Playing Game B: Burning Man and the Adjacent Possible

WHAT IS CHANGE?

“If all we’re doing is throwing a party, I don’t want to go”

― Anonymous

One of the central ideas within Burning Man culture is that of change. It is often stated that Burning Man has a transformative impact on people’s lives and people ask whether Burning Man can ‘change the world’. These are, of course, noble and important ideals. However, if they are to be realised, then some more important but subtle questions I think needs to be asked. That is — what do we mean by change? And, for that matter, what do we mean by the world? More importantly, what is the role that Burning Man can play in addressing some of the major challenges that we face today?

These questions will be the focus of this essay. More specifically, I want to show how Burning Man can give us a vision of an alternative future world and one that we should be working towards. It is, in the words of systems theory, an ‘attractor point’ — a state or condition to which we are evolving. I also want to show how and why this might be the case. To do this, I am going to embed Burning Man within the language and ideas of another new and emerging social phenomenon — what has been referred to as ‘Game B’. In particular, I want to show how we can use the ideas of Game B as a way of understanding Burning Man as a political phenomenon capable of producing widely-felt social transformation. As part of this, I want to continue to advance a politics of Burning Man.

There are two separate audiences for this piece — those enmeshed in Burner culture (what has been termed the ‘Burnerverse’), and those involved in ‘Game B’. My hope is that the discussion below will bring these communities closer together — conceptually if nothing else. For Burners, I hope the discussion will help crystallise some of the ways in which Burning Man can address the challenges we face today. For those involved in Game B, I hope you find the arguments persuasive enough to begin to see Burning Man as having an instructive role in however the world might look after ‘Game A’.

SOMETHING NEEDS TO EMERGE

“If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves …”

— Robert Pirsig

Both the social and ecological worlds are facing crises on multiple fronts. Ecological collapse, weaponised AI, the pollution of the information ecology, and a breakdown in meaning. Collectively, these amount to what we might call a meta-crisis. Put simply, the meta-crisis is not a crisis of our systems and institutions but is instead a crisis of our underlying paradigm. We may point to the need to change our systems but without addressing the paradigm then we won’t achieve the kind of change that is needed to address all these crises at once.

Put simply, a paradigm is a set of values, assumptions and narratives that shape the ways in which a group of people behave, the interpretations they might make, and the rules that guide their decisions. The notion of a paradigm has been popularised by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn. While his landmark study The Structure of Scientific Revolutions focuses specifically on the ways in which new scientific discoveries emerge, the insights have been applied in a wide variety of other fields, including education, art history and sociology. Kuhn cites Aristotle’s analysis of motion, Ptolemy’s computations of planetary positions and Maxwell’s mathematization of the electromagnetic field as paradigms. However, the concept of a paradigm can easily be applied to other areas of life. For instance, if we look at the evolution of macro-economics, the move from classical economics to the Keynesian welfare state and then to monetarism has constituted a paradigmatic evolution.

Moreover, there are correlates to the concept of a paradigm from other fields of study: psychoanalyst Carl Jung spoke about the ‘collective unconscious’; anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss identified that there were deep structures that exist for different societies that guide the kinds of decisions that the society might make; and famed social theorist Michel Foucault spoke of the episteme, which are the unconscious cognitive and psychological structures that govern how knowledge is acquired and produced in a particular place and time. In my own field of study (public policy) Harvard political scientist Peter Hall influentially identified the notion of a ‘policy paradigm’, which is a similar idea.

Importantly, paradigms manifest themselves in systems. A collective of people hold a set of shared values, purpose and an underlying ontology (i.e. assumptions about how the world works). They then want to work collectively to achieve this purpose. To do that, ways of working and coordinating need to be established. Thus, a set of rules, norms and practices emerge about who makes decisions; who is responsible for what tasks; how resources are to be allocated; and the overall perspective on what is ‘good’ or ‘right’. At this point, a system is created. This system may evolve to be an institution. It may be an organisation. Or it may be something a bit ‘looser’ than that. It doesn’t really matter. For our purposes it is just enough to say that systems emerge from paradigms. The implication here is that, to most effectively change the system — or, at least, to bring about the kind of wide-scale systems change that is needed to address the meta-crisis — we need to change the underlying paradigm.

