Brainwashing: The New Billionaire Obsession

Vox has just published a piece on Burning Man by Gregory Ferenstein: “Why Silicon Valley Billionaires are obsessed by Burning Man“.

Perhaps a more appropriate title might be “why the media are obsessed with rich people at Burning Man”. They’ve always been there people. Why don’t you see them? Because they’re riding around on the same bikes as you, going to the same free parties as you, watching the same sunrise as you, reflecting and remembering at the same Temple as you, and waiting in line next to you for ice, a coffee, or a dump.  Vox’s story is a good read:

Burning Man is an experiment in what a city would look like if it were architected for wild creativity and innovation. The goal is to be expressive and experimental — scientifically, artistically, sexually, or spiritually. For techies, it’s a chance to try out untested gadgets and go nuts with the oddest social experiences imaginable.

…For example, Harvey pointed to Google’s famous “20 percent time” management strategy, where employees are allowed 20 percent of their time to do anything they want: build a new product, learn a new skill, or try out a new experience.

“They’ve tried to institutionalize the kind of behavior that brought their business into being — a certain amount of risk-taking, a frontier mentality, a willingness to try things to see if they work, regardless of whether they fit institutional norms. Well, that’s the kind of can-do attitude that Burning Man is famous for.”

…Perhaps the goal was best summed by Harvey when he told me, “Burning Man is a place where you wash your own brain.”

…Google Co-founder Larry Page once floated the idea of Burning Man-like zones where entrepreneurs could be free to try out new products in a regulation-free area. During Google’s annual developers meeting in 2013, he noted:

“We don’t want our world to change too fast. But maybe we could set apart a piece of the world .… I like going to Burning Man, for example. An environment where people can try new things. I think as technologists, we should have some safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society. What’s the effect on people, without having to deploy it to the whole world.”

…Burning Man was reportedly the testbed for both an early version of Google Maps and the first Tesla cars.

burning man tesla

rumored to be a mockup of the first Tesla car. (Tesla Motors Club user TEG)

According to Stanford Professor Fred Turner [PDF], Google sent a plane to take aerial photos of the campground in an early pilot of what eventually became Maps.

Engineer Michael Favor, who worked with Google on the project in 2006, explained that “the power of Google is that they don’t do all the work. People posting content do. The same is true here at Burning Man. Citizens create the vast majority of things.”

More recently, Harvey points out, experiments with drones have become increasingly popular.

So is Burning Man an elaborate libertarian utopia (or dystopia)?

One of the biggest myths about Burning Man, and, perhaps, Silicon Valley, is that it’s founded on libertarian ideals. While Burning Man embraces the free-wheeling spirit of libertarianism, it is also fiercely collectivist. Indeed, a fight between libertarians and the more community-oriented founder was the organization’s first big culture war.

In the early days of Burning Man, Black Rock City was a liberty haven.

“Those early years in the desert were free-wheeling. Anything went. Guns were common. Shooting at stuff from moving cars was a big thing,” wrote technologist Peter Hirsberg, in his upcoming history of Burning Man.

Full story here.

jbieber-karmaThat Tesla looks like a working car to me, not a mockup. It’s more likely their first showroom. Minimal viable product, put the thing in a tent on a corner at Burning Man. 50,000 people will stop and look. Fisker should’ve done that, instead of chroming out Bieber’s Karma in Hollywood.

The word experiment is used a lot in this story. Is Burning Man really that much of an experiment these days for the participants? Or is the experiment being done on us, by corporations?

It is possible to jump the shark and also become a huge commercial success, a hit with the VCs and billionaires and tourists and the 360 official journalists attending this year. Disneyland is a great hit too, but I don’t recall it ever beginning as an underground dance party in the desert. Or having 200 drones hovering overhead while you cavort naked through it.

We haven’t heard anything about Peter Hirshberg’s upcoming history of Burning Man before, but he was featured in The Founders Speak lecture with Larry Harvey and John Perry Barlow at Columbia University this year. It seemed pretty random at the time, making us wonder “these guys are founders now?” Perhaps the video footage of that lecture that’s been “coming soon” all year is being held up waiting for the release of this book.

This Vox story seems to continue the theme first espoused in Larry and Barlow’s interview with TechCrunch at Bildeberg Le Web last year. There is a deep link between Burning Man, the tech industry, and the psychedelic counter-culture which emerged from the Bay Area in the Sixties and has been pouring out of here to catch the whole world in its Net ever since.

5 comments on “Brainwashing: The New Billionaire Obsession

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  4. Lets filter this “Silicon Valley Billionaires ”
    How many Billionaires are there in the US?
    How many of these Billionaires are from Silicon valley ?
    ~ 60
    How many of these silicon valley Billionaires actually attend Burning Man ?
    ~0 to 10 ?
    And How many people attend Burning Man ?

    • Here are just some of the tech Billionaires who attend Burning Man:

      Sergey Brin
      Larry Page
      Eric Schmidt
      Mark Zuckerberg
      Dustin Muskovitz
      Elon Musk
      Jeff Bezos
      Matt Mullenweg
      Reed Hastings
      Mark Pincus

      And there are more, so your “0 to 10” estimate is on the light side. These billionaires have entourages they bring with them.

      It’s at least 20% of all the billionaires in San Francisco, which is the second highest city in the US and top 5 in the world for number of billionaires.

      I challenge you to name another EDM festival in the world with more tech billionaires attending.

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