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Why Silicon Valley billionaires are obsessed with Burning Man

It's a special time of year in San Francisco, when neighborhoods empty, and executives from major internet giants join 70,000 people in pilgrimage to the experimental mecca of Burning Man.

Burning Man is located in a temporary 5-square-mile city erected in the bare flatland of the Nevada desert. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Google's Larry Page, and Tesla's Elon Musk have all joined their fellow burners in years past, weathering blistering heat and unpredictable sandstorms to enjoy a week of dancing and interactive art.

Burning Man has since become a totem for the Internet industry's unique culture. Indeed, when Tesla's Elon Musk was asked about Silicon Valley, HBO's satirical series on tech culture, he reportedly said, "I really feel like [Director] Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley ... If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it."

Silicon Valley billionaires could vacation anywhere in the world. Yet they volunteer to be part of a crazy social experiment with thousands of strangers in the blistering desert.

When I asked Burning Man founder Larry Harvey why the tech elite would vacation in the desert, he rephrased the question. "Why Silicon Valley would be smitten with the idea of an unlimited blank slate to do things that have never been done?", he laughed, "It doesn't seem like much of a mystery."

What does Burning Man’s culture have in common with Silicon Valley?

Black rock city

(Flickr user DCMatt)

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."

Do rich technologists really want the world to be more like Burning Man?

Indeed. 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."

What have engineers built there?

Black Rock City is a fantastic opportunity to go nuts with untested gadgets in the most extreme environment imaginable and with the participation of unusually thoughtful beta users. Burning Man was reportedly the testbed for both an early version of Google Maps and the first Tesla cars.

burning man tesla

This photo from the 2007 Burning Man was 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.

Then, on the night of August 16th, 1996, a car plowed through two unmarked tents, nearly killing the occupants. It was then that Harvey decided to build out the bureaucratic safety structure of the festival, complete with a police force.

"There's nothing wrong with libertarianism that a huge dose of community and culture wouldn't fix," argues Harvey. After the accident, Harvey explains that he "designed it to promote social interaction," including giant interactive art at the center of the city.

It should be noted that there is, in fact, a "libertarian Burning Man", called the Porcupine Freedom Festival, which is a haven for gun-toting constitutionalists. It is likely what Burning Man would have become had Harvey not intervened.

So, if it's not libertarian, is it anti-capitalist?

"I've tried to disabuse the world that we're anti-capitalist," Harvey told me. However, "we're very critical of consumerism."

Burning Man culture discourages money or bartering; the entire economy is a gift economy.

How does an economy work without money or barter?

shady waffle

Facebook Co-founder's camp, The Shady Waffle. (Dustin Moskovitz)

A gift economy is an economy mostly built on unsolicited giving. Throughout the festival, it's expected that everyone brings something to hand out for free: art, food, or a service. With enough generosity, it's presumed that everyone will have their needs met — and then some.

Up until last year, billionaire Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz ran a grilled cheese camp that dished out hundreds of delicious sandwiches. Mark Zuckerberg joined him in the melty give-away two years ago.

In anticipation of the fun last year, Moskowitz held an open party in San Francisco's famous Dolores Park, handing out a near endless supply of his signature sandwiches.

Wait, why did Mark Zuckerberg give away grilled cheese at Burning Man?

"I wanted him to experience the city and to experience gifting because I thought it would make him grow as a person and make the world better off as a result," Moskovitz wrote, in a blog post defending the influx of rich entrepreneurs. "Without exception, they come back from their first year with a decreased interest in zero-sum competition and a deep appreciation of the fully connected and mutually supportive community."

The Internet industry, generally, is built on a premise that the more people share, the more they receive over the long run. Wikipedia, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the free open-source software that runs much of the Internet, Linux, is all built on the voluntary contributions of millions of people.

Indeed, when the Atlantic's James Bennett asked Mark Zuckerberg to give himself a political label, he told the audience, that he was "pro-knowledge economy". "Knowledge has the productive property, which is that me knowing something doesn't prevent you from knowing it. ... It ends up being positive sum."