It is clear to many people that the current paradigm is not working. Indeed, many are attributing the meta-crisis to three central factors: extraction, competition and the unfettered development of technology. All three of these are related and they all emerge from the underlying values of our society, which have been institutionalised and embedded through successive policies and governments. The current paradigm has authorised a set of social values that see unrestricted growth as an unassailable good and that the worthiest of us are the winners that take all. This has resulted in a high degree of social alienation and a breakdown in both the information ecology and our social fabric. We need to do better.

IMPOSSIBLE JUST TAKES LONGER

“It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

― Mark Fisher

Given the current meta-crisis, several movements, approaches and ideas have emerged that function differently to the current paradigm. Examples here in include deep ecology, the work that reconnects, political meta-modernism, and integral theory. These are movements that seek to redress and counterbalance the deleterious and toxic effects of the current paradigm by re-embedding individuals more closely in their social and ecological context. They all have a central concern with decentralised structures, sustainability, social relations, and complex thinking. These movements seek to redistribute power away from the current monolithic bureaucracies and towards cultures and communities. They seek to understand the world as a set of complex inter-relations between people and systems, rather than the hyper-rational reductivism that has dominated our paradigm probably since the Enlightenment.

One such movement — and the one I will focus on for the remainder of this essay — is what has been termed ‘Game B’. In 2012, a group of entrepreneurs, biologists, complexity analysts and thinkers met in Staunton, Virginia to discuss the enormous challenges facing society and how these might be addressed. What emerged from these meetings was a new political party — the emancipation party. However, this short-lived experiment ultimately failed. What remained in its wake was a recognition of the need to create a ‘new social operating system’ for civilisation. This goal was given the term ‘Game B’. While the formal project collapsed in 2014 due to ideological differences between key proponents, the idea of a ‘Game B’ survived and has since gone into what has been called ‘spore mode’. In other words, the notion and possibilities of a ‘Game B’ have proliferated and are now being developed in a highly decentralised way, with the intellectual and emotional labour of the work happening through multiple organisations and sites, including the Consilience Project, Rebel Wisdom, the Jim Rutt Show, game-b.org, and the Game B wiki (amongst many others).

As a burgeoning movement, ‘Game B’ has much in common with some of the ideals espoused above — decentralisation, complexity, sustainability and relationality. At the same time, there is still a degree of uncertainty as to what the core tenets of the movement actually are. That said, there is still several useful and interesting ideas that are emerging as being fundamental to this new ‘social operating system’. It is beyond the scope of this essay to fully consider all the different components and discussions currently happening within the Game B world. As a result, I would like to focus on the following:

  • Decentralised collective intelligence
  • Cohesion
  • The religion that is not a religion
  • Conviviality
  • The adjacent possible.

The notion of decentralised collective intelligence is an evolution of the concept of decentralisation alluded to above. The basic idea is that small groups of up to 120–150 people (i.e. within the Dunbar range) would self-organise and be empowered to live, work and problem-solve together according to their own basic underlying values, norms, decision-rules, interpretive schema, etc. From an administrative perspective, the principle of subsidiarity would apply here, such that decisions are made at the lowest possible ‘unit’ or ‘level’. Importantly, each group would live in cohesion with others. There would be a variety of different groups working and living in their own way, but also concentrating on the relationship between their groups and others, thereby embedding both the individual and the group within a wider social frame. The central glue keeping all these different groups working and functioning effectively together is a religion that is not a religion — in other words, a new meaning structure that is capable of sustaining the kinds of interpretations and (therefore) conversations and behaviours that support both decentralised collective intelligence and cohesion, but is not subject to the same kinds of institutionalised power struggles that have plagued previous systems of meaning. And, if we were truly playing ‘Game B’, we would come together in the spirit of conviviality — celebrating life through food, drink, music and laughter. Finally, to achieve these ends, the new paradigm needs to be built in parallel to the current one — in what has been termed the adjacent possible.

