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Can Burning Man be Replicated Virtually?

Can Burning Man be Replicated Virtually?

On 11 September 2020, Michael Garfield’s Future Fossils Podcast brought Burning Man’s resident philosopher Caveat Magister together with anarchist community organizer Naomi Most of Noisebridge and Playa trickster historian Mitch Mignano for a conversation about the festival’s uneasy but remarkable transition into virtuality — and how holdouts worldwide persisted in “IRL” celebrations that preserved the face-to-face community and presence Burning Man cannot yet replicate online.

This is one tiny part of a 75-minute conversation that traverses everything from complex systems and the evolution of the city to the new and strange ontologies emerging in the blue light of our screen-bound era. Listen to the whole discussion anywhere you go for podcasts, as Future Fossils Episode 153.

We begin, like Burning Man and virtual reality, in medias res:

Michael: The most popular piece I’ve ever written was called “Transformational Festivals are a Symptom of Dissociation.” It was about how as much as we can recognize this society by its prisons, we can recognize a society by the way that it deals with this universal human phenomenon of festival.

The way that it appears in that culture is often symptomatic of the pathologies of that culture. In our case, turning the transformational experience into a consumable commodity, has been both evident in that we are doing it, and very hard to prevent in many ways. 

I would love to hear y’all talk about is a sense of what it means to bring transformative lessons back from a festival and anchor them in the real world, or when that sort of swashes back up, back into the virtual. And then how the pathologies get swashed back and forth. There’s something about both the good and bad that is being drawn out of one environment and replicated in the other.

Caveat: I think that you’re absolutely right, that it is possible to see in Burning Man, and especially in the transformational festival industry, the pathologies of society. In fact, I think Burning Man can very well be looked at as a response to the pathologies of late 20th, early 21st Century postindustrial information economy. Capitalism.

It’s very clear that Burning Man could be seen as an attempt to reclaim humanity and agency. And I think that’s especially evident in the more commercialized versions of it. You talked about the packaging of transformational experiences as a commodity. I think largely what you have is the failed packaging of transformational experiences as a commodity. None of these wannabes, the attempts to do it, have ever really succeeded on the terms that we’ve set. A McBurning Man is more Mc and much less Burning Man.

It just hasn’t worked. And I think that’s notable. I think that’s important. They’re fine on their own terms, but they are not achieving what it is that this was inspired by and set out to achieve in the first place. Not even close, generally.

As for what’s happening in the moment, I think that it’s too soon to say what we are seeing, or what kind of pathologies are evident in that. But I do think that one of the serious problems we’re encountering with the attempt to do transformative experiences in virtual space is, aside from the fact that we just don’t know how yet, the fact that we’re not coming to the virtual environment fresh.

When people first came to the playa, when they came to the Black Rock desert, their response was: Oh my God, what is this? What do we do? How do we live? They had to invent everything from scratch. Whereas when we come to an internet environment, we are not coming to it from scratch. Our intention may be to do Burning Man, but we very easily fall into 20 years of bad internet habits because we know this environment.

Our intellect doesn’t say, this is Burning Man. It says, this is internet. And so we behave the way we do on the internet. And I think we can all agree that any transformative experiences that generally happen in internet contexts are not the kind that we’re looking for. 

Raven (Mitch): Not to mention that you don’t have to leave your living room to go on the internet. The pilgrimage aspect is huge for people. Maybe it’s not as much of a risk as the first people that went to the playa, but there’s still some risk involved when you go on your friend’s word, you gotta go out to this crazy place. A couple of weeks before Burning man it seems like a whole life collapsed, just to get there. 

Then there’s all the things that you want to do when you’re there. I don’t know how you would ritualize that online, but that’s huge. 

Naomi: There’s something very basic to the behavioral economics of that equation that persists in lots of different contexts. Sales funnels, for example, are much more convincing and much more sticky and people actually follow through with the sale if it’s taken a long time to get to the sales point. Like if they’ve had to sit through a 30-minute webinar. There is something fundamental to the human consciousness about the sense of time investments, or maybe social capital investment, that it took to get there

Caveat: In the context of creating Burning Man experiences, I’ve tentatively labeled this the law of conservation of effort. I think that Black Rock City and regional events benefited in ways we did not fully understand from the fact that you had to not only go through this immense pain in the ass process to get there, but then you were committed to that thing wholeheartedly. You couldn’t just go in and out. You had made a commitment and you were there. 

Once that was the case, almost anything that happened in that environment had a benefit of being this thing that you traveled all this way to do. Even if in that environment you’re doing the physical equivalent of browsing – “oh, let’s see what’s over in here” – you were committed to the entire experience in a way that you’re not when you’re just browsing online, when it’s just: “Let me peek in this Zoom room,” or “Let me check out this virtual space and spend a minute or two seeing if I like it.” And then move on.

Michael: It became really clear to me when I started coming to Burning Man in 2008, that this environment was in some sense a physical instantiation of the organizational principles of the World Wide Web. Each of these camps is basically a website that draws in developers and traffic from all over the world, usually centered in one place, but often distributed in a kind gaseous state. which is the way that Raven’s graduate adviser William Irwin Thompson talked about the kind of phase transition that society is going through generally, the movement into a chaotic, dynamical historical era in which signifiers are floating around. There’s something about the ratcheted metabolic processes of our technosphere that has created a lot of hot air, if this podcast isn’t a strong indication of that. 

