Introduction: The Philosophical Center

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

The mission of the Burning Man Project is to seek out Burning Man culture, as it is described by the Ten Principles, and to link these efforts and communities to one another as part of a worldwide network. Nestled at the heart of this non-profit, another institution, the Philosophical Center, will serve as both the conscience and collective memory of Burning Man. Its mission is to foment discourse that examines the Ten Principles. The motto that will guide this is a quote by William James, “Belief is thought at rest.” This ongoing 10 Principles blog series is the Philosophical Center’s public debut.

We Found Ourselves!
Porta-potty graffiti, 2013 (Photo by  anonymous Burner)

In an essay included in this blog series, Caveat Magister writes, ”We came to Burning Man because we saw something was happening—we felt its potential all the way down to our bones, sometimes from the other side of the earth—and we were called to be a part of it. Later, maybe, we learned it has 10 Principles, and we started looking to them as a way to aspire to what we were already inspired by.” He is saying that the Principles do not precede immediate experience: they issue out of it. The Principles, in other words, are not an ideology that stands outside of one’s experience. They are a portrait of an ethos; they describe a way of life.

Perhaps the best way to commence thinking about the Ten Principles is to consider their actual language, to engage in a close reading. To begin with, they utterly lack the imperative mood; they are not commands or requests—they do not give permission or withhold it. For example, Leaving No Trace is not a commandment. Although it speaks of what we value, it does not demand allegiance. Agency resides within the actor, not externalized as rules. This assumes these values are internalized, that they arise within each individual as a result of participating in a community, and that we act, in the deepest sense, as a result of who we are.

It should also be noted that the Ten Principles employ the language of prosody. The principle of Participation states, ”We make the world real through actions that open the heart.” Such language often has the property of meaning many things at once, and this is because it is not produced by following a linear series of logical propositions. Instead of explaining, as if unfolding the planes of a box, poetic language does the opposite. It tends to compact perceptions, feelings and ideas—through metaphor, meter and allusion it produces hyper-potent signifiers; it strives to say the unsayable.

The state of mind that this induces may be called irrational, but the heart, as poets say, has reasons of its own. If we contemplate those signal experiences in our lives that mean the most to us —such as falling in love, or discovering a true vocation—we often find that they exceed and transcend any rational standard. Perhaps the two most common things participants say about Burning Man is that it has changed their lives, and that it cannot be explained—one has to be there. Poetic diction strives to capture the flavor, the scent, and the concrete touch of experience that is immanent.

The Church Trap, 2013 (photo by Trey Ratcliff
The Church Trap, 2013 (photo by Trey Ratcliff

There does exist, however, an essential precept that can guide a critical examination of the Principles. This is expressed in the Burning Man Project’s mission statement, “These Ten Principles are integral to one another, nothing short of all of them combined will really do.” This implies that they are coadapted, that they have evolved as a result of complex social interactions. Each is like a strand of woven fabric in a figured carpet. Or to employ a more dynamic simile, the whole of the Ten Principles is like an ecosystem. This vision of an underlying cultural coherence suggests that before we exclude or disregard a Principle, we might do well to first consider the cascading consequences of its omission.

This way of thinking of the Principles can also deter us from exalting any single Principle by extending its apparent logic in some absolute fashion. If, for example, Radical Self-reliance is held to imply unaided survivalism, how can it possibly correspond to Communal Effort? Philosophy occurs when principles collide, and we should allow these Principles to interpret and interrogate one another. Our philosophy, in other words, is muscular—it depends on the capacity of its assumptions to do work.

The purpose of the Philosophical Center is to serve as both the “conscience and collective memory of Burning Man,” and its mission statement says it will “elucidate the Ten Principles by means of a precedential approach that examines how these principles have been effectively used to solve past problems and answer questions incident to the creation of Burning Man…Such analysis shall also include spontaneous cultural practices and initiatives that have arisen within the Burning Man community independently of any institutional mandate.” This method of inquiry is empirical. It relies on careful observation and pragmatic analysis: it assumes that things are what they do.

