Image credit: Duncan Rawlinson
Burning Man likes to see itself as a radical counter-culture. But what if it is in fact an incumbent culture and maintainer of the status quo? Corporations are looking to Burning Man for guidance and inspiration, but what if the popularity of the event is not because of its transformative potential towards something new, but its reinforcing potential of the current order.
This is an article that makes a case and then asks a question. It is a collection of thoughts on how Burning Man might be reinforcing the patterns of late-stage capitalism. I hope it can inspire a conversation on how to break these patterns, and act as a catalyst for those who care about finding a different path forward.
It’s often said that Burning Man and the internet grew up together. In an episode of the Philosophical Center podcast from 2018, Caveat Magister and Anslem Engle discuss that “some meta-movement might be emerging, just like modernism once emerged”, with the internet as its technical manifestation and Burning Man as a social manifestation. But what if that meta-movement already emerged and is now a high-culture, ready to be challenged by a counterculture? What can we learn from exploring the idea of Burning Man and the internet as the incumbent, rather than the upstart? In recent years, the shadowy sides of the internet have been in the spotlight. It would only stand to reason that if there is a social movement coupled with the technical movement of the internet, there might be shadows emerging within it too.
When I was a teenager in Sweden I lived on the frontiers of the internet. I am of the generation that came of age with it. We were the first to experience the freedom to radically co-create and develop our self-expression with infinite inspiration. The early internet was co-created, decommodified, expressive, strongly communal. When I became involved with burner culture decades later, I recognized the hallmarks. It was easy for me to adopt that culture because so much of it was already familiar to me.
This ethos was radically different from the mainstream culture it was countering. In many ways, the late 80s to the late 90s were the peak years of industrialized monoculture. Selling large quantities of a small catalog was the prevalent model. Burning Man and early Internet culture did something else, instead opting to build new worlds on the frontiers. On both of these frontiers, new cultures would be prototyped to challenge the old. In the year 2000 I was 12 years old, and early that year I downloaded Napster on our chirping 56k modem. The old order was about to notice the new as it challenged its models.
What followed was the internet culture-war of the early 2000s. As a teenager, I was on the front lines as a young foot soldier of the self-identified Pirate movement. We were misunderstood as rude punks who wanted to steal music and movies, but what they didn’t understand was how deep our ideology ran. Our mantra was that “information wants to be free” and our ethos was that it should be a right to share it as freely as air and water. Our identities had been formed by the very quality of the internet that was challenging the old order. We were not about to accept artificial boundaries on our beautiful frontier where there was infinite digital space. For many of us, it was deeply philosophical while still tongue-in-cheek, perhaps best exemplified by the Missionary Church of Kopimism which its founders managed to get registered as a religion in Sweden, holding copying information to be a sacred virtue.
For me, across the world from Nevada, this ideology existed in the same meta-culture as Burning Man. I first heard about Burning Man in 2004, on the same forums where I read about open source software and information freedom activism. Pictures of Burning Man became interlinked in my mindscape with the ideas of free and open internet. Indeed, it almost seemed like the material embodiment of the same creature. It made sense that there was a temporary city out there, build on sibling principles.
In these early years, like all starry-eyed teenage idealists, I was young and naive enough to think the revolution would bring something fairer and that the co-created and decommodified would become a serious challenger to industrialized mainstream culture. In the coming decade, it all played out quite differently.
The internet: Capitalism strikes back
Mainstream media was struggling and it was becoming obvious that it would lose the fight if it didn’t adapt. In the mid-2000’s we saw the first attempts at understanding what a new commercially successful model would look like. In my view, the most successful at predicting the future was “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More” by Chris Anderson, Editor in chief of Wired. This book foresaw how capitalism could regain control in a new landscape. In a world without the limits of shelf-space, the dopamine kick of discovering something new, being influenced to think something new, dance to something new – could be endless. This new paradigm foresaw that the success of DYI internet culture was not just that it felt authentic, it was also that it provided an endless stream of novelty which helped reaffirm to the consumer that they were experiencing something intimate and unique.
In the years that followed, the internet conquered all, and capitalism caught up. Through monetized social media, the Long Tail theory was proven correct. And more recently, the same approach has been applied to the modern versions of traditional media – Netflix and other streaming services operate on the same premise, to cater increasingly to smaller and smaller subsegments to keep the attention on the screens.
