Any other year for the past 30 years, crews would be out in the desert by now, building Black Rock City. Instead, this year we have an army of techies putting in long nights to build virtual BRC “Universes” from the ground up.
They are working so hard, putting so much effort in. They are largely unpaid volunteers wrecking themselves to make communal art projects happen. They are doing what the people who built Black Rock City have always done. We owe them all a debt of gratitude.
But the truth, is I’m not excited. And I do not expect it to work the way we want it to.
I don’t mean that they should stop, or that their efforts are in vain. Good things will come out of this, for sure. Thirty years from now, Burn Week 2020 may be remembered as a pivotal moment in the cultural and technical development of VR. But I don’t think it will be meaningfully Burning Man.
I don’t say this in a spirit of negativity or contradiction. I say it in the spirit of perhaps the single most useful thing I ever wrote about our common culture: a post called “It’s Okay to be Miserable at Burning Man.”
Because if we have to be happy and excited — if those are the only acceptable states of mind — then we don’t really value Radical Self-Expression or Immediacy.
What I’m saying is — with deep appreciation for the people doing all this work — it’s okay to be miserable about the prospect of virtual Burning Man.
If that’s what you’re feeling, that’s okay. And I’m right there with you.
I’m still going to show up and give it a try, God knows I’ve been surprised before. I have my VR headset. But after attending and producing many, many, remote events in the time leading up to this, I’m not excited for the virtual Mutliverse, and I’d like to briefly talk about why and what I think we can do if it isn’t working for us.
What’s the Problem?
The spectacle of Black Rock City has always been the least interesting part for me, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. The thing that has made this culture important to me is its ability to connect me to other people and create personal breakthroughs and magic moments that are often as ridiculous as they are profound.
I’m not saying that we can’t do that through the mediation of technology and VR. In fact, I know we can. But I am saying that the medium is more hostile to these experiences, that it takes work to learn how to do it, and I don’t see much evidence that we’ve actually done this work.
To see why, I think we can look at what we learned from other recent Burning Man themes.
As part of 2019’s theme Metamorphoses — we speculated that “transformative experiences” happen as a result of certain kinds of relationships being developed, as much or more than having certain kinds of experiences per se. And that the conditions under which Burning Man communities are created facilitate such relationships.
Now again, there’s no reason why such relationships can’t be facilitated through the mediation of technology. But there’s no reason to think that happens automatically, either — especially when so many of the factors involved include things like common struggle, dedicated time together, and sacrifice and commitment.
Meanwhile, there are reasons to think that the way we habitually use technology actually makes such relationships, and “transformative experiences” as a whole, more difficult.
We learned that while investigating the theme for 2018 – “I, Robot.” In that series of conversations and essays, we learned that the way in which the internet experience is designed to be “frictionless,” to seamlessly and effortlessly convey us from one experience to the other, actually reduces our ability to express and perceive our common humanity. That the more convenient and disembodied an experience is, and the more control we had over our presentation of self, the less we are able to communicate ourselves, and be received, as authentic beings. You can hear that case made by MIT professor Sherry Turkle here.
In that same series, internet pioneer Jaron Lanier convincingly made the case that Virtual Reality could be used to change those trends, to create a completely different kind of internet experience, one that he believed could promote authenticity. But again, that’s not going to happen automatically — and it’s not going to happen at all if we use VR the same way we use the internet now.
It’s only going to happen if we deliberately cultivate new kinds of habits on the internet. And right now, I don’t think we know how.
A Cacophony Restoration
None of this is to say that people shouldn’t be experimenting with VR or playing around with new platforms. Useful things will come out of all that activity. But I do think it’s important to be clear that there are other questions that need to be asked, and likely answered, before we’ll understand how to use those technologies to get the kinds of Burning Man experiences we want to have.
And I think it’s crucially important to remember, in a time like this, that the cultural forces that came together to create early Burning Man had nothing to do with high tech platforms or even big spectacles. On the contrary: Larry emerged out of a milieu of what he called “latte carpenters” — people who worked with their hands and liked to drink coffee and discuss literature and philosophy.
The Suicide Club and The Cacophony Society were powered entirely by ambitious play, dedicated boundary pushing, and crazy ideas: they learned how to twist the world around them in ways that were so challenging and absurdly funny that it broke through the walls between them and made anything seem possible. They were playful with the world they were in, without a budget, without gadgets.
I think what’s called for in this moment is a Cacophony restoration. We need to learn how to do that again facing each other from 8 feet away, or through a screen, without any other technical requirements. Only then will we really be able to understand how to do it in a meaningful way in VR.
What I’ll Be Doing Event Week
I will strap on my headset. I will show up. I will try to make mischief and have a great time.
But here’s what I’ll also be trying to do, and making the center of my week:
During event week, I will try to get as many people to (individually and safely) visit me outside my apartment as I can. To sit and talk with me outside, as though there were a burn barrel between us. I’ve developed safety protocols that make this possible. I’ll try to come up with hospitality I can reasonably offer and some art experiences I can safely put them through, and I will ask them to bring a thoughtful and considered gift with them — not for me, but for whoever the next person is who comes to visit after them. They won’t know who it is, but I’ll ask them to put some care and thought into what a stranger will receive, just as (hopefully) the person before them will have put care and thought into the gift they’ve left. Together, they will form a continuum of gifts from relative stranger to relative stranger. And perhaps each of them will leave with a unique quest, as well.
I would like my week to be filled with such moments. That’s what I want to do, during the time I would otherwise be in Black Rock City.
If you are excited by virtual Black Rock City, have a great time! An army of people are making it amazing for you. But know that you don’t need to be excited if that excitement is bullshit performed for others. It’s okay to feel how you feel, and to find a way to express that in a way that is meaningful to you. And if that happens in the real world, so much the better.
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, and want to visit me during event week, drop me an email. Let me know.