GLC 2016: Ramez Naam on Provoking the Future

Participants in the 2016 GLC were treated Saturday morning to a visit by Ramez Naam, celebrated science fiction author, former elected fake-cult leader from the Church of Mez, and longtime Burner.

Mez’s talk challenged Burners and Burner-like humans to take on their civic responsibility as explorers and engineers of inner and outer space. “We are the ones that we have been waiting for,” Mez said.

imageMez began by setting the record straight: “I just want to say I am no longer a cult leader. The cult was declared ‘morally bankrupt’,” Mez reassured us. He’s concentrating on his other exploits these days: The author of the renowned Nexus trilogy was recently awarded a Philip K. Dick award for his novel, Apex, so people are constantly congratulating him on his Dick now.

Mez’s first Burn was in ’97, and after his friends gave him a cult for his birthday, he got in pretty deep. He shared that his experiences on playa opened him up to other people in big ways, helping him overcome interpersonal anxieties and reach out to strangers in that quintessentially Burner way. Burning Man breaks down those boundaries, and Mez says this — combined with an interest in the headiest science and technology — is what has motivated him to bridge the inner and outer worlds through writing sci-fi.

Most sci-fi is about outer space, but Mez prefers to write about inner space, somewhere we all boldly go. Just like everyone else in the room at the GLC, Mez has done a great deal of inner space exploration at Burning Man events, producing insights equally valuable in sci-fi and in reality. Sci-fi might suck at predicting the future, Mez says, but its real job is to provoke it. It’s for driving science, for exploring possibilities and helping us decide how to direct our energies over the long term.

Mez ran us through a litany of amazing technological breakthroughs — from cyborg improvements like cochlear implants to full-blown electrically-mediated brain-to-brain connections between people — a real-life foreshadowing of the neurotech telepathy prophesied in his Nexus storyline. This isn’t sci-fi; inner and outer space are intimately connected, and human inventions are constantly widening the bandwidth of that connection. It’s no surprise that, in Mez’s view, those who explore inner space most thoroughly are the ones who drive innovation. Yes, that’s us.

What Does it Mean??

Burners are people of action, but we’re also an intensely introspective bunch. Our relentless drive for doing stuff is powered by our never-ending search for meaning. Let two or more Burners talk to each other long enough, and you’ll always end up with this kind of soul-searching: What does it mean that the world is this way? What does my participation in the world mean? What does meaning even mean?

Mez has a rather handy answer for that last one, available both in English and mathese:

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“The meaning of a thing is the change it causes in the world.”

That’s pretty snappy. Something is meaningful to the extent it changes the world. In other words, as Mez and undoubtedly many others say, “All art is political.”

What Can Burners Do?

So, given all the political challenges we face as a species, what’s a Burner to do to help? Make art, of course. But Mez helpfully laid out five particular qualities of Burning Man culture that make for effective — and therefore meaningful — art.

1. We experiment.

We try stuff, we see if it works, and we don’t bother to be afraid of what happens if it doesn’t. Mez thinks that cliché about Einstein’s definition of insanity is too pat: It’s not insane to try something over and over again and expect different results, because sometimes you have to do that until it works.

2. We inspire.

Burners pride themselves on pulling off impossible-seeming feats. One undeniable effect of Burning Man culture in the world is that it drives artistic ambition ever upward. “Big dreams simply expressed are the ones that get people moving,” Mez says.

3. We include.

Even though we could always do better at this, Burners can be proud that Radical Inclusion is one of our fundamental principles. The Burner greeting, “Welcome home!”, does not refer to a place. It means, “This movement is for you, even if you’ve never encountered it before.”

4. We organize.

It takes incredible levels of cooperation to make a Burning Man thing happen, whether it’s a big Burn in the desert or a drive to bring supplies to homeless neighbors. We are experts at pulling things off. And we pull off risky things, which means we fail sometimes, and we learn from that, too. As our civic challenges get harder and harder over the course of the perilous 21st century, I know I’d want a Burner or two working on the game plans.

5. We engage.

Burners have high standards for the world in which they want to live. We need things to be constantly getting more awesome. So when the world awesomeness quotient is growing too slowly, we step in and turn it up.


Top photo by Jenny Beatty

About the author: Jon Mitchell

Jon Mitchell

is the publisher of the Burning Man Journal, the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter, and the Burning Man website. His playa name is Argus. He co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012. He’s been a Burner since 2008. Email: argus@burningman.org / Twitter: @GoForArgus

2 Comments on “GLC 2016: Ramez Naam on Provoking the Future

  • Kennita Watson says:

    About experimenting: It is indeed insane to do the SAME THING over and over, expecting a different result; but tweaking one of any number of variables just a little bit (even if most people can’t see the difference) and seeing if it lands you any closer to success can be an important part of experimentation.

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  • Modern Plato says:

    This is an awesome insight to the philosophy of Burners.

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