.Burning Man’s Startup Culture

How generations of Silicon Valley renegades have made, unmade and remade The Man

Burning Man’s Startup Culture | Original Burners

The Man is burned on the final night of Burning Man 2018. Photo by Kyer Wiltshire

Twenty-five years ago I wrote, arguably, the first “mainstream” newspaper story about Burning Man, which ran on the cover of Metro.

I got the Burning Man phone number from someone at a secretive monthly underground club called the “Anon Salon.” Daniel Kottke, Apple Employee No. 1, invited me there. (I met him while writing a story about Apple for Metro.) Maybe Daniel told me about “the burn.” But it could have been Burning Man founder Larry Harvey himself. When I dialed it, I heard a crackly message on an answering machine that instructed me to mail in a check for $40 along with a formal request for a ticket.

The arrival of the first letter I ever got from Burning Man was odd and mysterious, covered with hand stamps and postmarks, and evocative of a place, far away, fanciful, maybe a little menacing. I unfolded a piece of red paper upon which the directions to the secret location were written. Red, so it couldn’t be photocopied and shared. It recommended that I needed a map and compass to find the location, which was far away in a small town in the Nevada desert I had never heard of—Gerlach.

And it warned: “People have died here.”

Like the underground “Anonymous” salon where I first heard of it, the desert gathering was secretive, it had an edge, it was word of mouth and it was hard to get there—weeding out the mere tourists from the true believers.

In many ways, the seeds of Burning Man (and much of Silicon Valley’s internet technology) were planted in that room, which was a collision of art, techno music, costumes and technology startups. The “Anon” as they called it, was hosted by Joegh Bullock and Mark “Spoonman” Petrakis, a creator of what he then called “interactive storytelling,” a precursor to multimedia and the internet’s first web sites.

Each room in the Anon was a different installation. One room might have a giant sculpture of a head with three dimensional projections on it, another might have a demo of match.com (one of the first online dating sites), or perhaps, Andrew Johnstone would be demo-ing his “Virtual e-Playa”—an early multidimensional virtual reality fly over of a map of Burning Man that seemed at that time to have no practical purpose.

“Oh it was wonderful!” he quipped in his Scottish accent. “They were naked and body painted green and blue!” His creation later was acquired by Google and incorporated in “Google Earth.” Zooming forward, at this year’s gathering, Johnstone led the design and build of the base of “The Man”—making sure it was structurally sound enough to be burned to the ground.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to 1993.

Internet Ideology

I met another burner—Craig Newmark, creator of Craigslist—at the Anon. Newmark asked for my email address so he could add me to his “events list,” which was then just an email list of a few hundred people. When I scribbled my name into the notebook he carried around at parties, I was No. 15.

Even in the very beginning, the connection between the tech industry, the nascent internet and this mystical ritual in the desert, eight hours away, was right in front of us—but so close it was not obvious.

The merger of art, nature, shamanic practices, psychedelics, ritual and technology was bubbling up in places like Mondo 2000 magazine, Wired and within rave culture—and it was all coming together once a year in this convention of the unconventional, far away on a desert moonscape.

Burning Man circa 1993 was a startup. The experimental temporary autonomous zone of of Black Rock City had, arguably, between 500 to 1,000 inhabitants.

Like many successful unicorns—Silicon Valley slang for startups with a billion dollar valuation—the early denizens of this temporary town had no idea it would mushroom into a bustling metropolis of some 70,000, and hundreds of smaller satellite “regional” burns and festivals worldwide.

Silicon Valley was still a cow town in 1993. Metro still had electric typewriters in the newsroom. The ubiquitous consumer internet—today just a few swipes away—hadn’t even been imagined.

Today Burning Man is a global force with hundreds spin off regional “burns.” The DIY movement, Maker Faire and the “sharing economy” owe a great deal to Burning Man. The world was far more analog and less connected in 1993. But we would change that.

From Scratch

When I stopped in the local gas station in Gerlach, Nevada to use the restroom, a black widow spider crawled across the floor. Taxidermists were lined up along the road, showing off beheaded local wild animals.

There were no roads at all. No signs. No fences. We drove 100 miles per hour in the direction of nowhere, across bare hard-caked alkali, laced with a network of cracks. The playa wasn’t dusty back then—it was packed hard, like cement. The sky, still a vivid, clear blue. If you wanted to make a call, the Gerlach gas station pay phone was the place. After that, we were completely off the grid. And that was the point.

Back then the way to Burning Man was difficult, it was dangerous, but you were permitted to—in the words of one of today’s titans of tech, Mark Zuckerberg, another “burner”—”move fast and break things,” to drive as fast as you could across the barren, empty expanse until it appeared like a mirage.

There were few barriers to creativity in the beginning—anyone could be an artist or bring art or lead a workshop, and the lack of traditional “curation” created space for people who were not educated formally as architects or artists to get outside their comfort zone and create what the art world labels: “Outsider Art.”