“Believe” by Laura Kimpton & Jeff Schomberg, 2013 (Photo by Anthony Peterson)

This historical approach should lead us to tell stories that will situate these Principles in actions and occurrences. And perhaps the most important story concerns the origin of the Ten Principles. Throughout the second decade of our tenure in the desert, as Black Rock City grew, an ever-increasing number of people wanted to apply its ethos to their daily lives: they needed to keep being as they’d been at Burning Man by doing things with other people. But without the customs and the context of our city to guide them, they sometimes found this to be very difficult. This is when a call arose for some sort of statement, some kind of credo that would help them to recreate their experience.

This is why I wrote the Ten Principles in 2004. In fact, I didn’t really volunteer to write them — I was voluntold. And when they were at last published, a very remarkable thing occurred. Within a community that is so often resistant to any form of central authority, the Principles were met with universal acceptance. Since then, these Ten Principles have been embraced by hundreds of communities around the world, and they have also been adopted the many organizations that are served by the Burning Man Network.

The philosopher William James suggested that the relevance of any idea should be gauged by answering a simple question. What real difference will it make if one believes it? How does that belief affect the way that we conduct our lives? Judged according to this standard, the Ten Principles have proven to be useful, durable and productive; they have enabled us to think and communicate, they have enabled us to act, and they have helped us to project our culture into the world. However, this could cease to happen unless we remain ready to constantly exercise and examine them. This Ten Principles blog offers everyone an opportunity to participate in this discussion.

About the author: Larry Harvey

Larry Harvey

Born in 1948, Larry Harvey grew up on a small farm on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. In the late 1970s he moved to San Francisco, and soon discovered the city's thriving underground art scene. In 1986 he founded Burning Man at a local beach, and guided its progress from that moment until his death in 2018. Larry was Founding Board Member and Chief Philosophic Officer of Burning Man Project. He scripted and co-curated Burning Man's annual art theme and collaborated with artists in creating aspects of the art theme and the design of Black Rock City. Larry also wrote articles and essays for the Project's website. As spokesperson for Burning Man, he was frequently interviewed by reporters, and lectured on subjects as diverse as art, religion, civic planning and the rise of cyber-culture in the era of the Internet. Larry was also a political planner, supervising the organization's lobbying efforts and frequently attending meetings with state, county and federal agencies.

28 Comments on “Introduction: The Philosophical Center

  • someone_else says:

    We are not a cult… we are not a cult… we are not a cult…

    Or at least that’s what I’m trying to convince myself.

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  • Larry Harvey says:

    Burning Man is a self-service cult. You wash your own brain.

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  • Lauren says:

    Yes, it is time to nuture the roots again so that the tree will be able reach even more outward and skyward, and so even the roots themselves can creep outward seeking more nutrients.

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  • Paul Carey says:

    How does the Project, or you Larry, reconcile the current state of the project with the Principles? Particularly with respect to the accommodation of spectators, ticket acquisition and the tacit approval of the commodification of the Burning Man experience?

    Paul Carey

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  • John O. says:

    Haha. Wash your own brain. Nice.

    Can we add an 11th principle? Or maybe a few suggestions? For some reason 10 principles reminds me of 10 commandments.

    11 principles and a few suggestions has a ring to it.

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  • Jeremy Roush says:

    “Cultish” behaviors are often exhibited around potent ideas by those who self-identity through association rather from their own interior development. These types are the first to defend their chosen good idea, though what they defend is actually their own limited understanding of the good idea, and usually their defense fossilizes and ultimately destroys the good idea.

    Burning Man “culture” has its share of self-appointed “bishops” who attempt to guard/regulate the “community”. It is clear, if one does indeed engage in “close reading,” that Larry intends to fan the flames of Burning Man’s very good ideas without accreting the dead weight of cultish behavior by explicitly weaving self-examination, and thus evolution, into the core matrix of the good idea. Constantly pushing away from those would “protect the culture” is necessary to allow the core good ideas of Burning Man to continue spead and catch hold around the world.

    I look forward to more in this series. Thanks for taking the time.

