clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is Burning Man Now Just a Tech Conference in the Sand? Re/code Heads to Black Rock to Find Out.

It isn't about getting off the grid -- it's always been about making a new grid.

Hawaii Savvy via Flickr

The past few days — and no doubt increasingly in the coming week — some are bemoaning the fact that Burning Man is too much of a tech hotspot, that it has become big business, that there’s money flowing. This year, the event is installing a second runway for private planes, because one is not enough anymore.

The trouble with these complaints and arguments is: Burning Man was designed to become this.

It isn’t about getting off the grid — it’s always been about making a new grid. It isn’t about living without infrastructure or society — it’s about building a better infrastructure, and an even more tightly entwined society.

The annual weeklong festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert is not some egalitarian commune world, and it’s not a camping trip — it’s a new city, built on the same isolationist and silly and sometimes visionary impulses that have made Silicon Valley. It’s easy to romanticize that and talk about what’s lost, when it’s not really romantic at all, but a city that is evolving.

On a large scale, you see the rise of the city-ness in the “glamping” (glamorous camping, with servants and lots of space per person, which mirrors any other wealthy urban neighborhood). And on a smaller scale, with the average Burner, this desire to make an elaborate and comfortable space is just as obvious. The more infrastructure a Burner brings (solar showers, elaborate seating arrangements, a truck decorated like an octopus), the better. I showed up one year in Tevas and cargo shorts, only to discover a city in eyeliner and fedoras — people who showered twice a day! — a very good-looking co-working space in the sand.

Certainly more money is flowing into it, and this will change the city — just as San Francisco and New York have been changed by money — but this influx of cash is what the founders of Burning Man have courted since its inception. When I first interviewed Mariann Goodell, director of business and communications for Burning Man, for the San Francisco Chronicle, she told me that the liberal fantasy of Burning Man is a fallacy; to prove this, she said her godfather was Antonin Scalia.

Festival founder Larry Harvey has said that money would come into Burning Man as it does into every city, and he didn’t want to do anything to make the wealthy uncomfortable, partly because they donate to the Black Rock Arts Foundation. Given the art this year, which appears to be more elaborate and ambitious than ever, he was right.

At this year’s TEDx Black Rock City sessions, this coming Thursday in Burning Man, the venture capitalist Greg Horowitt will speak about how Black Rock is the ultimate innovation city. Its influence on Silicon Valley is well documented (Tesla and Google Maps have their roots at Burning Man).

“Innovation is all about creating what does not exist — it’s not just about what our knowledge can do for us, it’s what our imagination can do,” Horowitt said to me in an interview earlier this week. “Burning Man does that like no other place.”

And so Re/code is off to cover it. What kind of ideas come out of this place? If it’s an innovation city, then what’s being innovated, and what does it mean?

I’ll be staying at Ideate, the startup camp. I’m driving up from San Francisco with my alter ego, Nitasha. I do not yet have a playa name, but would like one very much.
This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.