The event was held at the far edge of the playa then, against the purplish mountain range, and by the hot springs. We swam in the warm dusty water under shade trees all day long, as the trains whistled by, and blew their horns as we waved. Many of the art installations were literally in the mud of the hot springs, or hanging in the parched trees at its edge.

I could hear the trains or the thump of horses on the playa, miles away, or music vibrating through the earth, when I laid my ear next to the playa to sleep in my tiny tent. Because we hadn’t invented inexpensive laptops, or portable speakers, or any of the technologies these sound camps use now. All of that came later.

Somehow in the back of our minds we felt like we were practicing. Some have even speculated it was teaching us to survive a future where the Earth was very parched and dry, that we needed to prepare, all the time, for severe weather and disasters. We needed to return everything to a blank slate and “Leave no Trace,” haul it all away, so we could learn to calculate every drop of water we used, every watt of power we consumed and how to handle our trash and water and waste more ecologically.

As Burning Man’s late founder Larry Harvey said to me when I interviewed him for that 1993 story:

“Life seems so precious against that vast waste of nothingness.” The nothingness of the desert gave us a blank white slate on which to create something new.

It was a primal, earthy event, closer to nature. The atmosphere was lawless, renegade and anarchistic. Automatic weapons, rockets, explosives, the legendary Drive By Shooting Gallery… anything goes.

The burn was about getting away from rules, society, the mainstream, and living in a dreamscape where you could make your own rules, and start over from scratch.

Looking Back

After 25 years of going to this festival—I’ve made the trek 14 times—years of my life involved passionately in art projects, it has become a significant part of me, and I, a part of it. I grew from a pure spectator, outsider, cynic, a journalist, into a participant at the deepest and highest levels, at one point I was elected “mayor” of one of the largest theme camps.

Like many lured into the fantastical mirage of Burning Man, I gave up everything outside that dreamworld and got sucked deep into it, so far that at one point I lost touch with the “Default World” and no longer cared about it.

This problem, it’s been noted can even suck in leaders like Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. This year it’s rumored he was told not to go to Burning Man by an angry board and shareholders who thought he was already too sleep-deprived and exhausted. But Musk’s girlfriend, the indie electronic musician Grimes, was posting their outfits on Instagram. Musk was curiously absent from Twitter all week—sparking rumors that he defied the rules and went to Burning Man after all.

I understand why. Once you go to Burning Man, regular museum exhibits are boring, conventional concerts are flat, mainstream fashion feels restrictive and bleak because it is dictating what we should wear—instead of encouraging participation in the act of personal style.

On ‘playa’ creators had to withstand rigorous practical realities that pushed the boundaries of our designs—70 mile per hour winds, extremes of heat. This harsh environment also had a way of bonding us, collectively, through an endurance test.

I found myself going into business meetings and saying things like: “Well, at Burning Man we manage co-creative projects collaboratively using video and Google Docs and we use co-leadership and Hollocracy”—and CEOs would look at me like: “Huh?”

We were light years ahead of the mainstream business world in just about everything we were doing, from the vivid, electric art of our graphic designers (who were experimenting with richly layered Adobe Photoshop transparencies in “visionary” art) to the transparency of our communication.

We had shared experiences, like grieving and crying together in the Temple, or participating in workshops in advanced “conscious communication” technique. Hearts and egos were blown wide open with plant medicine ceremonies fueled by DMT and Ayahuasca. People greeted strangers with hugs. Shared, cathartic and often ecstatic or painful experiences bonded us very closely together into large, global cohesive teams.

These transformative experiences made us significantly more capable of working together like a swarm of birds that seemed to sense each other’s needs in almost a psychic level of collective unity; we called it “playa synchronicity.” These experiences were much more effective at creating flow and teamwork than the traditional boozy company parties or “team building” exercises and off site meetings.

Some of the most celebrated technology CEOs now openly admit they are regulars at Burning Man. This includes Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and Larry Ellison of Oracle. Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre hospitality and an adviser of AirBnB, frequently blogs about his Burns, as does John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods and the CEO of Clear Channel, Bob Pittman.

Government leaders are increasingly regulars. Debra Costa, CIO of the city of San Leandro, and her colleague Michael Caplan, the city of Berkeley’s economic development manager and a “Burner” since 1998, agreed with Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk when he said “Burning Man is Silicon Valley.” In 2014, Musk criticized the HBO series “Silicon Valley” for not understanding the Burning Man ethos that permeates the tech industry from the top down as well as from the bottom up.

Burning Man, at its heart, is about risk taking and new ideas. It is now obvious to me that Burning Man, was, and remains, Silicon Valley’s greatest incubator.

Gisele “Gigi” Bisson is an early contributor to Metro, who later went on to work at a startup that had an IPO. She is working on a book, “Burning Management,” about the irresistible lure of Burning Man for CEOs and startup founders, how massive art projects are collaboratively built and managed and what we can learn from these experiences to make the world outside more sustainable and productive.
Kyer Wiltshire is a photographer and 18-year veteran of Burning Man. Based in Santa Cruz and Bali, he shoots the festival for the Burning Man Fire Conclave and is co-founder of the French Maid Brigade camp. His website is kyerwiltshire.com.


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