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  • Larry Harvey says:

    This is a reply to Jeremy Roush:

    Thank you for your insightful comment. I think you are right to be suspicious of self-appointed “bishops”. There is a word that describes their behavior: they “reify” ideas. This describes the tendency to treat ideas as if they were real and concrete things that exist quite independently of our experience. In seeking certainty, people frequently take refuge in such fixed ideas. Most fundamentally, they do this to achieve security, the reassuring sense that they possess some form of absolute truth– a strong moral compass in a confusing world. However, as you suggest, they also often do this to achieve self-righteousness, that most addictive of all drugs, and this is a characteristic of many religions. By asserting that “Belief is thought at rest”, we can avoid this.

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  • Thanks for sharing, this is a fantastic post.Thanks Again. Fantastic.

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  • Daniel Ray Dodson says:

    I first became aware of Burning Man back in the ’90s. I didn’t know much about it. I had the impression that it was some wild party in a desert somewhere. It largely was beyond the periphery of my awareness as to exactly what it entailed.

    I had forgotten about it in the intervening years until just recently. I saw the documentary entitled “Spark, A Burning Man Story” and became better informed as to what it was. I actually found it inspiring and intriguing. Interestingly, I found that some of the 10 Principles of Burning Man’s philosophy where concepts I already embraced in my own life. I just didn’t think of them in terms of principles.

    I was also inspired by the people who’s personal Burning Man experiences were featured in the film. I liked the idea of that lady becoming a welder after a career in child development that didn’t seem to light her fire much. I liked how she discovered a previously unknown (presumably) creative impulse in her that made her veer off into a completely new direction regarding what she really wanted to do in her life.

    I like the idea of constructing giant art pieces and wooden buildings to burn down later, in some apparently cathartic ritual. I have never been to a Burning Man festival, but in a way, I feel like I am a kind of “Burner” in my own right. Perhaps I can make it to the next one to see for myself what it is all about in person.

    I also find the notion of an alternative approach to how a society can be, as compared to the societies of what you guys call the “Default World”, fascinating. The concept has unexpectedly filled me with an optimism about humanity I didn’t think I was capable of. Because generally, I think humanity sucks. In fact, up to this point, I pretty much wrote humanity off.

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  • Mona Maupin says:

    I believe that we are all one and the same with our Mother Earth and all who inhabit her. Leaving as small a footprint as possible while doing all I can to help heal her is one of my top priorities. Taking care of my Brothers and Sisters is also of great importance to me. The Indigenous people have not totally forgotten this and are struggling to keep their ways. As a Society, we should be doing the same. I am moving to AZ in 2014 and I am already searching for my home and community within an Eco-Village, commune or other such environment.

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  • John Tripp says:

    How did the “trailers for rent” over near 7:30 and K fit in with the 10 principles. They had their own little store for last minute items.

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  • Dan Stevens says:

    I am new to the Playa, in many was. 2013 was my 9th year in 12 yrs. I find it amazing there, kind, helpful, based on sharing and so on. In recent years a crowd of comers don’t get it. One bad bag of tea in the tea pot can change the flavor but it is still tea. The Playa is the best tea I have ever experienced. It is family to everyone, the family members you have never met. How can this be, it is thru compassion for you fellow Humans! Many can’t grasp this concept and should stay away. One noticed event is the patience in the drivers, NO HORN BEEPING…. We are home, EITHER GET ALONG – OR GET ALONG. In other words Don’t come. This is the best confluence of humans anywhere. It has growing pains, nothing is perfect, but rather than disrespect it lets help make it better. Just My Opinion…. Larry H Thanks for what you have created, the experience it Heart warming and THE FIX to humanity…

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  • rainbowsparklehunnybadger says:

    the first principle is false… “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man.. We welcome the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community”.. Rather more acurate would be ” Anyone with a ticket may enter the Burning Man festival”

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  • Daniel says:

    The concept of Radical Inclusion is interesting to me because it is analogous to a two-edged sword. On the positive side, it is welcoming to all human beings regardless of what differentiates them from each other, such as race, social economic status, etc.

    But on the negative side, people who are nefarious in some personal way are not the kind of people you want messing up your utopia love-fest with their hateful bullshit or threatening aspects. Assholes can ruin a good thing. enough of them can destroy it.