Relative to our current ‘Game A’ world, these goals are ambitious. They will require a lot of work and a lot of time. However, the work must be done. To simplify this task, Jim Rutt has argued that we need to think about the move towards Game B along a trajectory of epochs or phases. Our current phase is PreB. As part of this, our role is to lay the foundations for Game B to proliferate. From there, we move to ProtoB (or ProtoBs). In this phase the work becomes establishing different collectives with different norms, institutions, cultures, governance frameworks, etc. Once a significant number of these entities, groups or communities (call them what you will) had been established, early-Game B can emerge. This means that larger administrative, social or cultural units (i.e. entire municipalities states, territories or even countries) might be run dominantly by ProtoBs. Finally, after all this has occurred, we can begin to play Game B earnest.

PLAYING GAME B

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

– Buckminster Fuller

For the remainder of this essay, I would like to focus on how Burning Man (specifically) and Burner culture (generally) aligns with some of the concepts described above. The Burner movement has emerged from the Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and has since proliferated through multiple regional events and organisations that are emulate or reframe what happens each year at ‘Black Rock City’. The history, ethos and practices of this movement are extensively documented across the internet and elsewhere, and so it is not worth repeating them here (see here, here and here if you would like to know more). Rather, I want to focus on some of the conceptual links between Game B and Burning Man, focusing on the five concepts I outlined above — conviviality, decentralised collective intelligence, cohesive pluralism, the religion that is not a religion, and the adjacent possible.

Conviviality
I’d like to start with the simplest idea — conviviality. The term conviviality can refer to a spirit of welcomeness, friendship, and merriment. It can also mean a way of interacting with others that encourages openness, joy and living simply in dialogue and relationship with others. It is expressed through song, food and celebration. This, to me, is the public face of Burning Man. It is what it is known best for both in and out of the Burner community. For many people, Burning Man represents a big party, a giant rave in the desert. Of course — and as I discuss below — it is so much more than that. However, whatever your conceptualisation is of ‘the Burn’, it will inevitably involve some element of celebration, connection and fun. The evidence of this is manifold. People invite you into their camp for drinks, snacks and dancing. You stop on your way to view the art and immediately strike up a long and random conversation with a stranger who, just for a moment, you feel is your closest confidant. You sit in comfortable and intimate silence with your campmates over dinner, as the sun is setting and the music, lights, cars and camps begin their nightly ritual. This is more than pure hedonism — it has an important social purpose. More specifically, food, song and substances remove barriers between people and encourage conversation and connection.

Decentralised collective intelligence
At a deeper level of complexity is the notion of decentralised collective intelligence. Typically, we rely on our institutions to make sense of issues for us. In other words, institutions do our thinking. This is what we might refer to as centralised collective intelligence. Reversing that, decentralised collective intelligence requires individuals to reduce their reliance on institutional sense-making by improving their own interpretive capacities. But, more than this, it requires individuals to recognise their own cognitive and epistemic limits — their ‘bounded rationality’ — when seeking to understand and address a problem. This means that individuals should bring together others and engage in a process of collaborative interpretation through which groups build their own collective capacities to respond to new challenges and ideas. Important here is the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that decisions should be made at the ‘lowest’ possible level. Or, in other words, decision-making should be decentralised away from monolithic entities unless absolutely necessary.

To understand the role of decentralised collective intelligence within Burning Man, it is important to look at the way in which a Burn is arranged. In its simplest form, there is the central organising body (a.k.a. the BMOrg), which is surrounded by several other, mostly autonomous, entities. These include theme camps, art collectives (i.e. The Pier Group, Flaming Lotus Girls), rangers, Department of Public Works, etc. I’ll focus on theme camps as these are probably the most familiar to me, and probably the best illustration of what I am talking about. Each theme camp represents a form of decentralised collective intelligence. It is a collective of people that have to puzzle and problem solve together to create something in a difficult environment. As part of this, they need to be self-reliant — the amount of support they will get from the BMOrg is likely to be minimal (or non-existent). In this way, the central institution (i.e. the BMOrg) is ‘pushing’ decisions down to the lowest level. Moreover, in my work with camps, I hear, time and time again, that the work becomes a bonding experience and a sense of camaraderie is built through creating something beautiful and fun for other Burners. Through this, camps develop their own cultures and ways of working — largely independent from top-down control. They develop their own solutions to collective problems.

