Burning Man’s Global Leadership Conference (Part 1) – Everything Old is New Again

Burners love having their photos taken together.

If you want to know what’s on the cutting edge of Burning Man, the Global Leadership Conference (happening this weekend in Oakland) is the place to be … sort of.

It’s definitely where you can get the latest updates on what’s happening with the new Burning Man non-profit, or discover previously unknown issues arising at Regionals around the world.  The impact of new technologies is often acknowledged here first.  And – as a spoiler – I advise anyone who wants to see the future of Burning Man on video to stay glued to Saturday morning’s presentation on “Profiles in Dust”:  it’s amazing.

But to say the GLC is all about the future is to miss the fact that, in most cases, we’ve been here before.  What are the topics being covered?  Why:  “how to fund-raise.”  “How to get and keep volunteers.”  “How to reach out to new communities.”  “How to handle conflicts in our existing community.”  “How to produce a really great event.”

New problems?  Hardly – they’re the oldest.  These are all topics that have come up before, and before, and before, and will come up again, and again, and again.  It reached the point this afternoon where I realized that I was in a session that was covering some of the exact same issues that were covered in a session I attended last year … that included one of the same panelists.  It was, to be clear, a good session:  but I can’t say we broke any new ground.

Novelty may be the fruit of the GLC, but the trees are evergreen.

I think this is because Burning Man’s most fundamental challenges are human challenges – not technological or theoretical or policy based.  Those things are important, and will change … “crowd sourcing” is an option available now in ways that weren’t to the Burning Man organization in 1998 … but the most fundamental issues of Burning Man are ones that challenge us to relate to each other in new ways when we’re standing face-to-face with someone we don’t know.  The human condition doesn’t change very quickly – if at all – and these basic human issues need to be addressed fresh year after year, with each new burn and each new burner and each new volunteer.  If it seems like a ritual that’s always in its first year, starting almost from scratch, that’s because it is.

It’s also getting bigger.  First the challenge was for a few hundred people who knew each other well to relate to each other differently for a week.  Then it was for a few thousand people who sort-of knew each other to treat each other differently for a week.  Then it was for 20,000 strangers;  then 30,000, then 50,000.

Now, the challenge is not only to keep that gathering in the desert going as a proof-of-concept that we can be different, but to extend that out into regions across the world.  Technology helps;  and we must understand policy;  but “How do we relate to each other?” is still the fundamental question, and while the scale is vastly different I’m not sure the question itself has changed all that much over 25 years.  It’s just that some questions have to be asked and answered over, and over, and over again – even by the same people, yes, but especially as new people take their places at our table.

We in Western culture like to think that improvement is something that happens once:  you only need to invent the light bulb once.  You only need to got to college once.  You only need to the defeat the Nazis once.  But to the extent this is in fact true about any problem, it’s an aonssumpti especially unsuited to the challenges that Burning Man’s volunteers and ambassadors face.  To create communities that relate to each other in fundamentally different ways, the people in them can never go on autopilot.  There is no algorithm for this kind of success, because the uniqueness of each person, each region, each culture, must be radically included and given the space with which to radically express itself – not just at this moment, but as we age and grow and change together.

You can’t put these kinds of challenges behind you because for the people you’re most trying to reach these challenges are happening right now.  “Immediacy” is required, always, and so you go to the well again and again, each time like it’s the first.  “Be here now” is more important than “I learned this then” when you’re trying to change a culture.

Still, progress can be made.  I’m going to write several posts this week talking about how it has been.  I think.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

One comment on “Burning Man’s Global Leadership Conference (Part 1) – Everything Old is New Again

  • Nicole Hickman says:

    The picture actually appears to be from a different year. I say this because I’m in it, and I wasn’t able to go this year. I’m looking forward to reading your other posts on the subject, thanks as always for your insightful writing.

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