presumably, there’s a bit of a buzz about it, because the London Review of Books has just published a 4000 word essay on her experiences at Burning Man. It’s a really good read, here are some highlights:
I wanted to go to Burning Man because I saw the huge festival in the Nevada desert as the epicentre of the three things that most interested me in 2013: sexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs and futurism. But everyone said Burning Man was over, that it was spoiled. The event, which requires those who attend to bring their own food, water and shelter and dispose of their own trash, was overrun with rich tech people who defied the festival’s precious tenet of radical self-reliance with their over-reliance on paid staff. Burning Man, which started in 1986 when twenty people burned an effigy on a beach, was turning into a dusty version of Davos. Old-timers lamented the rise of ‘plug and play’ culture. There were too many LEDs now, too many caravans, too many generators, tech executives, and too much electronic dance music. There were TED talks. There were technolibertarians. You couldn’t see the stars.
…I would decide for myself. I rented a caravan with six other people, a group organised by a friend in San Francisco. If someone were to draw a portrait of the people who were ‘ruining Burning Man’ it would have looked like us. With one exception the six all worked in the tech industry. The exception was a corporate lawyer. None of us had been to the festival before. We paid a company from San Diego to drive our caravan to Nevada and get rid of our trash afterwards.
I ordered the items from the packing list online: dust goggles, sunscreen, sun hat, headlamp, light-emitting diodes, animal-print leggings. I arranged delivery of a bicycle. My friends would bring food and water from San Francisco. They all delayed their planning with the flexibility of people who don’t worry about money. They bought plane tickets at the last minute, and then changed their flights. One of them still hadn’t got a ticket two days before he was supposed to go. One of them ordered a bicycle from eBay Now and had it delivered to his office within an hour, like a taco. One ended up flying the hundred miles from Reno to Black Rock City in a chartered Cessna.
This year 68,000 people came. Fifteen years before there had been 15,000. The festival is organised in circles, like Dante’s Inferno.
…He lived in San Francisco, worked in tech and made lots of money. He was always ‘slammed’ at work. He had subscribed to a DNA mapping service that predicts how you might die, the results of which are posted to an iPhone app, so that your iPhone knows how likely you are to get heart disease.
When the subject of the festival first came up we both talked about how we wanted to go, how we knew people made fun of it but that we were drawn to it. He said he saw it as a good ‘networking opportunity’, but we also saw it as something that was happening right now and only right now, and we were both interested in things specific to the present. Now he put on a reflective jumpsuit and a fedora. We ate some caramel-corn marijuana bought from a California medical dispensary, went out until dawn, then came back to the caravan and had sex, despite the other occupants.
…The greeters at the gate had given us a guidebook; the lists of events read like mini prose poems in futurist jargon: ‘NEW TECH CITY SOCIAL INNOVATION FUTURES … Creative autonomous zones & cities of the future … resiliency, thrivability, open data, mixing genomes and biometrics with our passwords and cryptocurrencies. What’s your future look like? Social entrepreneurs and free culture makers, hack the system and mash the sectors.’ For someone interested in sexual experimentation, the possibilities for self-education here were endless: there were lectures on orgasmic meditation, ‘shamanic auto-asphyxiation’, ‘ecosexuality’, ‘femtheogens’, ‘tantra of our menses’, ‘sex drugs and electronic music’ and the opportunity to visit the orgy dome.
I went to a lecture on new research on the use of hallucinogens in treating illnesses. I listened to someone describe her research on ‘Transpersonal Phenomena Induced by Electronic Dance Music’.
…We made plans to meet at noon the next day. I didn’t keep the rendezvous. Instead I went back to my caravan and took a synthetic hallucinogen on blotter paper called 2CB. (Later, a friend suggested it was a chemical in the family of drugs known as NBOMes, which the administrators of the website Erowid call ‘the defining psychedelics of 2013’. They were invented in 2003 by a PhD student in Berlin and first hit the market in 2010. Ours had been ordered from the website Silk Road and paid for with bitcoin internet currency.) It was like acid but without acid’s dark side. It was acid re-engineered to be joyful. We each put half a hit under our lips and went out into the night, the chemicals leaching from the paper as the Mir space station was set on fire, the wedding chapel set on fire, the Facebook ‘like’ set on fire. We wandered through the LED-infused landscape, its colour palette that of the movie Tron, a vision of the future that had now become the future, a future filled with electronic dance music.
The drug hit us when we were playing beneath an art installation of rushing purple lights. We ran and danced in the lights, laughing and gasping. We boarded mutant vehicles. One shaped like a giant terrapin, one a post-apocalyptic pirate ship called theThunder Gumbo. We danced on top of the vehicles. Below us the burners on bicycles orbited like phosphorescent deep sea crustaceans. The memory of my day kept coming back to me. I kept thinking I was seeing people having sex, then realised I had just seen a pile-up bike crash. I kept thinking I had met the people around me before. We put more paper under our lips.
I began to see conspiracy. A mutant vehicle pulled up alongside us. On top I could see several people in their fifties and sixties. I saw them as aristocrats. They seemed to be wearing Aztec mohawks and Louis XVI-style powdered wigs. Their vehicle, which was shaped like a rainbow-coloured angler, was called the Disco Fish, and was self-piloted by programmable GPS. Its scales were the colours of the Google logo. I saw the Disco Fish as a secret plot by Google to defy Burning Man’s anti-corporate ethos with its self-driven cars, the project overseen by the executives on the second tier.
…No wonder people hate Burning Man, I thought, when I pictured it as a cynic might: rich people on vacation breaking rules that everyone else would be made to suffer for not obeying. Many of these people would go back to their lives and back to work on the great farces of our age. They wouldn’t argue for the decriminalisation of the drugs they had used; they wouldn’t want anyone to know about their time in the orgy dome. That they had cheered at the funeral pyre of a Facebook ‘like’ wouldn’t play well on Tuesday in the cafeteria at Facebook. The people who accumulated the surplus value of the world’s photographs, ‘life events’ and ex-boyfriend obsessions were now celebrating their freedom from the web they’d entangled all of us in, the freedom to exist without the internet. Plus all this crap – the polyester fur legwarmers and plastic water bottles and disposable batteries – this garbage made from harvested hydrocarbons that will never disappear.
To protest against these things in everyday life carried a huge social cost …and maybe that’s what the old burners disliked about the new ones: the new ones upheld the idea of autonomous zones. The $400 ticket price was as much about the right to leave what happened at the festival behind as it was to enter in the first place. Still, I’d been able to do things here that I’d wanted to do for a long time, that I never could have done at home. And if this place felt right, if it had expanded so much over the years because to so many people it felt like ‘home’, it had something to do with the inadequacy of the old ways that governed our lives in our real homes, where we felt lonely, isolated and unable to form the connections we wanted
Full article here.