There’s something about going to Burning Man that makes clear for me and for other people who are very tuned into the way that they spatially organize their embodied metaphors – metaphors of time, memory palace, cartographies of the inner world – that this is an extrusion of that.

A lot has been said about the way that Burning Man is so excellent at showing how imagination becomes form. That’s one of its key lessons. There’s this eddy that we seem to be in historically on the great river where that form has been extruded and is now washing back up into the virtual. There’s a reflux going on there of some kind.

Caveat: The notion that Burning Man has either been a physical embodiment of what was becoming the internet, or at least evolved in tandem with it, has been commented on a lot. 

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In one of his more recent books, Jaron Lanier referred to the decisions about how the World Wide Web was developed. He said that they made every interaction light. There is no cost whatsoever, no due, to clicking on a link, to browsing, to posting something, to sending an email. It’s all very easy. It’s light. Whereas Burning Man, going out to that kind of environment, all these things are incredibly heavy. They all have an immense sunk cost that you’re putting down. You cannot simply go in and edit, you can’t just backtrack. Every decision you make there is heavy. It’s weighty, it’s meaningful. 

The point that Jaron was making was that he thinks making parts of the internet, in particular virtual reality, heavier is one way to solve a lot of the social problems that we are seeing emerge online. 

The culture of Burning Man and the internet happened in tandem, but the internet has encouraged a culture of lightness. Whereas at Burning Man, all these interactions and decisions are immensely heavy and weighty and grounded.

I went to Burning Man 2020, but I went to a lot less than I thought I would. I put out a post a week before virtual Black Rock City saying that I’d come to the conclusion that I just didn’t want that to be the center of my Burn week. And that I would create the equivalent of a one man theme camp in my backyard and invite people over one at a time to do a distance visit, and have a ritual and art experience that I would put them through. 

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I had 18 people come through and do the ritual, which lasted about 90 minutes to two hours a person, including a long talk. Not only was that a lot of time in and of itself, but the truth is that it was a powerful ritual. It did succeed in creating the kind of Burning Man experience that I wanted, and doing three or four of those a day just left me utterly exhausted.

I was so tired from having done my thing, and rarely did I have the chops to then go, okay, I’ll put my headset on and explore the Multiverse. 

I did that a little bit, but not nearly as much as I had intended to. I played with some of the worlds and some of the parties before the thing was open. I’ve talked to a fair number of people about their experiences and what happened. 

I have not heard anyone talking about transformational experiences in the virtual context. I’ve heard a lot of people say it was better than they thought that it would be. I’ve heard a number of people say, “yeah, actually that was pretty good. Hanging out with my friends in VR was actually pretty fun.” So there’s that level of enthusiasm. And I’ve even heard about a few environments that were really interactive, where you could grab a lot of things and throw them around. Some people say that kind of felt like Burning Man. There was a world created within the Black Rock City VR that was basically a McDonald’s, and you could serve people hamburgers and french fries and shakes, and you could take a giant Coca-Cola display out into the parking lot. People had a lot of fun rampaging through that. 

But I haven’t heard a lot about transformative experiences, or the sort of peak experiences that we normally talk about. And I’ve also heard a lot of people give it a “meh,” saying it was not really what they were looking for. And then half the week was people going, “it’s not working, I can’t access it.”

Naomi: I never experienced enough of a cybernetic meshing with my equipment in order to get into the event in a way that would have allowed me to forget that there’s another world I’m technically standing in, and completely give myself over to the feeling of burning madness. Those great transformative moments where you have to actually dig into your soul and decide what’s important to you. I can just take off the helmet, and also frequently did because it kind of hurts my head. I don’t want to harp too much on the Burning Man experience as itself. I actually just think the technology is not quite there yet.

Caveat: I agree completely. It’s very different to say that we don’t know how to do this yet with the technology we have, than it is to say it is not possible to do. I think those are two very different things. Ever since the pandemic started, I have been creating and hosting small Zoom oriented art events that try to see, how can we do this? And I’ve done it to my satisfaction. I am confident that given an idea and a video chat and the technological equivalent of duct tape. Given committed people, I can create these kinds of experiences.

It’s totally doable, but it does work differently than it would if I had them in person, or if we were out in Black Rock City. And until we figure these things out, then no, we can’t do it, because we have to learn it. The same thing occurred to me during my forays into the actual VR worlds. In a Zoom environment, because I’ve worked at it for months and months and months, I can figure out how to give people these experiences. I can figure out how to give them a gift. I can figure out how to fuck with them in a productive way. I can figure this out. 

In VR environments, I don’t know how to do that yet. I do not know how to give someone a gift in virtual Black Rock City. I do not know how to start a war in virtual Black Rock City. And again, I’m not saying it can’t be done.

Naomi: That’s saying something, guys. If Caveat doesn’t know how to start a war in virtual Burning Man, that means I don’t think anybody knows how to do it yet.

Image: Torley

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