The Conversation has an interesting piece by Simon Willmetts, a professor of American Studies at the University of Hull. He traces Burning Man’s origins to Stewart Brand, who thought up the idea of the Whole Earth Catalog on an acid trip. The catalog inspired many hippies to “Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out”, dodging the Vietnam war draft and the violent protests of the Free Speech Movement, to instead do drugs, get naked, and express free love in intentional communities far from civilization.
re-blogged from The Conversation:
Why Burning Man is Silicon Valley
“Burning Man is Silicon Valley”, tech magnate Elon Musk declared last year. But the annual festival in the middle of the Nevadan Black Rock desert may seem an unlikely place to encounter the dotcom aristocracy. Its lunar-barren landscape is a world away from the plush campus greens of the Googleplex. Thousands gather together in tribes every year to stage musical and theatrical performances, exhibit art, run workshops, “gift” free booze and food (money is outlawed) and construct fantastical welded artworks mounted by dancers and DJs who blare out whomping dubstep into the cacophonous night.
The spectacle is all the more awe-inspiring given how inhospitable the terrain it inhabits is. The cracked dry earth is so alkaline that it can cause chemical burns on the soles of naïve barefooted burners – “playa foot” as it is known. Temperatures range dramatically from searing desert heat in the day to almost freezing at night. And dust storms are common enough to make facemasks and goggles an essential accessory.
But the festival has long been a magnet for the West Coast’s digerati. The first ever Google doodle, in 1998, doubled up as both a tribute to Burning Man and an out-of-office reply for founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin as they made their way out to the desert.
The list of other tech luminaries who have attended is long. It includes Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian and Dropbox’s Drew Houston. Up until recently they have blended in harmoniously. But lately reports of VIP-enclaves charging upwards of $25,000-per-head for five-star catered service have jarred uncomfortably with the festival’s core values of decommodification, radical self-reliance and radical inclusion. Focusing on these extravagances of a select few, however, overlooks the broader affinity between the festival and the West Coast’s technocracy.
The key to this relationship is their shared lineage in the counterculture of the 1960s, and more specifically, the New Communalist movement, that saw thousands of young Californians go back to the land to build utopian communities. In 1968 Stewart Brand created the Whole Earth Catalogue, a book in which he knitted together these disparate communities into a single forum. In doing so, it is widely recognised that he laid the ideological blueprint for the internet and, as it happens, Burning Man too.
Growing up in Cold War America, Brand feared both the rigid bureaucracy of the Soviet Union abroad and the creeping corporatisation of American life at home. For Brand the key to both individual and social salvation from these twin evils was to do away with rigid hierarchies, whether governmental or corporate, and replace them with distributed networks of technologically empowered individuals who would voluntarily come together in common cause.
Likewise, Burning Man is best understood not as one community or centrally-directed event (such as more traditional music festivals) but as a network of lots of little communities that hive together once a year to build their utopia in the desert.
The effigy they burn on the penultimate night of the festivities provides a focus, but each group also brings their own contribution: a music venue, a bar, a food tent, a workshop, a theatrical performance, an art car welded into an enormous motorised fire-breathing dragon.
Everything is voluntarily produced, funded via altruism and offered as a “gift”, free of charge, to “the playa” (as the festival site is termed). Distributed and alone these groups can only hope to produce one small piece of the puzzle, but networked together they create a spectacle in the desert far greater than the sum of its parts. It is a form of socio-economic organisation that is analogous to the internet – we all produce the content free of charge, which when linked together creates the socially transformative online community of the world wide web.
The problem with utopias, however, is that they can only ever be imagined. The New Communalists never quite eradicated hierarchy and inequality. They reproduced traditional gender roles and they tended to be sustained by the wealth of their mostly white, mostly college-educated membership. The same demographic trends in Silicon Valley are widely reported.
As for Burning Man, last year 87% of attendees were white, 58% male, 95.4% had some form of higher education and the majority of participants spent in excess of $1,000 to attend. The gifting economy may be noble in its intent, and Burners would say that the economic value of a gift is not the point, but a system based on altruism tends to appeal to the self-satisfying generosity of those with the deepest pockets.
In 2013 Google CEO Larry Page responded to a question about how the tech giant could help make the world a better place: “There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation.” What was needed, he proscribed, were safe spaces (like Burning Man) of free experimentation.
Burning Man is Silicon Valley because it is premised upon the same libertarian idea that social progress can be achieved through the free collaboration of a network of empowered individuals. It is a microcosm of what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron famously defined as the “Californian Ideology” – that unlikely amalgamation of “the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies” that has catapulted Google, Facebook, Apple and others to global dominance.
It remains to be seen whether the common good they have created is to the good of all.
It does remain to be seen. “Coming soon…”
In 2014, Larry Harvey gave a talk on Burning Man at Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation.
Brand, a Stanford graduate who worked for the Pentagon before organizing the CIA’s MKULTRA Acid Tests, once said of Burning Man:
Burning Man, they have surpassed in every way the various things we were attempting with the Acid Tests and the Trips Festival, Burning Man has realized with such depth and thoroughness and ongoing originality and ability to scale and minimalist rules, but enough rules that you can function, and all the things we were farting around with, Larry Harvey has really pulled off. I don’t think that would have come to pass without going through whatever that spectrum of the ’60s was, the prism of the ’60s, the spectrum of bright colors that we espoused for a while. It all got exacerbated by the Internet and sequence of computer-related booms, but I think it flavored a whole lot of the basic nature of Burning Man.