Coherence
Importantly, for the Burn to function effectively, each of the different ‘nodes’ in the network — the camps, artist groups, rangers, builders, etc. must function coherently together. The burn is both order and chaos — what we might call ‘chaorder’. But, taken as a whole, it more-or-less works. In other words, it is a single functioning phenomenon that has a life and existence all its own. Moreover, that single, functioning phenomenon is greater than the sum of its parts. The burn is a camping trip, art gallery, music festival, transformative experience and a shitty time all rolled into one. This is achieved through the ways in which the different collectives — the various forms of decentralised collective intelligence — work with each other but also allow each other the space to create what they need. This is more than just co-ordination or collaboration. Rather, it is coherent. Just as the organs of my body are in coherence with my cells and blood and all the other things that make ‘me’ possible, all the organs of the burn work coherently together so that the experience of burning can emerge. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all the organs get along — it just means that they are all fully occupy their own domain but also create space for others to do the same. In this way, we can talk about the burn, when it is working, as existing within a state of coherence.

The religion that is not a religion
The next aspect of Game B that shows up at Burning Man is the ‘religion that is not a religion’. While the phrasing of this concept might seem a bit obscure, to my mind this is a necessary response to the meaning crisis. Psychologists, social theorists and neuroscientists have argued for many decades that the current conditions of late-industrial capitalism have resulted in people feeling that their life is devoid of meaning. This crisis has emerged from several factors, one of which being the loss of a central or ‘grand’ social narrative — what philosopher Jacques Derrida famously referred to as the ‘loss of a centre’. For many centuries this role was taken by institutionalised belief (a.k.a religion). However, with the rise of secularism and scientism in late modernity, this central narrative has broken down and instead we see a plurality of different beliefs, values and ideologies permeate society, with none of them being able to claim supremacy, and with religious beliefs being subjugated as unscientific and therefore inferior. Market forces have exploited this vacuum and have, in my view, co-opted the meaning space. As a result, companies have tried to argue that our salvation lies in the market and our ability to consume. Of course, achieving a meaningful life through consumption was never a good idea and, so, here we are, smack bang in the middle of a meaning crisis.

The idea of a ‘religion that is not a religion’ is an attempt to re-create a central cohesive force that directs society without resorting to the forms of institutional power that has de-legitimised or corrupted some of the more dominant religions — what Jamie Wheal refers to as ‘Meaning 3.0’. To my mind, this means we need an underlying interpretive and social frame that is a ‘minimum viable product’. That is, it must do only what is absolutely necessary to bring about a sense of social cohesion and values that are productive and generative within the confines of our environmental limits. And I think Burning Man can give us a prototype of how that might work.

There are several ways we might see Burning Man as a ‘religion that is not a religion’. First, the religious overtones of Burning Man have been well documented by religious anthropologists like Francois Gauthier and Sarah Pike. As part of this, people compare attending the event to a kind of pilgrimage or sacred ritual. They also report having transformative or transcendent experiences there, often at the event’s temple, which, for many, is a place to grieve a loss (typically of a loved one), very much like a more traditional religious temple. Moreover, there is an underlying belief system or meaning structure that has emerged as part of the event. This is well exemplified by the 10 Principles, which is a kind of normative code that one of the event’s founders — Larry Harvey — wrote in the early 2000s as a way of both expressing and maintaining the event’s culture beyond the gathering in the Black Rock Desert. This code is something that often guides the behaviour of people participating in the event, or in the wider community that it has spawned. Finally, the event even has its own diaspora, which is best represented by the 90-ish ‘regional Burns’ and their associated communities.

