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Friday, June 21, 2024

The Burning Man Fiasco Is the Ultimate Tech Culture Clash

“Light weights.” That was the reply when Diplo posted a video of himself, Chris Rock, and several others escaping this year’s Burning Man after heavy rains left thousands of other Burners stranded and unable to leave. It was a small thing, but also encapsulated a growing divide between long-term attendees and those who show up expecting a weeklong Coachella in the Nevada desert.

“Old-timers like myself tend to relish in the chaos,” says Eddie Codel, the San Francisco–based videographer who called Diplo and Rock lightweights on X, the social network formerly known as Twitter. “It allows us to lean into the principle of radical self-reliance a bit more.” Codel is on his 15th burn, he’s been coming since 1997, and Diplo wasn’t the only escaping Burner he called out. When someone else posted a video of RVs stuck in waterlogged sand, he posted, “They were warned.”

’Twas ever thus. Burning Man may have started as a gathering of San Francisco counterculture types, but in recent years it has morphed into a confab of tech bros, celebs, and influencers—many of whom fly in and spend the event’s crushingly hot days in RVs or air-conditioned tents, powered by generators. The Playa, as it’s known, is still orchestrated by the Burning Man Organization, otherwise known as “the Org,” and its core principles—gifting, self-reliance, decommodification (no commercial sponsorships)—remain in place.

But increasingly the Burning Man tenet of “leave no trace” has found itself butting heads with growing piles of debris scattered in the desert following the bacchanal, which can draw more than 70,000 people every year. It’s an ideological minefield, one laid atop a 4-square-mile half-circle of tents and Dune-inspired art installations where everyone has a carbon footprint that’s two-thirds of a ton.

A lot of this came to a head before rain turned Black Rock Desert into a freshly spun clay bowl. Last week, as festivalgoers were driving into Black Rock City, activists from groups like Rave Revolution, Extinction Rebellion, and Scientist Rebellion tried to halt their entry, demanding that the event cease allowing private jets, single-use plastics, and unlimited generator and propane use. They were met by attendees who said they could “go fuck themselves,” and ultimately the protest was shut down by the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribal police. (The route to the event passes through Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation.)

Last Sunday, as news began to spread about the Burners trapped by the rain, reactions grew more pointed. In one popular TikTok, since deleted, Alex Pearlman, who posts using the handle @pearlmania500, lambasted Burners for contributing to climate change while “building a temporary city in the middle of nowhere while we’re in the middle of an unhoused fucking homeless problem.” Reached by email, Pearlman said that TikTok took down the video, claiming it was mass reported for content violations. The creator challenged that, and it got reinstated—then it was removed again. “My reaction was, ‘I guess the community guideline enforcement manager hitched a ride with Diplo and Chris Rock out of Burning Man,’” Pearlman says.

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This sort of thing—a rant, about tech industry types at Burning Man, posted on a social media site, then shared on other social media sites—is essentially the rub, the irony of Burning Man in 2023. For years, the event was, and is, the playground of tech utopian types, the place where they got to unplug and get enlightened. Larry Page and Sergey Brin chose Eric Schmidt as Google’s CEO in part because of his Burner cred. But as mobile data on the Playa has gotten better—in 2016, new cell towers connected the desert like never before—more real-time information has come out of Burning Man as it’s happening, for better or worse.

This year, that led to more than a little misinformation, says Matthew Reyes, who has, since 2013, volunteered to run Burning Man’s official live webcast. He didn’t go to the event this year but has been helping from his home near Dayton, Ohio. He says he’s had to file several Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices to try to get fake Burning Man streams removed. It’s part of a larger trend of misinformation coming out of the festival, like the debunked rumor that there was an Ebola outbreak at the festival this year—one spread by blue-check X users. The tools so often used by attendees to share their adventures are now also the tools making the event look like a quagmire.

“All of social media, it’s all about money, about serving custom ads or whatever the monetization scheme is,” Reyes says, adding that he believes internet discourse has hyped up what happened at this year’s event and that oftentimes things that are jokes on the Playa may get misunderstood on platforms. Reyes argues that many media outlets are further distorting the view of what’s happening on the Playa by reporting on what they see rise to the top of those very same social media platforms.

For Reyes, what happened at this year’s Burning Man is actually proof that, for the most part, the festival’s tenets worked. People shared resources; they got out. And, as Codel put it, he had “the time of [his] life.” Climate change, and Burning Man’s potential impacts on it, are part of a crisis happening worldwide—though, as University of Pennsylvania environmental science professor Michael Mann told WIRED this week, “what took place at Burning Man speaks profoundly to the message of the climate protesters who were shouted down by Burning Man only days earlier.” (Burning Man aims to be carbon-negative by 2030, but some speculate the event won’t hit that target.)

But even if the tenets of Burning Man worked, that doesn’t mean they were always followed—like, say, that decommodification one. Over the Labor Day weekend, when Burning Man attendees were stuck in the muck and unsure when they’d get out, a TikTokker posting on the handle @burningmanfashion told followers that her crew was safe and they had “enough tuna for a week.” The camp’s structures had fallen down, but they’d be OK. “The news is saying it’s pretty bad out here—it is,” she said. “Thank goodness we have a ModVan, so we’re safe inside of that. Sorry about the plug, I know we’re not supposed to talk about commercial things.”

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