Why Does "Burning Man" Draw a Techie Crowd?

Burning Man is a paradox. On the one-hand, it is inarguably a world-famous festival that contains strong elements of a curated, global art exhibition; on the other hand, it is an intentionally unstructured, unpredictable, “make it what you want” gathering. Thus, like a good paradox, Burning Man might seem self-contradictory or absurd, but in reality expresses a possible truth. Burning Man didn’t begin as a conscious endeavor to seek truth or, for that matter, create an alternative art exhibition or festival. Its roots trace back to a small group of people that traveled to a deserted beach and performed acts of “radical self-expression.”  Over time, this sojourn seemed to resonate on some subconscious level with more and more people, to the point that a crowd of more than 50,000 now flocks to the Black Rock desert during the last week of August, to attend Burning Man.

There’s something subversive about the idea, as it doesn’t fit the mold of any “mainstream” rebellious thought tradition. With elements of activism, philosophical anarchism, and radical self-reliance, an effort to put Burning Man in a specified box is difficult. One thing is certain—Burning Man champions spontaneous community building, altering perceptions, and releasing all mental boundaries.

The Principles

These and other qualities of Burning Man are captured in the event’s Ten Guiding Principles. These principles feed the idea that Burning Man is a radical social-experiment rather than a place where burnt-out participants from modern society go to let loose.

Perhaps it is this social, experimental quality of Burning Man that seems to be attracting a disproportionately larger techie crowd in recent years. It’s not just the regular, everyday programmer or social media marketer that spends a week bending his or her mind in the desert— high-profile tech moguls such as Sergey Brin (Google), Larry Page (Google), and Elon Musk (Tesla) are also known for their participation.

The presence of Silicon Valley's attendance over the last few years has increased to the point that some veteran “Burners” have begun expressing concern about the trend, even in light of Burning Man’s principle of “radical inclusivity.” With pristine, multi-thousand dollar “plug in” campsites belonging to wealthy tech moguls now sharing the Nevada sands with frugal, bohemian setups, it seems Burning Man might actually be facing a gentrification.

Art and Technology

There is a growing, more obvious and urgent connection between Burning Man and the modern tech mecca.  To understand it, look no further than the advent of the first Apple Computer and Steve Jobs’ radical reimagining of the relationship between lifestyle and digital technology.

Though it’s uncertain whether Jobs ever attended a Burning Man himself, it’s well-known that he believed in a melding of technology and humanity and has been quoted saying that both are necessary for success. As technology has become more integrated into human life, it needs to adapt to human nature.

Today, tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Apple need artistic minds as much as they need technical ones (more-so than older tech companies such as IBM, Microsoft, or Intel ever did) to integrate beauty and playfulness into product design. Mary Meeker highlighted such in the 2014 version of her closely followed trends report, “R.I.P. bad user interfaces”.

The incessant and urgent search for “what’s next?” explains at least some of the appeal that Burning Man has to Silicon Valley.  The great hope is for a Burning Man experience to serve as source spring for ideas that eventually turn into the next big thing.

The Movement Forward

The anarcho-activist undertone of Burning Man also fits neatly into the hacker spirit exemplified by the Anonymous movement—something that’s inseparably woven into the tech community.

Whatever the future may hold for the relationship between Burning Man and Silicon Valley, it is likely that there will be mutual change and perhaps some mutual understanding. The products that come from the tech industry find their way into the homes and thoughts of people across the globe every day. Burning Man’s values include a respect for nature, acceptance for a wide range of tastes and a radical approach to open-mindedness and what is possible for the human condition.

Social consciousness and cultural considerations are now playing a much more central role in technology. Whether it’s by nature, that modern tech industry people appreciate Burning Man, or that what Burning Man represents is now more relevant to the modern tech person, it seems likely that, similar to the first act of the establishment of Burning Man, this experimentation will snowball.

As long as the first adopters from the tech industry bring their peers back year after year, it may be that Burning Man will transform its character in ways no one anticipates. Silicon Valley employees are by nature leading-edge developers and first adopters. Burning Man presents them not with new technologies, but new ways of knowing and expressing themselves. In short, greater personal truth.