Obligatory Burning Man Think Piece

Larry, Sergey, and Eric are burners. So are Zuck, Dustin Moskovitz, and the Winklevii; so are Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Shervin Pishevar. Every year thousands of techies flock to ephemeral Black Rock City, Nevada’s 10th largest urban area during the week it exists. That’s why many imagine Burning Man as a kind of summer camp for the tech industry. They could hardly be more wrong.

The key mistake outsiders make is thinking that the tech industry goes to Burning Man. What actually happens is that the tech community attends. Two quite different things. To succeed in the tech industry, you start businesses, make money, and make smart investments. But to succeed in the tech community, you do and build awesome things, are generous with your time and efforts, and make a point of making space for strangers — without any expectation of payback.

These two categories are orthogonal to one another. The first kind of success, industry success, is celebrated around the world, and around the year. Black Rock City, however, is dedicated to the celebration of the second kind. (Which, to be fair, does exist in the so-called default world as well; it drives the open-source and Creative Commons movements, and is an unsung cornerstone of Silicon Valley’s continued dominance.)

In my experience–and I’ve been attending every two or three years since 2003–burners from the tech community are remarkably disdainful of capitalism as we know it, despite the success they have reaped from it. Burning Man is their escape from its transactional shackles. People who are only interested in monetary/industry success are treated with enormous suspicion there, if not outright contempt.

But thanks to the publicity the event has attracted over the last few years, would-be tech entrepreneurs with starry-eyed dreams of avarice increasingly attend the event hoping to network, meet investors, and/or advance their careers. (CF this excellent LeadGenius satire.)

This is hilariously wrong, like visiting Narnia and spending all your time hanging out under the lamppost discussing profit margins and CACs back home. Sure, you could do it, but it would be a horrifying–and cowardly–waste of the experience.

The irony is that if you do go to Burning Man to have fun and/or do awesome things, with your heart free of avarice, you may well inadvertently meet amazing people whose acquaintance will be helpful in the “real” world, down the road. Black Rock City is literally seething with brilliant, super-skilled, accomplished people, building crazy things like hydrogen-blimp drones that joust with igniters, or musical Tesla coils, or fractally geometric art cars, or mind-controlled flamethrowers, or mindbending puzzle hunts, or heartrending art installations.

This year alone I wound up hanging out with MIT professors, legendary hackers, and the CEO of a moderately well-known tech company (who came by our camp and, to quote a campmate who may wish to remain nameless, “talked at us for several hours.”) But if you go there hoping to cut a deal, or find a job, you will almost certainly wind up empty-handed, because you will be chasing the wrong kind of success in the wrong place.

(Before anyone cites the zillionaire / plug-and-play camps: very wealthy people have been flying into relative luxury in Black Rock City for many years, and egregious assholes who try to exploit people and don’t respect the community show up every year as well. The conjunction of the two is neither interesting nor significant, except when they include, say, a Burning Man board member. Elon Musk stayed in a plug-and-play camp several years ago, but nobody much cared, because Musk wasn’t a total asshole about it.)

The most interesting thing about Black Rock City is that it is a testbed for decentralized self-organizing communities within a low-scarcity society. (Yes, one that relies on a lot of centralized infrastructure, and many millions of dollars, in order to exist. The irony is not lost on me.) In such a society, being awesome–or at least interesting–is enormously more important than being rich. Going there in hopes of building your business is like a medieval queen visiting a democracy in hopes of marrying her children to its rulers to advance her dynasty: meaningless and mostly laughable.

It’s at least possible that Burning Man is setting a direction that the rest of the world will eventually follow. But even if not, it’s a valuable and refreshing change of priorities. It would be a terrible shame if Silicon Valley’s tech industry were to infect and corrupt Black Rock City’s tech community, but I’m pretty unconcerned about that prospect. Call me an optimist, but it seems to me that the inverse is vastly more likely — that as the years tick by, we will collectively begin to understand that once a society achieves a certain level of wealth, community becomes much more important than industry.