What a Global Burning Man Nonprofit Has to Offer the World

– Photo by LadyBee

I recently found myself wondering: How many millions do you think Google spent to figure out that it matters if you trust the people you work with?

A recent New York Times article about Google’s “Quest to Build the Perfect Team” has come out, and it’s a great read. But it’s also indicative of a destructive trend in our modern world and demonstrates – I think – why Burning Man’s non-profit work matters.

Google is leading a mass trend of hyper-quantification. If the joke for journalists was “Does your mother love you? Check the source,” the joke for Google is probably “Does your mother love you? A/B test it.”

(I say that “was” the joke for journalists because today journalism itself is the punch line).

Google’s interests are often humanistic to the point of being philanthropic: forget the stuff about wanting to extend human life and eliminate death and upload your consciousness to a server farm in Singapore, they wanted to learn how you make better teams. That’s awesome. That’s the kind of information that could make everybody’s life better (and not incidentally more productive).

But A/B testing your mother’s love is actually going to hurt your relationship with her.

Google’s intense focus on crunching the numbers, on focusing entirely on what is clearly measurable and therefore easily manipulated, resulted in what I have to describe as a huge waste of time. Or rather, I’ll let the New York Timers writer Charles Duhigg describe it:

“The paradox, of course, is that Google’s intense data collection and number crunching have led it to the same conclusions that good managers have always known. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.”

After years of work, staff time, data collection, resources – Google ended up at the place where any sensible person who has looked at the issue would start. Should team members listen to each other? Should they trust once another?

Duhigg suggests that this is not as big a waste of time as I am suggesting, and I admit I’m overstating the case:

The fact that these insights aren’t wholly original doesn’t mean Google’s contributions aren’t valuable. In fact, in some ways, the ‘‘employee performance optimization’’ movement has given us a method for talking about our insecurities, fears and aspirations in more constructive ways. It also has given us the tools to quickly teach lessons that once took managers decades to absorb. “

But come on – it doesn’t take good managers decades to absorb these ideas. It takes highly analytical, “left brained” engineers or day traders who never wanted to have to think about other people’s needs in the first place decades to learn this stuff. It takes people who self-evidently never should have been put in charge of other people decades to really start listening to team members. It takes the rest of us a couple of days to get the basic concepts, and some real world practice to start being good at it. Mastery really can take years, but that’s true of any skill.

Which is to say, just because it hadn’t been “proven” analytically doesn’t mean it wasn’t already a well studied and understood phenomenon.  People who are good with people already knew all this.

In fact there is a whole body of knowledge, a whole set of subject matter expertise on this issue that was already present, well understood, and highly developed, that Google completely ignored because it though the issue could only be understood in data-intensive terms. So when Duhigg writes:

Google, in other words, in its race to build the perfect team, has perhaps unintentionally demonstrated the usefulness of imperfection and done what Silicon Valley does best: figure out how to create psychological safety faster, better and in more productive ways.

He’s actually gotten it completely wrong. Google found the least effective, least productive, way to find this stuff out.

What Google learned – and to their absolute credit they seem to be grappling with this in intellectually honest ways, which is all we can ask – is that you can’t sideline the human element in favor of a quantifiable approach to teams. That there is no algorithmically based set of concrete steps you can take with team members to get an optimal outcome every time. Trying to do that is in fact counter-productive.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Duhigg again:

“(Google’s research project) is a reminder that when companies try to optimize everything, it’s sometimes easy to forget that success is often built on experiences — like emotional interactions and complicated conversations and discussions of who we want to be and how our teammates make us feel — that can’t really be optimized.”

You have to work with the people you actually have. You have to speak to their humanity. And that is qualitative work, not quantitative.

This is the problem with a hyper-quantitative culture: not that it applies quantitative measurements to the things that they’re good for (which is great), but that it denies that any other kinds of tasks or issues exist at all – which is not only bad, but willfully ignorant.

I’m going to stop picking on Google now, because it didn’t invented hyper-quantification, nor is it responsible for the incredible mission creep which quantification has had into every aspect of human experience over the last few decades.

No, the problem is much bigger. We live in a world that is trying to strangle qualitative knowledge in its sleep, because qualitative knowledge isn’t easily replicable or monitizeable.

It isn’t easily replicable because qualitative knowledge can’t just be memorized – it has to be understood. It’s the difference between being able to repeat “E=MC2” on command, and actually understanding that matter is energy and that when its state changes it follows certain parameters. Testing for the first is easy, and quick, and can even be automated. Testing for the second? Not so much. You might actually have to have a conversation with someone to see whether they understand, or if they’re just parroting back what they’ve memorized.