    It seems to me that the people who go to burning man share a common vision or ethos, to use Larry Harvey’s vernacular. Although there appears to be a great variety of types of people who go to Burning Man, there seems to be a common thread that joins them despite their various reasons for coming, and the manifold interests and activities that distinguishes them from each other.

    But a majority of people in this world embody attributes that are anathema to the spirit of Burning Man (at least as I interpret that spirit). That’s why the Default world is the Default World. I hope to attend Burning Man this year if I can move my Radical Self Reliance from theory to reality. But, I have a fear that as Burning Man gets bigger and bigger, the concept of Radical Inclusion will be the pathway to its own destruction.

    I am aware that the existential challenges (Larry Harvey’s term) the organizers of Burning Man faced in the early years were more severe than those of more recent times, such as the ticket sales issue, but too many of the wrong kind of people might pose an insurmountable challenge that may sound the death knell for Burning Man. I hope not.

    On the other hand, it seems that the atmosphere of the Black Rock Desert Wilderness Area creates a mood that transforms peoples’ perspectives a little. Maybe it is the sense of getting away from their normal worlds and entering a strange and enchanted world of wonder, pleasure and danger that mitigates any potential negativity that any jerks might bring with them.

    furthermore, there are some external factors that counter the ability to radically include everyone. One is the remote location of the event. Another is the cost of the ticket and trip to the event. And yet another is people excluding themselves from the event because they think that Burning Man is some Sodom & Gomorra-like freak fest (I hope it is), and they don’t want to have anything to do with it.

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  • Daniel says:

    I like the concept of Radical Self Expression. It is one of the Burning Man Principles that I already embraced, in my own fashion, before I ever even heard Burning Man.

    Of course, I wonder what exactly does “Radical” mean in the mind of the author of these principles, and what does it mean in the minds of other “Burners”. I just looked in a dictionary, and read one of the definitions of the word “Radical”. It said “Carried to the farthest limit; extreme.”

    One person’s idea of Radical may be too far out for another person’s idea of Radical. Maybe someone’s idea of Radical Self Expression could be going around with a chain saw and cutting off people’s heads.

    I know (I mean I assume) that this is not what Burners mean by Radical Self Expression in the Burning Man reality. But this world is full of nut jobs and extremists of a sort who can take that concept and pervert it into something that is not what you mean, but still could serve as an example of it.

    I find that life in the workplace is made stagnant by an oppressive attempt to crush the human spirit and self expression (forget about radical) through a false concept of making the workplace free of hostility, prejudice and discrimination.

    I am all for a workplace free of those things in truth, but in actual practice, it is just an excuse for authoritarian-minded, faceless bureaucrats to turn us all into ants. They demand that you act in a “Professional Manner” or suffer disciplinary action.

    The problem is, they do not foster true professionalism, which I define as getting the job done in a competent manner. Rather, what they mean is an imposed affectation, a sterile code of behavior that produces mindless, corporate line-towing, soulless automatons. All this while fostering incompetence, waste, and stupidity.

    In my earlier life, I was considered a strange person by my family and others in my immediate world, simply because I thought differently from them. I was interested in different things from them, I didn’t talk like them, etc. I didn’t know I was different until they told me. And they told me, and told me, and told me.

    Nowadays, some of those same people, those who didn’t fall by the wayside into death, or some other self-created state of stagnation, tell me that they are proud to have me as a brother, friend, etc. What changed? I didn’t. They have come to appreciate my genuineness, honesty, charm, humor, or whatever, in due course.

    Manny of the people they loved so much in the past have fallen out of favor with them for one reason or another, and now they have come to appreciate me for who I am and who I always was.

    One thing I heard from some of the Burning Man people regarding Radical Self Expression in Black Rock City, is that Burning Man allows people to be who they really want to be without judgment or criticism. My take on this is that one must strive to be brave enough to be the man or woman they want to be in life, whether certain other people like it or not.

    This is not part of the Burning Man Ethos as you guys express it, but in my life, Radical Self Expression takes on a slightly militant aspect in the face of self-appointed, Peanut Gallery critics who’s personal example of how to act or who to be is an inferior paradigm of human behavior.

