Burning Man: Desert Land Of Misfit Tech

Festival known for dust-blown ‘roughing it’ now playing host to the art, entrepreneurs, and royalty of high tech

During the 2014 Burning Man festival last month, many attendees found themselves discussing the influx of monied, tech-centric festival-goers, as discussed in a recent NYTimes article. Criticism of this growing demographic and the conflict between its desert behaviors and the event’s core principals followed veteran campers and techies alike into the temporary Nevada town known as Black Rock City, resurrected each year by the festival. Despite this criticism, lists of Burning Man art installations as well as festival-funded projects revealed a trend toward media-heavy, tech-friendly artwork and, perhaps, a pro-tech attitude in the community.


The Daily Dot reported on several such high-tech creations at this year’s festival, such as LumenEssence, a sculpture made up of 33 interactive towers surrounding a central viewing platform which also provides shelter. Picked out in LED lights, the towers use capacitive touchscreens to “create interaction between people and the design” and have access elevators for maintaining other interactive features. Another popular electronic set up was DreamBox, part confessional booth and part recording booth, which allowed festival-goers to record a brief monologue on their aspirations after entering their contact info and consent agreement via a touchscreen. In addition to sparkling interactive displays, the event is supported by high-tech features such as iBurn, an app for managing and navigating Black Rock City.


The festival’s decades-long transition from beleaguered camp-out to hugely popular, well-funded event has dismayed many ‘burners,’ but, according to many, has long been on the horizon and is in the festival’s best interest. As Re/code noted, “[t]he special relationship between Burning Man and Silicon Valley is not an accident — it’s by design.” Ideate, a ‘camp’ of tech entrepreneurs, explains its unique purpose, developed in collaboration with Burning Man organizers:

Its members are meant to serve as liaisons and teachers to the flood of new tech workers — and tech money — coming into the festival …[t]he Burning Man founders are aging, and they needed to find a core next-generation troupe and ideas for the weeklong event’s next chapter.

While last month’s attendees observed a cultural clash between the pitched tents of the masses and the air-conditioned, catered, fortress-like camps of the super-wealthy, tech moguls insist that the mental and creative spaces are shared by all, in which lies their value.


Burning Man’s tradition of fostering creativity for the purpose of recreating a hand-made, unconventional city each year has indeed attracted a variety of Silicon Valley contributors. While their processes and results often differ, the oft-restated opinion among developers and backers alike is that the festival’s ‘blank slate’ structure encourages enthusiastically un-boxed thinking. Burning Man founder Larry Harvey explains the festival’s draw for — and similarities to — the tech community, using tech giant Google as an example:

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.

To this end, Venture capitalist Greg Horowitt explains why Black Rock is “the ultimate innovation city” in a TedX talk at the festival; as he tells Vox, Burning Man’s influence on Silicon Valley is easily identified because “[i]nnovation 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 added, “Burning Man does that like no other place.”


A stereotypical image of the creative process involves a person working frustratedly at a typewriter, surrounded by piles of crumpled up, cast-off ideas and drafts. Famed (and named) for the large wooden figure built each year for a one-week display and a one-night flaming demise, Burning Man has its own — perhaps implicit — versions of the disposable-ness in, and waste from, the creative process. While attending the festival, Re/code’s Nellie Bowles spoke with burner-entrepreneur Ryan Parks, who acknowledged that the lavishness of their temporary surroundings makes for “the height of excess” but also praised the space for innovation the festival affords:

We go to the desert, where people die, to build shit we burn. The Maslow hierarchy of needs has been met by our ancestors — so we can make art cars and websites. It’s wasteful but plants the seeds of possibility of whole new worlds.


The Daily Dot

Hearst Communications, Inc., Dreambox, Associated Press, Reuters