As we know, attention is the hard currency of the internet economy. And those who make the most amount of money are those who hold most of that attention. This attention is turned into data, which is sold for profit. This has led us to a media landscape where we take in more experience, more different content in a day than we used to in weeks. Much of it is the DYI work of YouTubers, podcasters, online pundits, Instagram models, and other independent producers. Most of it is free and personalized, and we can all participate. The monetary value is not in the content itself, but in the attention it produces.
Today, many of us who championed the internet in the early 2000s have had to see it fall into the hands of large corporations. That freedom we fought to have as citizens has been misused and appropriated, with the dawn of “surveillance capitalism” as a direct result. In response to this, many of the radicals have abandoned hope for the World Wide Web and are moving towards technologies of decentralization and many internets that cannot be fully owned or controlled. Our mistake, in my opinion, was to underestimate what capitalism would do with the freedom we fought for. I can’t help but ponder how to keep the burner culture from falling into the same trap.
Is Burning Man a pillar of Bay Area capitalism?
When people rant about the “commercialisation” of Burning Man, they usually talk about people making money with art from the playa and the industry of “turnkey camps”. I think this is the wrong place to look when considering late-stage capitalism. In the context of the industrial economy, capitalism depends on the skills of the workers producing the goods, as well as on people then buying those goods with the money they earn. How this leads to a concentration of wealth and increased inequality is well documented. It is also a position of many, like myself, that this is a problem and the cause of much social and economic instability and even violence and war. So this begs us to question, who are the proletariat and who are the capitalists of the “attention economy”? In asking these questions, we are exploring the perspective that Burning Man might be supporting an incumbent culture – a sort of social arm to the internet capitalism of the Bay Area and beyond.
The Attention Factory
First of all, there is a direct comparison to be made between Burning Man and the Internet as incumbent high cultures. Both have replaced an old paradigm of mass-produced monolithic culture with co-created and highly pluralistic expressions. In both cultures, your individuality is highly catered to and celebrated. Both cultures depend on self-expression to thrive and grow stronger. In the age of YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and Twitch, an event with endless attention-grabbing co-created content is really highly conformist to the incumbent culture. Burning Man as a phenomenon is also a phenomenal backdrop for co-created online content, as we have seen with the rising numbers of connected influencers on the playa. As we have noted, the most grateful benefactors of the popularity of clickable Burning Man content are the platforms on which this content is shared, as it is phenomenal at grabbing and keeping attention. From that perspective, the workers of the attention economy are both those who produce the art at Burning Man and the influencers themselves. Even though the influencer might be receiving some compensation for their work, it is really negligible compared to the combined value generated for the platforms. Attention is harvested from their work, and that attention is converted into financial capital. This is one way in which Burning Man fits perfectly into the incumbent order, as a sort of “dream mine” or “attention factory”.
Mirrored values – the world in our image
Burning Man is largely created and funded on an American philanthropic model. Black Rock City acts as proof to tech-libertarians that their utopia is possible, one where we can all co-exist and be excellent to each other, but where the people who have the most money decide what to fund on their own whim.
This sort of world plays well to the tastes of the digital pyramid building boy-Pharaohs of Silicon Valley. This perspective was explored in a 2015 article by Keith A. Spencer. While the article does not fully understand the culture and it’s more benign aspects, it is well worth a read to integrate that perspective into a more complete picture. Spencer goes so far as to blame the principle of Radical self-expression itself.
The root of Burning Man’s degeneration may lie in the concept itself. Indeed, the idea of radical self-expression is, at least under the constraints of capitalism, a right-wing, Randian ideal, and could easily be the core motto of any of the large social media companies in Silicon Valley, who profit from people investing unpaid labor into cultivating their digital representations.
There is an important key-concept in that paragraph: radical self-expression, at least under the constraints of capitalism. This distinction is important. With a higher degree of radical critique, these pitfalls are perhaps not unavoidable, but they require a long hard look at ourselves.
A marketplace for social capital
In the last decade, the percentage of Burning Man participants who make more than $300,000 a year has more than tripled from 1.4% in 2010 to 4.8% in 2018. What is driving this development? Burning Man is becoming more expensive, but it doesn’t really make that much of a dent if your annual income is $100,000+. So why is the highest income bracket growing so much faster?
