What makes Burning Man so special to those who attend — the cliché among the faithful is “life-changing” — is an intense experience of self-awareness.
Everything about Black Rock City (the name of the makeshift town where Burning Man takes place) removes you from your ordinary frame of reference and puts you into the playa, an ancient lake bed that is as much state of mind as physical setting. You are camping out with over 70,000 others in the austere Nevada desert; you are self-governing according to a code of 10 principles (one of which is decommodification — no commerce or cash transactions); you have the freedom (even the expectation) to do almost anything imaginable. Heatstroke is a constant threat, and blinding dust storms blow up without warning.
Unlike in the real world, the “default world” in Burner parlance, the first impulse in Black Rock City is for strangers to help one another. This has given rise to faith in “playa magic,” another Burner term for the confidence that whatever you seek — whether it’s a romantic partner or a can opener — will appear when least expected and most needed.
But can there be playa magic without a playa? Can something experienced via computer screen, cellphone or VR headset ever be life-changing?
In perhaps the ultimate test of whether the internet can satisfyingly replicate the real world, Burning Man has gone online this year.
The notion isn’t as much of a mismatch as it might seem. Larry Harvey, who helped start Burning Man on a San Francisco beach in 1986 and was its guiding luminary until his death in 2018, saw himself as a social engineer. He envisioned a landscape of limitless possibility where people could, at least temporarily, liberate themselves from the numbing confines of commodified art, entertainment and even lifestyle. What has more limitless possibility — in theory, anyway — than the internet?
Indeed, a community famous for innovation (some trace the origins of maker culture to Burning Man) and deeply endowed with tech wizardry (Elon Musk famously said Burning Man “is Silicon Valley”) adapted to the pandemic by creating a virtual Burning Man known as the Multiverse. The weeklong assemblage of eight digital platforms, which anyone can view free, went live at 12:01 a.m. on the last Monday in August, the traditional time Black Rock City opens its gates with a burst of fireworks.
The Multiverse maintains much of the energy, abundance and wonder of the real thing. One’s cursor wanders among detailed renditions of Black Rock City that, for anyone who has been there, are eerily familiar: the layout of the camps, the signature structures and the cracked desert floor. Hover over an icon on the screen and the avatar of a Burner appears playing music he or she programmed. Digital art pieces installed by Burners surface when you click on planted flags. Visitors move through the Temple, an island of spiritual contemplation amid the playa’s cacophony, by connecting glowing colored orbs into meditative patterns. You can attend workshops, which often include chat rooms for serendipitous encounters.
But what’s missing are adequate simulations of the vulnerability, discomfort and gratitude so central to Burning Man’s existential qualities. Those fabled personal transformations typically arise from reappraisals of the self-image you brought to Black Rock City. You discover more creativity, self-reliance, flexibility, generosity — even love — than you thought you possessed.
Or less. “You don’t always get the Burn you want,” a playa adage goes, “but you always get the Burn you need.”
Black Rock City continually serves up opportunities to examine one’s internal guidance system. The Multiverse doesn’t offer this kind of introspection. There’s no app that replicates the dread of loneliness or the relief of forgiveness — familiar emotions at Burning Man.
Which isn’t to say that won’t happen someday. As artificial-reality techniques advance, as the psychodynamics of cyberspace become more sophisticated in integrating the brain with virtual technology, it may one day be possible to elicit feelings associated with the self-governance, communal trust, gifting and fun that make Burning Man such a singular experience.
Burning Man’s influence has been wide reaching. It has seeded dozens of comparable events around the world and served as a model for a range of endeavors from emergency relief to urban development. Whether the Multiverse is a one-off or a new branch in Burning Man’s evolutionary tree, its implications are destined to reach beyond the virtual confines of Black Rock City. Educators developing distance-learning platforms, for example, or human-relations specialists fashioning corporate culture from a labor force of teleworkers would be well advised to log on to see how computer simulation can facilitate social bonding.
Future generations will inhabit virtual worlds we can’t imagine. The Multiverse could prove to be a historical inflection point that leads us toward greater technological connectivity of emotions.
Larry Harvey didn’t have the Multiverse in mind when he predicted Burning Man would change the world. Still, it is consistent with his fundamental quest to create a context of self-awareness where people reacquaint themselves with eternal human truths. Perhaps the Multiverse will be a first step in taking playa magic from the desert into the mainstream.
Neil Shister is the author of “Radical Ritual: How Burning Man Changed the World” and has been to Burning Man seven times.
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