    Perhaps, that is one way Burners can take the sacred Principle of Radical Self Expression to the Default World. As the Beastie Boys (who’s music I hate, by the way) put it: You have to fight for your right to party.

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  • henni racik says:

    blessings, I am seeking the founder.. so can connect projects and make it a TOUR AFFAIR this year..and only need to know where the festival will be and when please contact me at attention founder of burning man event

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  • Daniel says:

    Participation. Now that’s an interesting one. At first, when I learned what the 10 Principles of Burning Man were in the sense of a list of principles representing an ethos;
    Participation didn’t seem like much of a principle.

    As I have stated in previous discussions about my take on Burning Mans’ 10 Principles, I subscribed to some of the principles in my own way already, without necessarily thinking of them as such. Participation was not one of them.

    However, in a very short time, I began to see what the virtue of Participation was. That is, I began to see what I thought was meant by what Burners meant when they spoke of it. Then again, maybe I have no clue what the hell Burners mean by Participation.

    As a child, I was told to participate in a lot of things I didn’t give a damn about. In fact, I hated these things, these activities and such, that people kept demanding I participate in. I even grew to hate the word “Participation.”

    I guess I hated it because I was forced to do things I didn’t want to do, and the word “Participation” was used as a blackjack to bludgeon me over the head with. It was as if the act of participation was so goddamned sacrosanct, I was compelled by some moral imperative inherent in its meaning.

    And I never saw that moral imperative. Today, however, I think I see what you Burning Man freaks mean by Participation, and I can dig it (to use an old hipster expression). Society today seems to encourage consumption, and spectator-ism (is that a real word? Probably not.). Watching TV, sports, following stupid-ass celebrities and the their idiotic escapades, and so on.

    I got tired of working all week, and then watching TV or going to movies, or engaging in some other passive, non-activity on weekends. Life can be pretty damn boring if you don’t do something that involves your emersion in it through some kind of active participation. It has to be fun though. It can’t be the kind of thing I was just talking about earlier, it must be something you find interesting, engaging, or thought-provoking.

    It is only then that you truly can experience life, rather than numbly sitting by on the sidelines and watching the world go by. I found that the extreme boredom of doing nothing but watching TV on weekends, and then working all week shows just how meaningless life is for us conditioned, mindless (by design, I think) masses. I have been participating in a lot of things lately, such as off road motorcycling, scuba diving, and playing musical instruments, to name but a few.

    When I look at many of my coworkers, I feel that I am fortunate in that I have escaped the hum-drum existence they have resigned themselves to. To me, they are the living dead. And I feel that I have become some kind of party boy. I mean that in my own way of defining a party boy. To me, it is doing what I like to do, the way I like to do it. It is not necessarily the same definition of a party boy anyone else might agree on, but who cares? Real party boys like me redefine what it means, and to me, that’s all that matters.

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  • Andie Grace says:

    John Tripp:

    You should have asked the people in the trailers. I mean, how do you think they fit?*


    *See ref: “Wash your own brain,” upthread.

    John Tripp Says:
    December 13th, 2013 at 6:08 pm
    How did the “trailers for rent” over near 7:30 and K fit in with the 10 principles. They had their own little store for last minute items.

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  • Daniel says:

    I’d like to say something about Decommodification. When I first heard of it as a principal of Burning Man, I didn’t truly grasp its significance. I didn’t know exactly what was meant by the term, because I never heard that word before.

    Sure, I knew about commodities, and I guess I understood the term commodification by extension. But, I didn’t understand what was so important about decommodification, such that it was important enough to be included in a set of principles representing an ethos.

    Now, however, I am coming to the realization of what you guys are talking about. In fact, I really understood it all along on a subconscious level. Who am I kidding? I understood it on a conscious level too, but your articulation of it as an important cornerstone of your philosophy, pinned it down so I could examine it closely.

    The corporate merchants, much like the big government bureaucrats (legislators and such) want to control us mind, body and soul. There is a tendency on the part of powerful people through the institutions they control, to herd us all like cattle to the slaughter, so to speak.