A key factor of being a successful capitalist is to make sure that your return on capital is always in your favor. Apart from Burning Mans’s role for personal development and the fact that the parties are second to none, might there be direct returns on capital from participating in Burning Man? One intuitive place to look for such a reason would be the role of Black Rock City as a place of networking and building trust. It has been shown that high social capital is key both in personal financial development and that trust derived from greater social capital allows for more stock market participation (Guiso, Sapienza, and Zingales 2004, 2008).
One possible avenue for future research might be to measure the exchange rate between money spent on Burning Man art and projects, and the gain in social capital. My hypothesis would be that Black Rock City is actually an extremely dynamic market for social capital, an environment where the exchange rate of financial capital to social capital is extremely favorable. Commissioning extravagant art, camps or art cars probably increases your chances a lot to gain social capital.
If this is the case, we find ourselves in a schoolbook example of Marxist theory – capital attracts more capital. In this case, social capital is bought for financial capital where it is cheap - much because of the contributions of tens of thousands of participants. This social capital can then be used to acquire more financial capital later. Of course, this is a dubious claim that should primarily be regarded as a thought experiment, as this conversion between financial and social capital is not well supported. However, if taken at face value, it is interesting to once more return to the increase of people in the $300,000 income bracket. Is it just that more wealthy people are coming to Burning Man, or is Burning Man also making the wealthy people of the $150,000-299,999 income bracket richer through improving their social capital?
This might all be fine if the social capital gain is not very unequally distributed among the participants. I have no idea how it is distributed in reality, but we can turn to the work of economist Thomas Piketty to make a prediction. Piketty has famously shown that when the rate of return on capital ( r ) is greater than the rate of economic growth ( g ) over the long term, the result is the concentration of wealth. In Burning Man terms, the total social capital of Black Rock City grows more slowly when the event grows more slowly. And it is growing a lot more slowly than it used to. If Piketty’s formula is indeed applicable (which is a complete shot in the dark), it would predict that if left to its own devices, Black Rock City is poised to become increasingly unequal. Those already at the top of the pyramid, the Bay Area tech elite, would stand to benefit the most.
A Saturnalia for the Bay Area
Another way in which Burning Man might be supporting the culture of late capitalism is paradoxically by being an inverted version of society. In Ancient Rome, Saturnalia was a festival celebrated in December in honor of the god Saturn. It was a carnival celebration where the social norms where overturned. Slaves were served at the table by their masters, gambling was permitted and little gifts were exchanged among all. It even had its own version of “fuckery” – the sort of mischief and pranks popular at Burning Man. A “King of Saturnalia” would be elected and give absurd orders to people to increase general merriment. It was seen as a time of liberty for all, and to use today’s terms, probably a time of some personal development and transformation.
Roman society was famously order-oriented, so why was this tradition permitted and encouraged? One theory is that having such periods of role inversion creates some slack in the system, making the status quo more likely to persist. In today’s terms, having that transformative moment in the desert with CEOs and investors might make the worker less likely to go on strike or vote to tax them heftily so that she can have health insurance and maternity leave.
Breaking the patterns
So what if these assumptions are right and Burning Man has become an incumbent culture in symbiosis with internet capitalism? If you agree that Burning Man should be paving the way for more equality and a society less controlled by the forces of capital, what can be done? By knowing the patterns, we can make decisions with the explicit goal to not reinforce them. Just as some of the proponents of early internet culture are reflecting on the last 30 years to course correct, so should burner culture.
I was at Burning Man in 2017, and it was a very powerful experience. I loved the project I worked on the rest of the rich experience of Black Rock City. Even though I enjoyed it a lot, and even though I have been very involved with the culture through the regional network, I have not had a strong enough drive to go back yet. Some of the things I didn’t like quite as much are being addressed in a recent course correction. While this is very positive, the issues this article touches on are of a different nature and perhaps harder to correct for.
I’m very involved in other events with similar principles, like The Borderland. Using Burning Man as a focal point in this article is easy as it is by far the largest and most prominent of the subculture, but I think that many of these points can be just as relevant elsewhere, even though I personally think that these patterns are a lot less pronounced at other events.
So where do we go from here? I leave that question open for now, hoping to add my own perspectives once I’ve had time to reflect on the first part. I am looking to collaborate on this. These are critical perspectives brought to a culture I identify with and want to see succeed, but that I think would benefit from some healthy radical critique.