Qualitative approaches are not easily monitizeable because neither testing for qualitative knowledge nor applying it can be standardized (again – kind of the point). Which makes it time intensive, which makes it expensive, which means that however effective it is, it’s often easier to make a lot of money by half-assing a task in a quantitative way than in getting it right qualitatively. This is the reason there are billions of dollars put into R&D and marketing for anti-depressants and virtually no dollars for new forms of talk therapy. It’s not that talk therapy isn’t effective – on the contrary, research shows that depending on what your needs are it can be as or more effective than psychopharmacology. But therapy is harder to monetize and it’s far more inconvenient for insurance companies. So even though many people would be better off with therapy (or in a combination of therapy and psychopharmacology – it isn’t either/or), they’re steered away.

This is a world-wide phenomenon: we are in the midst of a mania for anything easily measurable, while anything fundamentally human – qualitative – is cast aside as either unworkable or useless, no matter how much more effective it actually is.

Non-profit culture is not only not except, it’s become part of the problem.

This development has been both led and epitomized by the Gates Foundation (I’m going to pick on them for a while). Gates is now the largest transparently operated private foundation in the world, and it has ruthlessly applied quantitative measurements to charity work. This is where Big Data meets philanthropy: the Gates Foundation’s greatest innovation was to demand easily quantifiable, algorithmic solutions to the problems it addressed. It wanted solutions that could be laid out on a spreadsheet with no ambiguity as to how tasks get done and whether boxes were getting checked off.

This injected a much needed dose of accountability into the non-profit world, which all too often had been cruising along on the promise that good intentions yield good results – a claim that is demonstrably untrue. But as the NGO with the greatest mass and gravitational pull by far, it tugged the non-profit world along in its wake, narrowing the kind of problems and solutions that philanthropic organizations could get funding for. All foundations became more like the Gates Foundation.

Is this a problem? It can be. Gates’ algorithmic approach works wonderfully with problems that can be easily abstracted, broken down, and which are not particularly susceptible to local conditions: it had amazing success getting vaccines to impoverished areas, bringing food to the malnourished, and reducing infant mortality in certain areas of the world.

I do not mean to in any way minimize these accomplishments – which are historic in scope – by saying that they’re fundamentally logistical in nature. We know vaccine A stops disease B, so we need to develop a cost effective way to transport vaccine A to areas at high risk from B. Brilliant. Nobody does it better.

But this logistical, algorithmic, approach doesn’t work at all on problems that are not easily abstracted and which are highly sensitive to local conditions. Over the last several years the Foundation has sunk billions into an effort to clearly identify and replicate the quantitative factors that make for great teachers. The idea was noble – if we can standardize great teachers, we can get better teachers into the schools that need them. It was also profoundly misguided: and in 2015 Gates himself acknowledged that it simply hadn’t worked.

Why not? Because a great education isn’t an interchangeable widget – it’s a personal experience. No two students, classes, or communities are so alike that they can be abstracted into generic functions. A great education is a personal transformation: the more you try to quantify it, the less personal it ends up. Much like great teams, great teachers require a human connection that actively resists impersonal agendas. The qualities that great teachers embody aren’t discrete entities to be checked off on a list: they are qualitative, not quantitative.

The Gates Foundation model is great for solving a certain kind of problem – those which are easily abstracted and quantifiable – but frankly terrible at solving other kinds: those which are qualitative and require personal or cultural engagement.

Now to be fair to the Gates Foundation, it has recognized this problem and is working to diversify its methods. But in the meantime, its model has become the dominant approach – and is widely seen as the only acceptable set of practices – for major non-profit funders. They only want to talk quantitative answers, even if they’re trying to address qualitative problems.

Which brings us – FINALLY – to the Burning Man Project. (I would like to apologize to reads of this blog, many of whom I know hate to go more than three sentences without the words “Burning Man,” “Techno,” “El-wire,” “DJs” or “vehicle passes” appearing.)

While not eschewing the quantitative – Burning Man happily collects and uses data – Burning Man culture is fundamentally qualitative and non-utilitarian.

Why do we burn a 60 foot tall wooden man? It’s not because we have data saying that it makes people 30% healthier. Why Tutu Tuesday? It’s not because it’s a necessary item on a checklist. Burning Man verifiably, objectively, causes profound personal transformation and leads to acts of enormous selflessness; it is perhaps the greatest master class in personal and social transformation on the planet. But that’s not because it has a specified curriculum that everyone goes through: on the contrary – it’s because people come to the playa and have profoundly individual and idiosyncratic experiences.  They express themselves, whatever that means.  The qualitative achieves what the quantitative cannot.