    We are constantly being manipulated into doing what power elitists in those circles want us to do for their benefit, while disadvantaging us in the process. While some legislators in government want to erode our liberties by extending the tentacles of government into every aspect of our lives, because they think they know better how we should live our lives than we do, corporatists are trying to reduce us to being merely creatures who exist only to consume their products.

    There is increasingly an effort afoot on their part to condition us like Pavlov’s dogs, to change our natural behavior into unnatural behavior. What I mean by this, is that they try to lure us into behaving in such a way that causes us to put more effort into being a shopper or consumer. They employ gimmicks that promise some savings later down the road if you buy this special card that gives you a percentage off your next purchase. Or, they might want you to go online after you leave the store and fill out a survey, or evaluate some faceless cashier or clerk as to how well they served you, when all they did was ring you up at the check stand.

    These damn fools act like we have nothing better to do with our time than to go through all these stupid gyrations, all for the benefit of their profiteering run amok. They offer the promise of value but don’t quite deliver it. It is all evidently concocted to make consumerism the main human activity, and the major focus of our very existence.

    It is all pretty dehumanizing, in an economically mechanistic way. So I think I see what you guys mean by Decommodification. You simply want people to get in touch with what is truly important with regard to meaningful human experience, and live life in a rich and authentic way. You want people to rediscover what living life really means from a human standpoint, an emotional standpoint, an intellectual standpoint, a spiritual standpoint, a whatever standpoint, so long as it is genuine and humanly authentic.

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  • Daniel says:

    It seems that no one is interested in discussing the philosophy of the Ten Principles. That’s a shame, because I think it would be very interesting to explore the principles in greater depth.

    There is a broader universality to at least some of the principles, whose significance runs deep in terms of historical human experience. At least, that’s what I think.

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  • rainbowsparklegoldenhunnybadger says:

    the first principle is FALSE and UNTRUE!!! “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man.. We welcome the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community”..

    i am SOMEONE , who had little money last year.. after reading the 10 principles back then, and strongly agreeing by them and their importance.. i went to the ART festival and wa$ turned away and UNWELCOMED to participate..

    this being the very first principle and sooo blatantly untrue, really should be changed,, something along the lines of …

    “”We welcome $$$ for tickets… and will allow anyone with a ticket to participate””

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  • rainbowsparklegoldenhunnybadger says:

    well maan,, tell ya what,, if u even want to go somewhere ordo something.. and the only thing holding u down.. is money/ticket .. i would have helped u out/up.. on PRINCIPLE!!! too bad BMorg, only 10 principles,, might be missing a few….

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  • rainbowsparklegoldenhunnybadger says:


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  • Daniel says:

    I have come to the conclusion that “Radical Inclusion” is not really practiced when it comes to who the Burning Man Project sells their tickets to. It appears that a behind-the-scenes selection process is in effect when it comes to selecting who comes to the event–and I do believe it is a selection process.

    How else can some people keep going year after year, when a first timer can’t go once even if he has done all the things required, and in a timely manner? I do realize there are more people who want to go than the limited number of tickets make possible; but my experience with the whole process of registering a Burner Profile and all the other gyrations, makes the conclusion there is some deliberate tweaking of the ticket sale process inescapable.

    I think that the Burning Man Project screens out people they don’t know, or who they suspect don’t really belong, despite what the principles say. Not long ago, I had the thought that I belonged at Burning Man. Now however, the emerging image of a clique tells me I don’t belong there after all. I don’t believe the Burning Man Project follows their own principles, which in large part, I embrace. Sadly though, they don’t seem to be who they say they are.

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  • Daniel says:

    I retract my last statement. I made the previous comments because of frustration with the far from smooth procedure of obtaining tickets through the seemingly convoluted, and glitch-fraught purchasing process.

    I hope I didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, and I hope when I get to Burning Man I am not disappointed. Thanks everyone.

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  • Williamdemn says:

    Im obliged for the article.Really thank you! Great.

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  • This is given for the general query like how we can easily make several types of questions with it related to the game. Here are given many of the required options which are for every type of game user.

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  • Actually excellent info! I’m also an expert in this topic so I can understand your effort.

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