It’s Okay to Be Miserable About Virtual Burning Man — But We Can Have a Cacophony Restoration

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.  

You can see that series of posts here.   

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.

You can see some of my pandemic experiments with that here.

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.


Photo by Luc Asbury

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 “It’s Okay to Be Miserable About Virtual Burning Man — But We Can Have a Cacophony Restoration

  • Spreadsheet says:

    The problem and likely the greatest evil of our generation of technology is what I would call the “Invisible Hand of the Algorithm” guiding our experiences. Hiding those experiences that would disturb or contradict the bubble it so carefully crafts around us and promoting those that cause pleasure. Don’t like blue? Don’t like red? Don’t like purple? Pro something? Con something else? Not a worry, the Algorithm will curate your day and you never let you see anything else. The algorithm tracks you on your phone and computer. It tracks you when you buy groceries or gas or type messages in email. We live in an artificial bubble that is narrowing our experiences all without our knowledge or consent.

    Our worldview begins to narrows down to the only emotion that we express is shock/anger. Where instead of understanding and empathy we here and utter the all too common phrase, “I don’t understand how they can believe in X!”

    TTITD *forces* us into the present, the immediate. We do not ask for the experiences we are given during the moment. There is no click dislike, or block, or mute, or ban. We deal with the person and situations warts and all. It forces us to evaluate, change and grow…. One comes back a different person. Wearing the same clothes but feeling the world has changed in some undefined way. Indeed, it is not the world that has changed but ourselves. And that is why we love it.

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  • Aaron says:

    For me personally an important insight about burns was viewing them through the lens of a “peak experience”, and our need for this. If that is a valid characterization, then the question is how can that be achieved in light of the pandemic?

    I wrote a long Facebook post about this on my wall, which I will just copy and paste here because I’m lazy. The TL;DR takeaway is – seek to go deeper, not wider.

    What exactly are we missing during the pandemic?

    I’ve been thinking about this. Specifically about social activities and how they recharge our soul, and I’ve come to realize:

    Peak Experiences.

    What are peak experiences?

    “Our lives are filled with memories of experiences we’ve had; but that doesn’t mean we can recall everything that happened to us. Why do we remember certain experiences and forget others—and how can we create more memories?

    Research suggests that we tend to remember things more if they elicit strong emotion—negative or positive—and if they are imbued with meaning. Think of your wedding day, or the first time you spoke in front of a crowd. These are experiences that lodge in our memory, sometimes filling us with happiness or pride or a sense of awe.”

    Pre-pandemic world many of us had these experiences to look forward to – whether it’s a night out with friends, a ritual like a wedding, or an amazing summer festival. Physical spaces that are set up for these peak experiences where you just need to drop in with the proper intent.

    Now? Poof. They’re all gone. So what does that mean for our mental wellness? It means we need to do the work to create these peak experiences in our everyday life. Experiences that enable:

    > Elevation: Rising above the everyday and seeming extraordinary.
    > Insight: Challenging our understanding of ourselves or the world, helping us to grow and change.
    > Pride: Capturing us at our best, when we are achieving something important or showing courage.
    > Connection: Strengthening our social relationships.

    Along these lines I’ve been experimenting the last month taking this into my own hands in something I’ve called “The Summer Tour of Social Nourishment 2020”.

    Essentially, this is small social gatherings of 3 to 5 people that I’ve initiated a few weekends apart, being mindful of pandemic restrictions, but also with intention to create events with the four elements above.

    (side note: I would also add a fifth: Movement)

    My cookbook.
    1. Connect with people that are authentic and open to peak experiences.
    2. Set an intention but be open to rolling with the flow and surprises.
    3. Bring some activities/items that create possibility for play.
    4. Plan it in advance and commit to an event.

    What do you think? Are you missing peak experiences? Have you found a way to have them during quarantine? How can we help each other achieve them in times of pandemic?


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  • Justin Gunn says:

    Hi Caveat! As a producer managing the creator community at BRCvr, the social VR focused 2020 Universe, I can tell you that during the last 3 months I’ve spent “building’” a digital simulacrum of That Thing In The Desert, I have experienced a profound sense of human connection with other Burners from around the world as they work to create – or recreate – their art installations, theme camps and mutant vehicle experiences in digital form.

    I have forged relationships, shared knowledge and debated the implementation of principles for this new medium – in short, I have connected with other human beings (albeit while staring deeply into their animated cartoon avatar’s eyes). Together, we have shared in our struggle to make sense of strange new tools, and overcome limitations in technology. And I have marveled at how the spirit of civic responsibility has blossomed on our discord channels and in our gatherings in virtual spaces where participants enthusiastically share with others how they were able to gin up a new trick or hack (like wearable tutus or digital dust storms) and then share it with everyone else so they, too, can deploy it in their worlds.

    I can speak only for my experience over the last several months building BRCvr, but I can say enthusiastically that the relationships I have made with people I have never “met” in “real life” are Every bit as real and meaningful as any I’ve forged on the playa.

    I look forward to sitting once again around a burn barrel with – this time anyway, in digital form – And hearing your thoughts on your experience!

    You can friend me in BRCvr by my username: MisterMeta4

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