19 September 2012

The changing economics of Burning Man

This portrait is accurate. I can't shut up!
Burning Man (BMan) highlights human creativity, sharing and community (People photos here and here. Satellite view and aerial tour). It takes place every year in a dusty hot place where everyone is expected to be "radically self sufficient" at the same time as they gift various items to others (from each according to his ability desire, to each according to his need luck) in the tradition of radical inclusion [BMan's 10 Principles]. The image at right was a particularly appropriate gift :)

This was my sixth year, and every one of my years has had over 40,000 "[radical] participants," but the nature of participation is changing as BMan becomes more popular.

First, there's been a shift to tourists. The 2011 sell-out of tickets raised BMan's profile with the "must do" crowd -- since it's obviously cool to attend sold out events. Some of these people are willing and capable of joining the burner community, but others are more interested in posting cool facebook updates (the arrival of wifi on the playa was perhaps the beginning of the end). At their worst, they join "turnkey camps" that provide food, shelter, water, etc. for a fee. Although there's always been a tension between burners who sleep in tents and those who sleep in RVs -- an argument over whether heat, dust and noise is more "authentic" -- those tensions were pretty minor when tent and RV people camped together, helped each other in dust storms, etc. Turnkey campers tend to be autonomous, separated and protective of their "hired" spaces; they are not "radically inclusive." Tourists shift the ethos from participation via interdependency to participation via payment.

Second, the "arms race" among creators of art, theme camps, costumes and gifts has resulted in a need for more money to create ever-larger, ever-more-elaborate pieces, but money comes with strings. Thus, we have seen an increase in the importance of sponsorship via donations (kickstarter, etc.) and the emergence of privileged classes. This year I camped in the French Quarter for the first time, in an amalgamation of 18 camps offering everything from coffee to burlesque to a farmers market. Most of these camps gifted in the usual BMan tradition -- free stuff to anyone who passes by -- but other camps had "special access" to designer dinners, cocktails, baths, etc. Others explicitly reserved "suites" for donations payments. The arms race has changed the flavor of BMan by separating participants into privileged patrons who get the "full" BMan and hoi polloi peeping over the wall. The arms race has also changed the nature of interaction: heavily-funded camps overshadow poorer camps, reducing traffic to those camps and the recognition and interaction that repay their hard-work. There were examples, I am sure, of a loud sound camp overwhelming less-amplified neighbors who will not bother to set up next year.* As an economist, I am all for competition and survival of the fittest coolest, but a line has been crossed. Camps with heavy funding and a mission can overwhelm "old-fashioned" self-funded camps.

Why does this matter? Because BMan's new coolness means that a "good show" on playa is now talked about in the "default world" of money, commodification and transactions. We've known for many years that "gifted" art installations often mean commercial success for artists off the playa, but that link is getting stronger. The fantastic display of human creativity on the playa is less and less about "how neat is this?" and more and more about "here's an advertisement of what I can do for you," which may explain why installation budgets are skyrocketing.

This year, I was invited to talk about the future of BMan with the six founders and others, and I saw at this meeting that the BMan organization faces a choice between growing fast with the risk that BMan's culture will be diluted and growing slow as the culture evolves organically. My impression is that the organizers favor the fast route; they have the faith (of ex-hippies) that the message is strong enough to endure.** I am not so confident, mostly because I see how "veteran" burners are eager to move to a two-tier economy, happy to accept donations to express their burner cred, and willing to cede the public areas to the tourists and patrons providing money and advertising eyeballs.

I advised that group to look for ways to transform BMan from a consumption event (spend time and money on a great party for a week) into a production lifestyle (change the nature of exchange and cooperation, all year round).*** It would take massive resources and effort to transform the BMan experience into a default world modus operandi (I drew parallels to organized religion, e.g., the Mormons), and I am not sure that the organizers (several of whom want to retire) or core burners (most of whom are better at self-expression than keeping appointments) are up for that task, but I may be wrong. Watch the Burning Man Project to find out what happens.

Bottom Line: The commodification of Burning Man as an "experience" instead of a community signals a shift from radical inclusion, self-expression and self-reliance to exclusion, store-bought cool, and dependency. I will suggest how BMan can reverse this trend -- via spontaneous order -- next week.

* Read "Is Google Evil?" [pdf] for my thoughts on winner-takes-all dynamics from a few years back. Also read "Why create when you can panhandle" in this magazine [pdf].
** They may also be willing to embrace a more monetized BMan because they themselves are "cashing out" as BMan converts from an LLC to a non-profit.
*** Read this for some perspective on the changing social interactions at BMan.

1 comment:

free radical said...

Oh wow! What a great caricature! Pure genius! Hey Dave, it's Dave, aka Free Radical from the Playa, the guy who drew you. Good to see you on the interwebs. Those were great times at the Cafe Fin Du Monde. I agree wholeheartedly with you: the commodification of burning man is sneaky and pervasive. Heard a distressing tale of someone whose neighbor camp kept their generator running at all times, then found out it was turnkey campers who were not "authorized" to turn off the generator, because they had all paid to have it running always. Weak. I help run a small theme camp, Cartoon Commune, in which every member is authorized to turn off pretty much anything. Hope the BMorg can stand strong against the Disney-fiers. Cheers!

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