Burning Man Is an “Efficiency Third” Culture, and That’s Why You Love It

In a recent article, burner and economist Conner Smith asked “Does Burning Man work?”

Smith acknowledges by the end that asking this question “is missing the point entirely,” which is one of the reasons why his piece (for all my quibbles with pieces and parts) is worth reading.

But I want to emphasize this point, and extend it: because asking “does Burning Man work?” isn’t just missing the point, it’s utterly nonsensical. And therein lies one of the most potent, and revolutionary, aspects of Burning Man in the modern world.

Burning Man has no purpose. It’s pointless. Utterly pointless.

There’s nothing for it to “work” at.

Many people go to Burning Man in the hope of changing their lives. Which – great, if you want to do that. Burning Man has an extraordinary record, going back 30 years, of dishing out transformative experiences that let people become who they want to be. Happens all the time.

But that’s not what Burning Man’s “for.”  That’s not what it’s about, designed towards, or attempting to achieve. If Burning Man doesn’t change your life, that doesn’t mean you did it “wrong.”

If Burning Man isn’t like therapy, it also isn’t like a museum – where you ideally should leave more edified and edumacated than you came in. Camps may have educational agendas, just as they may have transformative ones, but Burning Man itself has no educational agenda. A burner who knows 6 of the 10 Principles isn’t doing any “better” than a burner who knows 4. Or who says “wait, ten what now?”

I’m not saying education is bad. Heck, I can probably name 8 of the 10 Principles. I love this shit. But there are a whole lot of people who actually leave Burning Man knowing less than when they came in, and that’s not a problem. Not a failure. Because there’s no expectation that anybody has to learn anything.  Knowing less might even be good for them.

Burning Man’s not even like an amusement park, where the damn thing clearly isn’t working if people aren’t having fun. Most people are absolutely fucking miserable at least some of the time at Burning Man. I’m guaranteed – absolutely guaranteed – at least two major existential crises that week. And those aren’t the “wrong” parts of Burning Man, the “bad” parts – those are just Burning Man. Burning Man doesn’t exist to give anybody a good time.

It’s not here to change you, improve you, educate you, give you pleasure – Burning Man has no purpose. “Burning” isn’t a thing we do to reach some other goal, it is simply a thing we do for its own sake.

And once you take the question of utility away … once you stop asking what Burning Man is supposed to be “for” and the kind of experience you therefore need to have if you’re going to do it “right” – you take the whole notion of efficiency off the table, and shove it to the corners of your life. Because if Burning Man has no purpose, its purpose can’t be achieved any more efficiently.

Burning Man is an “efficiency third” culture. And once you put efficiency, that master virtue of business consultants and tech entrepreneurs and time management seminars, way down on the priorities list, things don’t collapse into mediocrity.  On the contrary: they get really potent.

Because when there is nothing to gain, nothing to be pulled towards, everyone gets to do what they really want to   For a week you’re stuck, trapped, with having to decide what’s really important to you right now, in this moment, with no way to win.

It is only at that point that many people start to change their lives and learn new things and take what may very well be the world’s greatest master class in social transformation – and many other people dance their asses off all night, teach strangers how to make necklaces, sing pirate songs, or build giant mazes. Burning Man absolutely empowers people to go out and change the world and rebuild areas hit by natural disasters and help refugees – if that’s what they want to do – but no more so than it empowers people to build a giant space whale, or an art car that serves fresh grilled sandwiches, or pretend to be the world’s worst encyclopedia salesman. Most people end up building communities of some kind, not because they need to but because they really want to. Practicality is simply not the point, and efficiency is only valuable to the extent that it improves the experience you’re having, rather than the one someone thinks you ought to have.

It just so happens – and what a lesson for the rest of the world this is – that when intrinsically motivated people have a fun and meaningful time doing something that is important to a community, it often ends up going a lot better than if you put efficiency first.  That’s a valuable insight – one that constantly inspires people, year after year.

