Why the Silicon Valley Elite Needs Burning Man.

Let’s face it: while studying Burning Man and its ecosystem, the issue concerning the massive presence of the Silicon Valley elite at the festival doesn’t seem to be avoidable. Along the years, Black Rock City has hosted personalities such as Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Drew Houston, co-founder of Dropbox, and space entrepreneur Elon Musk, just to name a few.

The Playa vs Silicon Valley, from the top. Photos: Duncan Rawlinson and Patrick Nouhailler

Stories of plush parties and lavish camps are often featured in the news, and controversies spread on whether the (in)famous 1% is ruining it for those who are seeking a true transformational experience. A lot has been said on the matter, but there seems to be a sort of attraction to it for those who want to go beyond the mere “hippie party for rich people” allure that the so-called turnkey camps at Burning Man might reflect.

Indeed, me and my partner at Audience Finder felt this attraction while working on the topic analysis that would have later become Blaze of Inspiration. The Impact of Festivals ‘from another planet’ on our society, backed by social big data. Our research led us to think that the tech/innovation elite in Silicon Valley may actually NEED Burning Man. And, what is more, Burning Man may need them too, but we’ll get deep in this matter in another post (but we probably won’t avoid spoilers here. Sorry!)

As Burning Man data scientist and Associated Professor at JMU Nicole M. Radziwill pointed out in one of her papers,

“In places like San Francisco and New York City, participation in Burning Man events is sometimes considered a ‘sanctioned form of professional development’ and often appears on résumés much like conference attendance.”

Well, that certainly triggers curiosity. Why would attending a one-week-long extravaganza in the middle of a desert be considered professional at all? A striking example in this sense is Eric Schmidt, former Google chairman employed as such by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin due to their common love for the Burn. As Brin stated,

“Eric was experienced and the only one who went to Burning Man. Which we thought was an important criterion. He’s a great cultural fit. We hang out together. We discuss and decide on stuff together. More companies should look at cultural fit.

So what does this “cultural fit” practically mean? Sarah Buhr, reporter for TechCrunch, might have depicted it quite vividly while writing about her Burning Man experience:

“[…] Yet here I am discussing Facebook, Google and the latest startups while waiting to get blasted by Dr. Bronners soap foam in a giant box with 50 other dusty weirdos. It’s the perfect collision of Silicon Valley and Burning Man. It’s all part of that spirit of challenging the status quo, innovation and self-reliance that embodies startup culture.”

At this point, things should be a little bit clearer. Not only big names of Silicon Valley attend Burning Man meaning — also — business, but they actually find here the environment to take the very business to another level. In the dusty playa, formalities and conventionalities are abandoned, a non-conformist community forms, based on the principles of radical self-reliance and radical self-expression, and the restrictions of modern society are left outside.

And what can be all these for? What is this transformational environment triggering and enhancing?

Radar image of Black Rock City taken from the TerraSAR-X satellite in 2011

First, Creativity. People from the technology industry seems to be growing in number inside Black Rock City because they are looking for a culture where creativity and project-making are urged, always aiming towards unexplored territories, together with a sense of community and with the increased value of common work. In the words of Stanford University Professor Fred Turner:

Burning Man provides a living model of commons-based peer production carried out for non-monetary purposes. Black Rock City presents an idealised commons, one in which project-based labor is subsidised, made visible and transformed into the basis of individual reputations and communal intimacy. […] This world in turn both models the many claims made by IT marketers and, by explicitly disowning the marketplace, allows participants to redeem its failures. It provides a ritual space in which the same sorts of engineering projects that organise participants’ work lives in the everyday, secular world induce feelings of effervescent, even sacred, community. In the process, it suggests to its participants that engineering can remake the world for the better.”
Photo: Neil Girling

And what does creativity lead to? Experimentation. It was Larry Page, Google co-founder, who reflected on the Burning Man experience while hinting about the utility of such uncommon spaces to allow innovative experimentation without all the restrictions of modern society. In the wake of the disruptive philosophy of Burning Man, he stated:

There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do because they’re illegal, or they’re not allowed by regulation, and that makes sense, we don’t want the world to change too fast. Maybe we should set aside a small part of the world…I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out what is the effect on society, what’s the effect on people, without having to deploy kind of into the normal world. And people like those kind of things can go there and experience that and we don’t have mechanisms for that.”
Photo: Neil Girling

To sum up, the Silicon Valley elite seems to really need the radically creative environment and the freedom of experimentation that Black Rock City offers. But still something is missing.