More recently, a growing cottage industry of so-called "sharing economy" startups are also piggy backing off this philosophy. Airbnb executive Chip Conley, sits on the board of Burning Man, and its founder, Brian Chesky, has claimed that sharing services can help cities solve unemployment, cost-of-living, and even isolation between neighbors.

At Burning Man, sharing is the economy. It's rather appealing to the Silicon Valley elite to see an entire city function on an economic idea that is at the heart of the knowledge economy. It's an important glimpse of why the founders are so optimistic that a loosely regulated field of tech startups can outweigh the potential downsides of unregulated sharing.

Isn't Burning Man becoming divided between haves and have-nots?

turn key camp

Inside the dining hall of a "turn key" camp, complete with Buddha statue. (Photo provided by a burner who was in the camp)

Recently, there's been a series of critical reports, including this year from the New York Times' Nick Bilton, about wealthy technologists spending tens of thousands of dollars for a pampered experience at Burning Man.

Having profiled one of these so-called "turn-key" camps for CEOs last year, I know that the experience really isn't much different for rich and regular participants. Since no one can actually buy anything at Burning Man, and pricey-looking goods are frowned upon, money doesn't go very far. Everyone stays in crappy RV campers, rides cheap bikes around the city, and attends the same free art and dance parties.

The pricey entrance fee bundles a few luxuries that many cheaper camps already have: professionally decorated camps, an RV to sleep in, a plane flight into the city, and prepared food. I'll admit, eating professionally prepared foods inside of a immaculately decorated and air-conditioned bedouin-style tent has its perks.

But, I've also experienced camps that were less than $400, which had healthy prepared meals, decorated tents, and RVs.

The thousands of dollars buys one unique thing: a professional tour guide. Burning Man can be overwhelming, and first-time burners often miss out on the best experiences. The turn-key camps provide itineraries for CEOs in mild existential crises who want to experience all the social and spiritual revelations that the luckiest participants find at Burning Man.

I thought Burning Man was a giant rave...

art car 2

An Art Car/Dance Club. (Flickr User ImNotQuiteJack)

Burning Man is a smorgasbord of every imaginable social experience: people facepaint, attend lectures, dress up in elaborate costumes, dance, go on naked bike-rides, get married, mourn the death of a loved one, have sex, drop ecstasy, create software programs, hold a BBQ tail gate ... and the list goes on (yes, there are a lot of weddings at Burning Man).

Past sundown, all Burners are encouraged to wear blinky lights to avoid getting run over by the dozens of mobile dance-club cars that roam the campus. In a typical night, I might hop on the back of a two-story art car in the shape of a giant neon chicken, dance my face off for an hour, then hop off the still-moving car as it rolls by one of the campus's giant geodesic DJ domes. If I'm still awake, I'll enjoy sunrise with friends or wash off the dust in a rave group shower, which soaks down burners crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in a car-wash like apparatus, while countless anonymous hands clean every inch of my body to the sounds of European techno.

Harvey told me last year me that the wild fun of Burning Man may be what attracts wealthy folks for their first year, but they get hooked on the philosophy upon return "A typical pattern is that they might stay for a day or two, and then it dawns on them that there’s a manifold of profound things to be gained."

Celebrities and business magnates come for the rave, but return for the social experiment.

With all these rich friends, how does Burning Man hope to spread its influence?

Life Cube

The Life Cube in Downtown Vegas (Tydence)

With the expanding bank account of Burning Man's umbrella company, Black Rock City LLC, Harvey wants to cover the world in more Burning Man-like events and art installations. He thinks he can inspire more community and experimental attitudes through pop-up events.

Harvey's vision has already found influential friends to carry the torch. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is building an interactive acts experience within his $300 million project to turn Downtown Las Vegas into an innovation hub. The Downtown Project's "Life Cube" (above) was a Temple-like art structure, covered in personal, emotional writing and burned in effigy, that was created earlier this Summer.

"The hive switch got turned on by raves. It was a feeling of unity with the other people in the space, unity with the music and with one another," Hsieh explained to Playboy Magazine "That’s why I go to Burning Man. The art, especially at night, just puts you in a state of awe."

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

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