But it only “works” because it can’t possibly “work.” Burning Man is an engine of possibility because it has no point. It’s what we do for its own sake that matters.

Photo by Dan Adams

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

7 Comments on “Burning Man Is an “Efficiency Third” Culture, and That’s Why You Love It

  • Bruce says:

    Yeah, that sounds about right. After 14 burns, this year I was wondering why am I still doing this? I could make a list, but really the answer is that for all the good and bad I’ve experienced I just want to-and that’s the point. That’s all that matters.

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  • Brooke wallace says:

    Absolutely well said. Thank you. I have only been to three burns 2003,2007 and this year. I volunteered as a nurse for the ESD and stayed at the organized camp 9 camp. I didn’t come to BM expecting anything but the whole experience of caring for others as well as caring for my self has changed me. It was a euorphoric week I’ll never ever forget. i embraced it all, and couldn’t be more thankful

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  • So this exemplifies while I have a lot of regard for the Burning Man culture, and in particular the folks that love it and gain from it, I have zero time for the mental pirouettes – or more like mental firedance – of Burning Man pseudo-intellectuals. It’s irritating and juvenile, and it doesn’t serve whatever they think their cause it.

    Just to take one of the most obvious self-destroying points in this article. Apparently, BM is NOT about ‘educating’ people (whether Burners or anyone else). “Burning Man itself has no educational agenda […] there’s no expectation that anybody has to learn anything.”

    Okay, fine. And on that basis (and on the basis of the rest of the article’s ‘there’s no point’ concept – which is also fine), the conclusion is: “when there is nothing to gain, nothing to be pulled towards, everyone gets to do what they really want to”. So far so BM.

    And then, we are told BECAUSE of all this non-goal-driven stuff, oh, hey presto! “at that point that many people start to change their lives and learn new things and take what may very well be the world’s greatest master class in social transformation”. And wait there’s more: “what a lesson for the rest of the world this is”.

    So, um, yeah, learning is out the window, but you know, this is all so great because of all the learning that takes place. WTFF.

    Don’t take this the wrong way, but this is, you know, nonsense.

    It’s all fine to say, ‘don’t make me play by the rules! don’t measure me by your yardstick!’ – but when you are then claiming that you ARE making a big difference, the upshot is … you just want keep /claiming/ this is all so very important to the world, but you don’t want to anyone to burst your bubble and show you, no, it’s just a giant steampunk art and dance party in the desert, and it might change YOU and your mates because you feel so liberated during and after, but that’s about the extent of it to the rest of us and to history.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      “Mental firedance” – I like that a lot.

      But John, haven’t you noticed that sometimes people learn more, and even care about what they learn, when someone’s not forcing them to learn anything? That people go the extra mile when they don’t have to? That intrinsic motivation gets people engaged in ways that planned, extrinsic, programs don’t?

      Yes – Burning Man has the impact it on people that it does in no small part because nobody can tell them what that impact can be. And some people choose to take that and dance their asses off with it. And some people, yes, choose to change the world. They’re doing amazing work.

      We can argue about the relative impact of Burning Man on the world, sure, but all I’m saying here is: the impact that it does have on people (individual people) comes from providing an environment in which those people can find their intrinsic motivations.

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  • Pantsless Santa says:

    On the macro level this is true, but when I’m working a Gate shift or building my yurt or organizing a camp meal, you can bet I’m concerned with efficiency and trying to work toward an objective standard of “doing it right.” Indeed, the event wouldn’t happen if 5,000 volunteers and at least as many artists and doers and leaders didn’t focus on efficiently getting particular things done.

    If anything, this impinges on the ability of participants to truly inefficiently fuck off and do their thing, but it also makes for a lot of fun and abundance. This event is paradoxical and makes no sense.

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  • JV says:

    Hey Caveat, please tell this to the BMORG. They seem to believe Burning Man needs to be incorporated into the real world more and more every year.

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  • BRD says:

    Remember, Safety Third!

    I guess that pushes Efficiency to 4th…

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