What’s missing is the outcome of this transformational experience. What are the Silicon Valley gurus doing once home from Burning Man? Well, in many cases it seems that they’re actually implementing what the experience of an inclusive and radical environment brought to them.

Elon Musk is said to have come up with the idea of SolarCity while at Burning Man. Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh, passionate attendee of the Burn, was inspired by Black Rock City to start the Downtown Project, described in a Venturebeat article as a

“[…] $350M plan to make Las Vegas an ‘entrepreneur’s Disneyland. The plan was to align the culture of the downtown area with that of Zappos: Make it friendly, non-conformist, and just a little hipster.”

In the Downtown Project website there’s a description for it that closely reminds of Burning Man’s principles:

“[…] a place of Inspiration, Entrepreneurial Energy, Creativity, Innovation, Upward Mobility, and Discovery, through the 3 C’s of Collisions, Co-learning, and Connectedness in a long-term, sustainable way.
Photo: ToddonFlickr

Illuminated guidance? So it would seem, but mostly a push towards making Silicon Valley and its legacy less elitist, more prone to implementing systems that are partecipative, that care about the people who are involved in the creative and innovative process, and not only about the few managers out there.

On this matter, in 2013 Nicole M. Radziwill and co-author Morgan C. Benton questioned if the principles of Burning Man could help to improve the quality system in work and education organisations.

By interpreting an intersection of W. Edwards Demings’ theory of management 14 points with the 10 principles, Radziwill and Benton wanted to provide

“[…] insights regarding how we can integrate the 10 Principles of Burning Man into our organizations to catalyze radical innovation […] Perhaps by turning back toward a spiritual orientation to quality and participation we can recapture some of the original motivations of Deming’s philosophy to inspire individual transformation as a means of catalyzing collective innovation — an inherently social activity. This perspective has the potential to transform not only individuals, but also institutions in the seamless pursuit of quality and innovation.
Photo: Julia Wolf

We here allow ourself a parallelism, a conjecture that may sound even provocative. But if a constructive debate should arise, please bring it on.

In 1995 Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron conceptualised what they have called the Californian Ideology,

“[…] a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley. Promoted in magazines, books, TV programmes, websites, newsgroups and Net conferences, the Californian Ideology promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich.”

That is, as the very authors point out, a utopian hope. In real life, the Californian Ideology seems to fail its freedom promises, especially for its protagonists, the digital artisans.

“Although they enjoy cultural freedoms won by the hippies, most of them are no longer actively involved in the struggle to build ecotopia. Instead of openly rebelling against the system, these digital artisans now accept that individual freedom can only be achieved by working within the constraints of technological progress and the free market. In many cyberpunk novels, this autistic libertarianism is personified by the central character of the hacker, who is a lone individual fighting for survival within the virtual world of information.”

Burning Man seems to rise from the evolution of this culture, strictly bonded to technology, innovation and disruption (but you’ll get more about this soon. Spoilers!). And yet the festival could also be a mean to outdo this culture’s limits. It seems that, coming out of Black Rock City, the “yuppies” (the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs) are actually able to bring the “hippies” in their organisation. The freedom initially sought by the digital artisans takes the form of co-creativity, of community inspiration, of innovation through self-expression.

Burning Man could (could!) actually start fulfilling what Barbrook and Cameron wished for:

“As pioneers of the new, the digital artisans need to reconnect themselves with the theory and practice of productive art. They are not just employees of others — or even would-be cybernetic entrepreneurs. They are also artist-engineers — designers of the next stage of modernity.”
Source: audiencefinder.io/agency

These were some of our thoughts on why Silicon Valley may need Burning Man. And because this topic seems to open endless doors, more is about to come. So if you feel captivated by this world — just like we are — stay tuned and make sure you follow Burning Man and Transformational Festivals publication here on Medium.

In the publication, we gather data and stories about the ecosystem where transformation happens. If you feel like answering the question: what’s the impact of these events in the society? please drop use a line. We would love to feature your story on our research and publication.

This content is part of the first research in the transformational festivals field: Blaze of Inspiration. The Impact of Festivals ‘from another planet’ on our society, backed by social big data.

Alessia Clusini, Martina Faralli.