[Source: SF Gate]
He is credited with inventing the term “personal computer”, although he graciously ascribes it to Alan Kay. He also created the WELL with the Grateful Dead‘s doctor, which evolved into the World Wide Web.
The essay mentioned above, The Californian Ideology by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron of the University of Westminster, is very interesting. It was written in 1995, just as Burning Man was shifting its propaganda-based marketing away from a Cacophony freak show to being the physical manifestation of cyberspace.
At this crucial juncture, a loose alliance of writers, hackers, capitalists and artists from the West Coast of the USA have succeeded in defining a heterogeneous orthodoxy for the coming information age: the Californian Ideology.
This new faith has emerged from a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, tv programmes, Web sites, newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich. Not surprisingly, this optimistic vision of the future has been enthusiastically embraced by computer nerds, slacker students, innovative capitalists, social activists, trendy academics, futurist bureaucrats and opportunistic politicians across the USA. As usual, Europeans have not been slow in copying the latest fad from America. While a recent EU Commission report recommends following the Californian ‘free market’ model for building the ‘information superhighway’, cutting-edge artists and academics eagerly imitate the ‘post-human’ philosophers of the West Coast’s Extropian cult. With no obvious rivals, the triumph of the Californian Ideology appears to be complete.
…As pioneers of the new, the hi-tech artisans need to reconnect themselves with the theory and practice of productive art. They are not just employees of others – or even would-be cybernetic entrepreneurs. They are also artist-engineers – designers of the next stage of modernity. Drawing on the experience of the Saint-Simonists and Constructivists, the hi-tech artisans can create a new machine aesthetic for the information age
Read the full article here.
The California Ideology makes me think of Tupac and Dre’s take on California, which came out around the same time. Dr Dre, of course, is part of Apple now – a hi-tech artisan indeed.
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I liked Stewart Brand on the Apprentice UK. He was totally crazy.
Brand is a fascinating figure, and his influence on Burning Man is pretty clear and direct. I wouldn’t say the WELL evolved into the WWW, but it was an influence. The dude is one of the top 2 or 3 cultural influencers of the past 50 years. I’d put him at #1, actually.
I hadn’t heard the term California Ideology before, but it does seem to fit. It’s basically libertarianism with a hipster sheen. Page and Peter Thiel and the like embody it. I fucking hate it, it’s a total abdication from the social contract made possible by the luck of talent, timing and place of birth. But hey, if they want to think “they built this” all by their lonesome, it’s not like I can do anything about it. And it kind of misses the whole point of Burning Man, in my opinion, but the event does lend itself to Rorschach interpretations.
Larry says “it would be wrong to focus on a single tributary, when the whole thing came from the mighty Mississip”…or words to that effect. Certainly the forces in the San Francisco Bay Area shaping global counter culture were much older and more powerful than the Cacophony Society.
At some point in history Burning Man became the modern incarnation of MKULTRA and the Acid Tests. Maybe that was always the plan, maybe it was just a combination of luck and a string of coincidences…I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. Anyway, after Helco this plan was in full effect.
From the beginning, MKULTRA wasn’t just drugs and the counter-culture (Mind Kontroll) – the ULTRA part is to do with trans-Atlantic collaboration on computers. The project came out of the Macy Conferences, as did cybernetics.
I agree with you on ranking Brand # 1, and like Dr Dre (my # 2) he’s been on top in every decade. He appears to have taken the mantle of MKULTRA Honcho from Aldous Huxley, and lifted it to the next level getting the hippies to sell personal computers, which were tools of liberation that became “wireless laptops” then “smart phones” and now “tablets”. Now everyone has been hooked on carrying Big Brother’s camera, microphone, and artificial intelligence engine on supercomputers with them everywhere they go. Everyone is tracked, and knows that they are tracked, and most don’t care. This has created a painless concentration camp, as Huxley described at UC Berkeley in the 60’s.
The Black Rock City layout has some significant commonalities with Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon
and also the Bauhaus concept of the Field of Vision
I just watched Fred Turner’s lecture on the Democratic Surround last night, amazing stuff. The true beginnings of Burning Man were in World War 2.
Do you really think the “MK” in MKUltra stands for “mind kontrol,” or was that a joke? As far as I’ve read, MK was a designation meaning the project was headed by the Technical Services Staff. The “Ultra” could represent a transatlantic partnership, I suppose, since British Intelligence was the first to use it to mean the highest level of classification. The US adopted it during the WWII, I believe.
By the way, how is it out there? Looks extra dusty.
All the other MK-designated projects were Mind Kontrol-related also. Most project names that have leaked out do not have any 2-letter designation before them. It’s GRILL FLAME and BLUE BEAM and MOCKINGBIRD.
Some say it stands for Manufacturing Killers Utilizing Lethal Tradecraft Requiring Assassinations – but I think this is disinformation.
I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m aware of the underlying story. Alan Turing was at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton (with Einstein, von Neumann and others) for years before the war broke out.
I am headed to New Zealand instead of Nevada this year. Work and family related. I burned already this year, at Kiwi Burn.
“Build something. Fly something. Float something. Burn something. Bring it to Kiwiburn!” -Excellent adventure, kudos to you!