Fred Turner on Burning Man as the Religious Festival for Silicon Valley
Fred Turner, in an interview by Logic magazine
* What are some of the social practices and cultural institutions around the tech industry that come to life at Burning Man?
Burning Man is to the tech world what the nineteenth-century Protestant church was to the factory.
In the nineteenth century, if you lived in a small factory town, you'd work six days a week through Saturday. Then on Sunday, you'd go to church, and the bosses would sit up front, the middle managers would sit right behind them, and all the workers would sit in the back. You'd literally rehearse the order of the factory. You’d show, in the church, how you oriented all of your labor toward the glory of God.
At Burning Man, what you’re rehearsing is project-based collaborative labor. Engineers flowing in from the Valley are literally acting out the social structures on which Valley engineering depends. But they can do something at Burning Man that they can't do in the Valley: they can own the project. They can experience total “flow” with a team of their own choosing. In the desert, in weirdly perfect conditions, they can do what the firm promises them but can’t quite deliver.
The Valley's utopian promise is: Come here and build the future with other like-minded folks. Dissolve yourself into the project and emerge having saved the future. Well, at Burning Man, you can actually do that. You pick your team, you make a work of art, people admire your art, and you are in a self-described utopian community that, at least for that moment, models an alternative future.
* So Burning Man is a way to fulfill the promise that Silicon Valley makes but can’t keep.
Burning Man is the very model of the Puritan ideal. What did the Puritans want? The Puritans, when they came to America, imagined that they would be under the eye of God. They imagined they would build a city on a hill. “The eyes of all people are upon us,” John Winthrop said.
When I went to Burning Man, that's what struck me: I am in the desert. The desert of Israel, from the Bible, under the eye of heaven, and everything I do shall be meaningful. That’s a Protestant idea, a Puritan idea, a tech idea, and a commune idea. All of those come together at Burning Man and that's one of the reasons I'm fascinated by the place.
Burning Man has many problems, of course, and I am distressed by many pieces of it. However, there was a moment I had during my first visit when I went two miles out in the desert and I looked back at the city and there was a sign that looked just like a gas station sign and it was turning, the way gas station signs do. It could’ve been a Gulf or Citgo sign, but it wasn’t. It was a giant pink heart. And for just a moment, I got to imagine that my suburbs back in Silicon Valley were ruled over not by Gulf and Citgo, but by love.
That’s a thread running through Burning Man. And it's a thread that I treasure. In the midst of all the other things that made me crazy.
Burning Man also seems to embody Silicon Valley’s fascination with the idea of the frontier. You mentioned John Winthrop, and in From Counterculture to Cyberculture, you discuss John Perry Barlow and Kevin Kelly and the other folks who popularized the notion of the internet as an “electronic frontier.” (https://logicmag.io/03-dont-be-evil/)