So, while we can see many of the hallmarks of religious belief in the Burning Man experience, what is less apparent are the ways in which those beliefs have been institutionalised and enacted as a form of control. Beyond the 10 Principles, there is no real ‘canon’ upon which to draw for guidance and advice about what ‘ought to be done’. Rather, people are brought together in a relatively ‘loose’ arrangement and are expected to draw on their own unique talents, insights and capacities to navigate their way through the event and its surrounding community. This is, in part, the transformative aspect — in a mainstream society that has been so institutionalised, giving people an alternative space to realise themselves and to play together provides a radical departure from the status quo. Because of this, people keep returning and, in many instances, commit their life to ‘burning’ as a practice and way of life, but one that does not include many of the traditional problems associated with organised religion. Indeed, you often hear people say ‘I’m a committed Burner’ — not a committed Christian. Or a committed Jew. A committed Burner.

The adjacent possible
The final parallel between Burning Man and Game B is less to do with where things are going and instead it is much more to do with how we get there. To understand this, I want to talk about the notion of the ‘adjacent possible’. The basic idea underlying this concept is that movements and communities can grow parallel to the overarching paradigm. That is, they begin to develop their own norms, values and institutions somewhat independently. As part of this, they begin living and embodying their vision of the future. This is what political and social scientists call ‘prefigurative politics’ and there are many examples of it occurring, including the Ba’hai community as well as the Occupy movement. These movements and communities seek to build new institutional frames within which they can build social relationships. These frames are based on the underlying teleology and ontology of the movement itself. In this way, they work adjacent to the mainstream. Over time, this adjacent world and the mainstream start to influence each other in a few different ways. The ‘boundary spanners’ — people who are capable of operating in both worlds simultaneously — use the ideas from one world to shape the other and vice-versa. Moreover, as the mainstream world starts to lose its legitimacy — as we are seeing with many of our institutions right now — people start to look for alternatives. At this point the adjacent world moves from a possibility to an actuality — its ideas and institutions become a legitimate and influential part of wider society.

This ‘two worlds’ approach is how some key Game B figures have described the ways in which the ideas of Game B can come to shape wider society. However, the Burning Man community has been approaching its politics in this way for many years. This is best understood through the concept of the ‘default world’, which represents the world outside of Burning Man. It is the world to which Burners return after the event. On the other hand, Burners represent their world through the notion of the ‘Burnerverse’. Importantly, the Burnerverse is more than just the annual event in Nevada. Rather, it refers to the wider community, initiatives, projects, events and organisations that have either been started by Burners, or else operate in line with the Burner ethos, or both. It is through the Burnerverse that the adjacent possible evolves and becomes real. Thus, the Burning Man community seeks to implement a form of prefigurative politics, in which it lives and brings into being the world it wants.

CONCLUSION
Burning Man provides us with an opportunity to experiment and play with some of the central tropes in the Game B discourse. But I want to be clear here — I am not putting forward Burning Man as the solution to the meta-crisis, nor am I saying that ‘Game B’ ideas find their fullest form at Burning Man. Rather, Burning Man offers a potential to experiment with a ProtoB at scale. Indeed, it is an entire community of ProtoBs — theme camps, art collectives, builders and rangers and makers and doers — living together under harsh conditions for a week, working (to a degree) from similar conceptual frameworks, and in doing so, bringing a sense of meaning to their lives. Because of this, Burning Man needs to be one component of how a new paradigm might look.

The kinds of problems that we are currently facing are large and it may be that they are actually unfixable. If systems theory is right, then we need to allow for the fact that there is systemic inertia not just in the climate system, but also in the social and political systems that we inhabit. This means that, even if we stopped carbon emissions tomorrow, we would still be feeling the effects of climate change for a while into the future, both in terms of a more hostile environment, but also in the ability of our institutions to cope. And, as Jared Diamond has shown, societies throughout history have collapsed due to an inability to respond to dramatic environmental changes. If we are to ‘weather the storm’, so to speak, we need to radically re-think how we live. But, before we can do that, we need a vision of how a radically re-designed society might look, and we also need an opportunity to experiment with different concepts, opportunities and relationships to understand what might actually work, particularly when it comes to the ways in which we relate to each other. Such a large problem is going to require many people and communities, working from different angles and perspectives — it won’t, and can’t be, just one. I’m not here saying that Burning Man is ‘the answer’ (of course it isn’t), but, at the very least, it gives us an opportunity to re-think and re-conceptualise our being in the world. If nothing else, it gives us a profound and timely opportunity to play Game B.

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