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[whitespace] Burning Man
Illustration by Jeremy Russell

Burning the Man

When geeks run free, how do they celebrate?

By Annalee Newitz

Going to Burning Man is like starring in a Wild Kingdom special about humans. Arriving in a sandstorming desert full of homemade dwellings, you feel like you've discovered the way humans would exist if there could be such a thing as a natural habitat in our corporate-sponsored universe.

And yet Burning Man is high tech, in a kind of post-apocalyptic way. Battered generators rumble everywhere to fuel elaborate light and sound systems, digital artwork and even a satellite T1 line.

This year marked my first visit to Black Rock City, the intentional metropolis created in just a few weeks on a Nevada playa and home to the notoriously anti-authoritarian ritual known as Burning Man.

Living in Black Rock City for a week, I realized the place has its own cultural norms, modeled largely on the way people communicate online. Everything and everyone are interactive. You can walk up to a group of people and just start talking to them, as if you'd entered a chat room and were introducing yourself.

Unlike people in "real life," citizens of Black Rock City consider it perfectly acceptable if you notice something intriguing about them (a cool T-shirt, a nifty glow stick, a striking UFO-shaped mode of transportation) and burst into random, happy cheers.

Interactivity and sharing, as it turns out, are the main ways people socialize in the wild. Money has no meaning in Black Rock City. Barter is the only legitimate form of commerce, except at the Cafe Temps Perdu, which sells coffee and ice.

Hanging out in Center Camp, the "downtown" area of Black Rock City, I discovered that geeky dreams of tech teamwork had fueled much of the disorganized pageantry I saw around me. Pattern Buffer Lounge housed 200 circuit boards that allowed users to program an artwork created by Tim "the Wizard" Black. Called L2K, it consisted of 2,000 LEDs placed in a wide circle around the 50-foot soon-to-be-burned Man. Rachel Nevada reported in the Black Rock Gazette (Burning Man's almost-daily paper) that L2K required 200 processor boards and represented four months of engineering work.

Of course, it would be important not to confuse L2K with KY2 Camp, where KY jelly was handed out for free with much rejoicing.

I kept meeting Mac people, which seemed oddly significant. Loitering in front of Center Camp's Radio Free Burning Man, I discovered that the person I had struck up a conversation with was none other than Mac guru journalist Raines Cohen, a founder of BMUG and NetProfessional magazine. Raines let me play with his iMate, which he had duct-taped to his bicycle handlebars. We agreed that a good theme camp would be Memory Backup Camp, where people could type their memories of Burning Man into a database in case they forgot anything important.

At the Costco Soulmate Outlet (fill out a form and get a soulmate!), I learned that the Costco Soulmate workers had conveniently grouped Black Rock's citizens into several types, one of which was "geek." When geeks run free, how do they celebrate their liberation? In a hackish way, obviously, which helps explain why so many Bay Area geeks gather every year to participate in an event where they burn The Man.

We gathered in a huge circle around this gigantic symbol for everything repressive you might associate with The Man, and watched as people beat drums and dancers played with fire. Under the hallucinating eyes of the crowd, a tech crew lowered The Man from his alfalfa-bale pedestal, packed his neon-riddled body with explosives and fiddled with yards of thick wire.

The Man's engineers used pulleys to drag him upright. A spark from the neon electrifying his body burst a firework in his heart, and suddenly the crowd began to shout, "BURN THE MAN! BURN THE MAN!" Rockets and firecrackers zoomed out of his torso, gradually turning The Man's crumbling wooden body into a mound of shockingly hot fire.

As a geek, I'm of a pretty scientific mindset. I prefer the results of careful, informed thought rather than the opinions of a frenzied crowd. But at Burning Man I saw science and technology truly wedded to the hacker ethic of covertly breaking the law, disrupting the social order and sneaking out before anyone notices you've been there.

Black Rock City's credo is pure geek: engineer an amazing interactive creation, defy authority and leave no trace.

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From the September 16-22, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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