Glassholes and Black Rock City
Digital cameras are new. Consent is not.
The glassholes of Burning Man wear cargo shorts, shove small, constantly recording GoPro cameras at women’s chests, and can’t wait to send Gawker their pics. You would think that catcalling a dust-covered topless woman on a dry lake bed covered with tens of thousands of other naked people might lose some of its chauvinistic luster, but you would be wrong. And after all, the entire internet is out there waiting for a glimpse at yet another chest.
People come to Burning Man because it is a once-a-year exposition of a variety of weirdnesses, from costumes, to music, to fire-belching sculptures. It is an alternative city, a Temporary Autonomous Zone, a place where you don’t have to seek a police permit to express yourself in the middle of the street, because the event is already the permit. In the desert heat and the carnivalesque atmosphere, you can feel free to shed your clothes, whether you make your living as a stripper, a teacher, or a lawyer back in the other world.
But no Temporary Autonomous Zone is an island. This ludic anti-world is always connected to the straight world, by means of the technological constructs that draw the boundary lines of this social permit. Burning Man has a complex infrastructure to manage that enables it to create this haven of freedom and creativity. Despite the freedoms from technology that such a place can open up, it relies on radios, cell phones, cameras, and the internet to function correctly, just as much as any city.
Burning Man isn’t a way of escaping the social problems that accompany new technology. On the contrary, it is a a petri dish that intensifies and fosters some of the deeper conflicts. It is a case study for, among other things, a new media problem: that of ubiquitous cameras.
Photos are all too easy to take, and they find their way all too quickly to the internet, where they persist long afterwards. When we use some of our freedom to evade a social prescription in one world, we open ourselves up to being forced to cross that line in all worlds. It is as if, having uttered a curse word once, that word is recorded, and played back constantly in front of everyone we ever meet—our bosses, our priests, our children, and our grandparents.
Some people just won’t know common decency and personal respect, because finding this easy way of belittling another person is just too delightful an opportunity to them. In a Gawker piece about Google Glass from earlier this year, Adrian Chen described what have since been colloquially named “glassholes”:
If you come up to me with a smartphone held at eye level and demand that I interact with you like you’re not being an asshole, you are an asshole. You are demanding social interaction on your wholly weird and unsettling terms. This does not change if the smartphone is tiny and strapped to your eye and made by Google. In fact, you thinking that this excuses your asshole behavior just makes you that much more of an asshole.
Burning Man has its fair share of assholes. Armed with the ability to force a context collapse, finding this easy way of belittling another person is just too delightful an opportunity to them. It isn’t clever, or logically consistent, or transgressive. It’s an easy way to push someone else in front of traffic and delight at their shock. They do this by buying small digital video cameras, which can be strapped to the head, the shoulder, the hand, or any other part of the body.
This is a big part of why Burning Man, for all its seemingly progressive and futuristic qualities, has an intellectual property policy that appears very archaic. On the back of the ticket, below to the widely cited disclaimer informing the participant of voluntarily accepting all risk of serious injury or death, is this clause about intellectual property:
Use other than personal use of images or photographs from Burning Man, or of drawings or representations of the Burning Man sculpture on a book cover or in any advertisement, or of the phrase “Burning Man” in the title of any publication or in any advertisement, is prohibited without prior written consent of Burning Man. Your image may be captured on film, video, or photographs without your consent and without compensation. You hereby appoint Burning Man as your representative to protect your intellectual property or privacy rights, recognizing that Burning Man has no obligation to take such action.
Victor Jefferies II, who attended Burning Man this year as a journalist for Gawker, described the onerous contract he had to sign which forbids credentialed member of the press from publication of images that portray “nudity, sexual activity, the use of drugs or any act that might be considered in violation of criminal laws.” It also requires photographers to submit all images to Black Rock City, LLC, for review prior to publication.
“This is a stupid and perverse policy,” he writes. “But signing the contract was our only way of getting in, so we signed it.” He then invites members of the public who did not sign that contract to share with Gawker any “images of drug use and nudity at Burning Man.” Because why not send those GoPro glassholes a signed invitation?
Burning Man’s flawed position on intellectual property is a ham-handed way of maintaining some control over consent. No, it doesn’t stop all photos from being taken against a person’s will. No, it doesn’t stop GoPro tit-shot videos from making their way to the internet. But it does provide a bit of legal recourse for going after those who abuse their own technological capacities at the expense of others’ bodies. And when it comes to respecting consent, you would be surprised by how far a little effort goes.
The small video camera is now ubiquitous on and off the playa, just as the permanently nebulous definition of public and private space is. We could argue over what cameras we should expect to see, and which are too surreptitious (how long exactly should I be forced to study a man sweatily clutching his own monopod for the shiny residue of hidden lenses?) We could argue about what an “expectation of privacy” is (even though these arguments all end up in the form of a mansplaination that whatever privacy we think we have, we don’t, whether delivered by the cops, the NSA, or by internet trolls). We could repeat, yet again, that the first amendment is not a freedom from dealing with the consequences of your publication of images. We could stick to simply mocking the sort of person who thinks a creepshot is a harmless bit of fun, even though they clearly don’t care what the rest of us think. But none of these words can counter the image of a naked person, captured against that person’s will.
We can argue the socially-defined and evolving boundary lines of all of these things, but what we cannot argue is consent. Consent existed before photography, and will exist long after X-Ray Specs are invented. There have always been assholes that look at a safe space as simply a possibility for exploitation. Consent has never been fully respected by society, nor by its technology. That is no reason to continue to ignore it. Consent is a person’s ability to control their own body, including its image, now and into the future. The fact that we might never have had full control over our body is not a reason to deny its existence. That exploitation is a historical fact does not make it a future given. Regardless of what technology exists and on what spot on the earth you happen to be standing in, you can either choose to respect consent, or you can choose to violate it.
The technological future, both in the desert and on our city streets, looks grim for consent. Almost as grim as the past—the entire human history of rape, exploitation, and profiteering doesn’t have many victories for the self-determination of bodies. But the future is bright in one respect. We can affect the future with our own actions. We don’t have to blindly accept a Hobbesian media war, and resign ourselves to a society of Argos-faced drone bodies. One photo may be enough to turn a human being into an object. But not taking one photo might also be enough to turn an object back into a person.