The 10 Principles aren’t metrics. They’re principles. That’s not incidental, it’s vital.

Demanding that Burning Man fit a quantitative mold is like the scene in Dead Poet’s Society when students are forced to read an essay about how to chart a poem’s “greatness” on a graph. It can be done – kind of – but it has nothing to do with the experience of poetry, and the attempt only deadens what it is trying to bring to life.

As the non-profit world has become highly standardized, even conformist, Burning Man is in the process of establishing something truly novel: a global non-profit that focuses almost entirely on qualitative answers to the world’s most pressing problems.

A great example is the work Burners Without Borders Director Christopher Breedlove recently observed at a refugee camp in Calais, France:

“As many as six thousand people live here from countries all across the Middle East and Africa,” he writes. “Part of a migration that has brought over one million people into Europe in 2015 alone. They are escaping war, scarcity, poverty and hunger. Mostly, though, they are looking for lives better than the ones they left.”

What he found was a community that was surprisingly vibrant – and that this vibrancy came from people finding ways to express their own idiosyncratic humanity, in ways both artistic and economic: inventing new approaches to opening shops, starting businesses, keeping busy.

The terrible irony, he realized, is that all of this was directly contrary to what the relevant government agencies were telling them to do:  efforts, based on best practice, to maximize people-per-square foot and institutionally support resource distribution have no room for these expressions of humanity. So all too frequently aid workers find themselves trying to stop these refugees from making their temporary home bearable – because the system doesn’t know how to manage, let alone support, that.

Writes Breedlove:

It’s the dynamism of this community that is its strength. It allows the people to make their seemingly unlivable conditions livable. Yet the institutional reaction to communities like this (when they’re even acknowledged) seems to squelch that dynamism — to make these people sit down and shut up — and this doesn’t actually help at all.

Burning Man knows how to do what these agencies don’t. Burners have an extensive experience working with communities to do exactly what needs to happen here: we know how to help people use their eccentric, erratic, quirky humanity to solve problems that are impenetrable to number-crunching.

Taking these approaches, the Burning Man Project (and the Burning Man community itself) has a demonstrable track record of success –an enviable one – across regions, nations, and cultures. It epitomizes the effective qualitative organization, a kind that right now is in fact pretty damn rare in the world – and almost non-existent on a scale this large.

Which is to say that the Burning Man Project is offering the world something unique and vital – and very much going against the grain. The non-profit world is a lot like high school: nobody wants to sit with the kid who’s different, no matter how amazing or talented she might be. Being non-conformist makes fundraising, grant writing, and other essential tools of the trade far more difficult.

But the Burning Man Project’s most powerful arguments for its own importance are precisely that it has a sustained track record of doing what most other contemporary non-profits can’t: solve problems that are neither algorithmic nor logistical. Like art itself, its methods and solutions cannot be reduced to a set of spreadsheets or utilitarian steps – but that’s the whole point. They’re all the more effective for it.

Effective, and desperately needed in the world.

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

3 Comments on “What a Global Burning Man Nonprofit Has to Offer the World

  • Gerflash says:

    Well, CM, you’ve successfully taken far too much space and time to make your point, but it’s a good point. Here’s hoping that most of your readers will slog through it and get to the end. Just remember: Some things really are obvious and don’t need to be beaten to death to prove them.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Yeah, guilty – it should have been shorter. Hopefully I’ll find a way to make the same point in smaller packages for future posts.

      I appreciate you reading, though.

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  • HoneyBee says:

    The quirky, subjective nature of Burning Man and it’s ability to change individuals and communities for the better was recently reaffirmed in a completely separate statistical arena: The World Happiness Report (WHR).

    Just as Google and most other for-profit companies are trying to put numbers to behavior and productivity, the WHR measures subjective well-being. The WHR discovered, no surprise to most of us, that health, social support, freedom, generosity, and the absence of corruption are the primary sources of happiness.

    While focusing on numbers may miss the mark on far too many aspects of humanity, this particular statistical exercise demonstrated that “people who report that they have someone to count on in times of crisis” have the highest level of happiness, regardless of circumstances.

    They went on to say, “If the [social] fabric is sufficiently strong, then the crisis may even lead to higher subjective well-being, in part by giving people a chance to work together towards good purpose, and to realize and appreciate the strength of their mutual social support; and in part because the crisis will be better handled and the underlying social capital improved in use.”

    Sounds an awful lot like the challenges and rewards we face while creating (and removing) our amazing city in the dust.

    Google and the other for-profits are on the same path, they simply need us to lead them in the right direction.

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