Is Burning Man Changing Tech — Or Is Tech Changing Burning Man?

What is Burning Man? A festival of freethinking innovation? An excuse to get really high in the desert? The place where all the best ideas in tech secretly spring from? Where billionaires go to show off and wear a unitard? Fact is, any of those would be good answers to the question, because Burning Man is many things to many people. Elon Musk says you have to understand it to understand Silicon Valley. But, we think he might have it the wrong way around.

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

Thus begins one of the more famous pieces of science fiction: Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” In the book, the world is different than one we live in now. It’s a dystopia populated by anti-intellectual types who spend most of their days drugged out and staring at brightly colored screens. 

Interestingly, however, if you just strip the world “anti” out of that last sentence, you could also get a pretty good working definition of the utopia that tens of thousands are currently experiencing out on the playa in Black Rock City, Nevada, at Burning Man.

One could even incorporate that memorable opening line, because if its devotees are to be believed, it is indeed a pleasure to burn.  

And those devotees include a startling number of people who will no doubt be contenders for the “greatest mind of their generation” award when historians hand them out. Elon Musk skewered the creator of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” Mike Judge, for failing to really understand the culture he is skewering.  

“I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley,” Musk said to a Re/Code reporter as part of a colorfully worded commentary on the wonders of the culture of the valley. “If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.”

Musk is an extremely avid Burner (as those who attend are referred to). The first glimpse the world got of the car that would become the Tesla was at Burning Man in 2007. And Musk is far from the only big name whose big business accomplishments have a pretty direct tether to life on the playa.  

Sergey Brin and Larry Page — the minds behind Google — are well-known, long-term and super-enthusiastic Burners. For April Fools’ Day, PYMNTS wrote that Google’s decision to acquire Softcard seemed much like the kind of decision made during a drum circle at Burning Man. That was a joke although it turns out not as obvious a joke as we thought it was at the time. Brin and Page sealed the deal with Google’s Eric Schmidt at Burning Man — a fact that we are in no way kidding about.

“We all went to Burning Man together,” Schmidt told Stephen Colbert of the time way, way back, when Google was more a good idea than anything, and Brin and Page were recruiting Schmidt as hard as they could. Magic was made and a deal was struck. What did that magic look like? The world will never know.

“There’s a rule at Burning Man,” Schmidt said. “No pictures.”

Google didn’t just find its chairman at Burning Man, mind you. The prototype for the Google Maps everyone now uses was also born at the festival (a flyover attempt to capture Black Rock City), as was the Google Doodle.

With such a robust pedigree, it is unsurprising that Burning Man has become something of an annual event in the alley. Businesses actually develop contingency plans for the time period between the last Monday in August and the first weekend in September, because they count on losing a good chunk of their workforce to the annual festival.

An event — but not quite a holiday — that draws many because it is also considered a great, big networking event for the valley’s best and brightest.

Mark Zuckerberg (not a routine Burner) flew in for 24 hours two years ago to bring cheese sandwiches to the masses. Jeff Bezos has made similar in-and-out appearances over the last several years, and the Uber camp has been hailed as a particularly happening place to hang out. As you are reading this, conservative activist Grover Norquist is doubtlessly tweeting another picture from Burning Man — as he has been all week.  

“It’s a little bit like a corporate retreat,” noted Marian Goodell, Burning Man’s Director of Business and Communications. “The event is a crucible, a pressure cooker and, by design, a place to think of new ideas or make new connections.” 

There is nothing wrong with networking — and those who can manage to do it while naked and on drugs certainly deserve our praise because that can’t be easy. Still, one does wonder what it does to the party atmosphere that Elon Musk believes one must truly understand to understand Silicon Valley.  

“The parties in Silicon Valley are amazing because people don’t care about how they’re perceived socially, which I don’t think Mike [Judge] got. Hollywood is a place where people always care about what the public will think of them, and it’s f***ing sad, and the show felt more like that,” Musk noted. “I’ve lived in Hollywood 12 years, and I’ve never been to a f***ing good party.”

[bctt tweet=”Burning Man is universally agreed to be Silicon Valley’s biggest, best and most innovative party. “]

Burning Man is universally agreed to be Silicon Valley’s biggest, best and most innovative party. And we think the claim that it is amazing is also pretty non-controversial. Is it a place where Silicon Valley types go and demonstrate how much they don’t care about what people think of them?  

Well, Elon, about that …

Burning Man is more than a party or an event; in the over two decades it has been in existence, it has also become something of an industry. The price of a ticket to the festival has skyrocketed in recent years and is currently sitting at $360. The billionaire day-trippers like Mark Zuckerberg are investing in private jets or helicopters to get them in and out, and we imagine the logistics of making cheese sandwiches for thousands is both expensive and staggering. Millionaire and billionaire visitors who are making the full weeklong pilgrimage are not in general interested in camping out, sleeping in a Winnebago and subsisting for a week in a gift economy where nothing is bought or bartered for – but freely given.  

Increasingly, when the super rich set out to Burn they make sure it will be a pleasure, with luxury plug-and-play camps springing up — equipped with air conditioners, bathrooms, bathtubs, chefs, full bars, Wi-Fi and feather beds.

If you thought eating ice-cold sushi in the middle of the desert while watching a giant effigy burn was not an experience open to you in your lifetime, we have good news: it totally is. But the experience won’t be cheap. The price tag for a spot in one of these so-called luxury camps clocks in about $10K — and that’s if you can buy a spot at all, as many are invite-only. These camps are staffed by sherpas, responsible for all the set-up and cleanup, and they are not gifting their labor — they’ve been hired.  

But even beyond those rarified Burners, the festival experience for many involves either making or commissioning elaborate costuming, high-tech art installations, art carts and a host of other high cost, high investment activities. 

Which seems to beg the question: Is it realistic to believe that all of these people are expending all of this time, effort and money in extremely attention-getting ways because of how much they don’t care about what people think about them?  

An increasing number of people think not and complain the Burning Man is no longer what it once was (a celebration of iconoclasm and an alternate way of being), and has instead become a place to see and be seen.

“The tech startups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,” a disillusioned long-term Burner told The New York Times. “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution.”

But then again, not everyone in the long-term Burn crowd is bummed out.

“Look, the spirit of Burning Man is innovation. We wouldn’t have any of this without tech. It started with people in San Francisco and that’s what brings all this out here. And besides, [Burning Man Founder] Larry Harvey’s camp is the original plug n’ play,” a naked fire dancer named Wolf told a TechCrunch reporter while waiting in line for Dr. Bronner’s foam party.

In another day or so, Burning Man will be gone for another year — and if the Burners live up to their principles as usual, there won’t be a trace of it left. Silicon Valley will return to work a bit hungover. Undeniably, and for good or ill, the tech world’s obsession with the remote festival has changed it. What remains to be seen is how much this year’s festival changed the Valley. Did the next great idea get dreamed up in a foam shower while you were reading this?

Time will tell, and we’ll keep you posted.