Burning Man: Real Social and Tech-happy

Written by Daniel Zweier

Do Burning Man and technology belong together? Definitely! Well, sort of. See how tech and social media stacked up in Black Rock City this year.

aNewDomain.net — Burning Man. It happened. And slowly, slowly the alkaline dust is coming off my clothes, my bike, my hands and my hair. With visions of Burn life still fresh in mind I decided (and upon encouragement of my editor) to write a piece about that wild, weird festival in the desert.

Burning Man 2014 Playa

Burning Man 2014. Featuring Library of Babel, by Warrick Macmillan, Reno, NV. Image Credit: Philippa Baker-Rabe

For those who don’t know, Burning Man is an art, music and civic festival that occurs once a year in Black Rock City, NV. It lasts roughly a week, is a leave-no-trace event, is built and deconstructed entirely within a month or so surrounding the event and had a peak population of around 68,000 citizens this year.

I say citizens because Black Rock City (BRC) is very much a desert metropolis. There’s a hospital and police (BRC Rangers and Nevada State Police); there are yoga classes and metaphysics workshops. There are street names and signs, registered mutant vehicles with licenses, free food and booze and the sense, more than anything, that you are part of a society.

As a third-time Burner (those who have been, i.e., burned), I have a wealth to say on all the aspects of this strange vacation. Here, though, at aNewDomain.net, we call attention to what technology has been employed and what radical engineering has taken place in the world. So, then, this is a Burning Man recall through the lens of technology.

Hard-Wired Tech

The question often asked and, with a little research, so easily found is, “Do people, like, take pictures out there?” Yes. “Do people, like, have cell phones?” Yes. “I’ve heard there’s a Burning Man webcam, don’t you guys hate technology?” Yes, there is. No, we don’t.

Just because massive dust storms can prevent sight and rip out rebar-staked tents doesn’t mean there aren’t expensive cameras or cell phones at Burning Man. In my experience of the festival there has always been a heavy presence of capture-based technology.

Whether it’s a tripod enclosed in glass, casually lit by Christmas lights, alone and recording in Deep Playa (playa being the hard-cracked desert ground, deep meaning way, way out there), or a macro-lens Canon snapping a thousand pictures of a structure burn, cameras are everywhere.

Burning Man 2014 Embrace Burn

Burning Man 2014 Embrace Burn. Featuring Embrace by Emma Whitehead, London, UK. Image Credit: Philippa Baker-Rabe

The issue with cameras, and the reason for all the questions, is that staring at a phone or through a lens separates you, the citizen of BRC, from what is occurring in your city.

You could ask more broadly: does technology separate us from the real, physical world? Answers abound, but, at Burning Man, cameras are widely accepted and sometimes scorned. Time-lapsed photos with light absorption? Great. Drunk selfie during a ritualistic Burn? Not so much. (Though it happens just about all the time).

This year, I found the most common camera to be a GoPro. This brings a new level to capture-technology at Burning Man. It is passive.

A GoPro can be (and most often was) planted on the handle-bars of a bike and left there to record the events of a day. They were stuck to art structures, walking sticks and head-gear. A girl scrolled a little GoPro through a dome where Shamanic journeying was taking place — no click, no flash and no wait for the picture. It was a silent voyeur; a strange digital eye in the hot, hot desert.

This year cell service was decent out there, too. Not so much for AT&T (at least for me) but Verizon had clear reception for most of my campmates. I can see a possible sales campaign there…

I still shut off my phone the second I arrive, turning it on only to use the alarm function, but that is what I want out of the experience. Camp-mates had work meetings in center camp with Wi-Fi, burnt out Burners called their mothers and friends entering late called for on-the-ground details.

While aspects of technology certainly bristle with some principles of Burning Man, nothing is forever banned. Think LED technology that’s invested into the endless barrage of art cars and gleaming, glowing wonders. Think heavy sound systems carted into the desert, just for a quality dance party.

Burning Man 2014 Wheel of Fire

Burning Man 2014 Featuring Wheels of Zoroaster by Anton Viditz-Ward, Telluride, CO. Image Credit: Philippa Baker-Rabe

Technology at BRC, just like in the real world, pervades and enhances and, yes, occasionally destroys.

Socially Speaking

Our daily lives, here in the Default World (as it’s called by Burners), are overwhelmed by social media. Social is it — the new platform for content, for advertising, for staying in touch, for getting a job, for finding new friends and traveling to foreign lands.

Social has transformed us, and yet a week at Burning Man makes it all disappear. Yes, there’s cell service, but people don’t walk around checking Facebook. They walk around with the “What, Where, When” guide, a list of all registered events in BRC. And with this, with their camp-mates, with new friends met in the spur of any moment, the social prowess of the citizens at Burning Man feels so much stronger and so much more palpable than the Tweets and Statuses and +1s.

This became a constant thought for me out there. I work in social; we all do to some degree these days. After reading this, for instance, it’d be great if you shared it on Facebook, or Tweeted it out, so that your social channels merge with mine, and each of us becomes so much greater in the eyes of … well, this is where social gets meta and strange. The eyes of many, I guess.

But there, out in the desert when weather changes everything (thousands were turned away on the first day due to rain), where nothing quite lines up and where you can get lost in the chaos, social comes out in another way.

Burning Man 2014 LED Art

Burning Man 2014 Featuring Squared by Charles Gadeken, San Francisco, CA. Image Credit: Philippa Baker-Rabe

You walk to your neighbor’s tent and ask how they are, what cool thing they saw and what’s on the docket for tonight. It may sound simple, but when is the last time you just asked your neighbor “what’s good?”

The event planner is the backbone for all social activity of the city. It brings those with like-minded interests together, sort of like a comment thread, but suddenly all those wonderful smiling faces are in front of you, sharing their insight, weathering the same storm. It’s present and focused and hyper-aware, just like social media, and yet it’s entirely personable and physical.

In such a specific society — an experiment almost — it seemed to me that the oldest versions of our social nature retained their potency. My need to check Facebook (just to see) disappeared completely when my community had a handle on its own world.

While I love social media and all its potential, the high I got from face-to-face interaction with so many different people (those same people who might tweet you out!) was incomparable. It’s a huge Burning Man concept: we are the world we create. And in such a compact space, everyone wants to talk and to share.

Overall, just so you know, my Burn was fantastic. I’m sure a torrent of news will come over the following days, and some videos and images. But remember, Burning Man really is whatever you want it to be. It can be techy or meditative. You can film your own ascetic desert ritual, post it to YouTube, and Google Hang with your playa friends.

Just smile and greet your fellow citizens in the eye.

For aNewDomain.net, I’m Daniel Zweier.

Based in Oakland, CA, Daniel Zweier is an editor and writer at aNewDomain.net. Daniel blogs about culture and travel here. He can be reached at @dbzweier+Daniel Zweier or at daniel@anewdomain.net.

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