It Was Better Next Year
Kindra was inspired, in part, by my many trips to Burning Man. People interact and connect with strangers there with such warmth, love, kindness and respect. I wanted to see if I could bring those kind of interactions into the online dating world that has increasingly felt commodified and superficial.
This time of year, when people are prepping for the Playa, the common refrain from many jaded Burners or newbies who feel they missed out is “It was better last year, or five years ago, or back in the 90.”
I’m here to tell you it’s not true. Burning Man is better now and keeps getting better.
My first year was 1999, and this year will be my 13th Burn. There are a number of reasons why it’s better today:
1. Bartering can be a negative experience. Gifting promotes happiness.
Larry Harvey didn’t declare Burning Man a gift economy until 2004. Before that, the city was a barter economy. As you prepared to head to the playa, regardless of whether you were part of a camp or not, your packing list would include “items to barter.”
In 2003, I remember going up to a bar to get a drink. This big, burly guy demanded to know what I was going to give him in exchange for a beverage. I reached into my backpack and displayed my offerings of candy. He dismissed them and barked at me to “show your tits” if I wanted a drink.
Eventually he relented and accepted gum for the fruit punch vodka. But bartering promotes arguments and negotiations, and as I found out, it can be particularly harsh for women.
By contrast, a gift economy spreads unconditional giving, smiles, and warm feelings. In a gift economy, in the heat of the day, someone shows up to offer you cold ice cream with no desire for anything in return. Someone else gifts you chapstick, pizza, or a beautiful necklace with no expectations.
The love unconditional giving generates is contagious.
I had been on the fence about returning to the the Playa this year. Building Kindra, a startup with limited resources, demands tremendous hard word and attention. Then I read the responses to this post on the Facebook Group Burner Hacker that asked “BEST/FUNNEST/MOST USEFUL GIFT you’ve given or received at Burning Man 🎊.” I so strongly felt the playa’s pull and knew I had to return this year to Black Rock City.
2. Clearly defined principles makes things clear.
Many Burners do not realize the Principles were not outlined by Larry Harvey until 2004.
Before then, attendees knew Burning Man was a “Leave No Trace” event, we all were out there to express ourselves, and no brands or money were allowed, but by outlining the principles, Larry created a framework for the city’s growth.
If there was a disagreement, people could point to the principles to help resolve it. As theme camps grew, they could look to the principles to make sure they were being Radically Inclusive, promoting Civic Responsibility, and Participation.
The principles make it easier for everyone to be on the same page about what we are co-creating. They are a starting point for wrestling with our culture, as evidenced by all the heated discussions around Decommodification for the last few years.
3. UGH! Hand sanitizer hadn’t been invented.
Today we take hand sanitizer for granted, but it didn’t become a widely available consumer product until about 2005. Before then, after a few days on the playa, pretty much everyone had the runs. People would do their business at the porta potties without means to clean their hands. The fact that people hug at Burning Man, rather than shake hands, probably helped. But nevertheless, bad germs spread, and lots of people ended up with stomach issues. Today, a small bottle of hand sanitizer makes for a healthy Burn.
4. Ahh.. the sound of a thousand motors.
Burning Man used to sound like thousands of lawn mowers running amuck.
Instead of a small number of large, quiet generators, there were thousands of small motors blasting. People would discuss digging a hole for the generator or putting it in a baffle box, but most people didn’t bother, and just added the sound of their generator to the general din.
5. The beauty of the night - thanks to LEDs.
LED technology has turned the night at Burning Man into one of the world’s top wonders. Every year I’m awed anew by the lights and colors, the large, illuminated mutant vehicles roving, the lighted bikes darting around like luminescent creatures, and the large structures beaconing with their lights and colors.
None of this would be possible without LEDs.
Before about 2009, the nights were only lit by glow sticks and fire. The evening ritual would begin with breaking a glow stick to turn it on. To prevent being a Darktard (an unlit person in danger of colliding with other moving objects), people lit bikes with simple white lights. You’d look into the playa and see darkness between dots of fire pits.
6. More Feminine energy.
Back in 1999, the culture was more influenced by the roughness of DPW and Thunderdome, rather than the kindheartedness of Red Lightning and HeeBeeGeeBee Healers. After the Man burned, people would rush to the embers, screaming like orgiastic cannibals. I remember in 2003 being frightened by the wildness of people circling the man. In 2016, I revisited the ritual circling of the man. It was so much more subdued. People wandered toward the flames, then walked around them. A man sat just inside the circle in a yoga pose. Maybe it was the mass of people that had slowed everyone down (the city’s population had burgeoned by almost three times), or maybe the culture had just become gentler.
But there are a few things I miss from Burning Man of yore.
1. More Janky DIY
Almost all camps and mutant vehicles were janky DIY affairs.
It was both quaint and democratizing for most everything in the city to be built by hand by the people making the offering.
Burning Man is now next level, with huge structures and million dollar art cars that couldn’t be manifested without professional expertise and big budgets.
The plus is that we all get to enjoy these opulent creations. But I do miss a more attainable city of creators.
2. Fire and impermanence
Burn Cauldrons used to line the Esplanade. Every night, you could hang out by the warmth and light of the fire while people brought pieces of their camp or art to burn.
Back then, most of the art and camps were built to be burned at the end of the week. People didn’t take them back home. But as budgets got bigger, both camps and art became more precious. Instead of burning them at the end of the week, the camps were stored in a container in Gerlach, and the art is brought back to be displayed or sold.
So I miss both the primitiveness of fire, and the burning of so much as a constant reminder of life’s impermanence.
3. Empty Deep Playa
I used to love riding way out in deep playa, finding a spot with no one around, and enjoying alone time staring back at the city.
Today, deep playa is crowded with mutant vehicles and people 24/7. It is much more difficult to find a place at Burning Man with no one around.
4. Open nudity and public sex
As Burning Man became larger and more mainstream, sexuality has moved inside to the orgy dome, your own tent, and back of camp. Back then, it was not uncommon to come across people having sex on the playa or even on the street in the city. No longer. And it does feel that a smaller percentage of people feel the freedom to self-express by walking around nude, shirt cocking or topless. Back in the early 2000s, it seemed that 20-25% of the women were topless. Today it’s more like 1%. The annual critical tits parade would lead 3000 topless women across the playa to a huge party out by the trash fence. Today only about 200 women come out to bike in celebration of their bodies. I recall many people enjoying Burning Man totally nude. Most recently, during the entire week, I came across only one or two fully nude Burners.
5. No police presence
When Burning Man was under the radar, BLM and Pershing County police didn’t bother with us. My first year in 1999 there was no law enforcement at all, and people were openly offering controlled substances.
When I heard in 2007 that a friend had been ticketed for smoking a joint in deep playa by himself with no one around, I knew we had entered a new era of police presence.
6. Navigate to the best music just by listening
When Burning Man was smaller and huge sound systems didn’t overpower the Playa, you were able to stand off from the Esplanade, listen to the music coming from all around you, and head to whichever camp sounded best. I do love the cacophonous sound of the playa today, but it’s either a mush, impossible to decipher, or overpowered by one monstrous sound system.
In spite of what I miss, Burning Man is better today and it’s exciting to witness the community and culture grow and spread and become more diverse. (I made a video about diversity on the playa that was featured in The New York Times right before the Burn last year).
One of my favorite principles is “Immediacy,” which reminds me to be in the moment. So I’m looking forward to seeing you on the Playa and savoring the moments of Burning Man 2019.