What Is Burning Man?
The Social Singularity
By Max Borders
An Excerpt From "The Social Singularity"
MOST OF US WALK AROUND on planet Earth with certain programming. Biases. Tendencies. Preferences. Cultural baggage. In your first experience at Black Rock City, you at the very least become acutely aware of it. For a few days you can suspend the programming to some degree, maybe even leave some behind. Some of us need a bit of deprogramming—a few of us desperately. It invites us, after all, to acknowledge all the counterproductive memories, mores, or mental monsters, and ask what can be left out there to burn.
A great temple there invites you to come in and pray or reflect or meditate. When you do, pictures of people have been tacked up as makeshift shrines all around. Look up and a fractal of wooden beams climbs into the sky. Though it is breathtaking, in another day or so the temple will burn. Something else equally compelling will take its place next year. And it too will burn.
Walk over to a tree of life pulsing with energy. It’s an illusion created by projection mapping. People are sitting nearby in bonds of love, and the tree’s energy seems to flow through them. You might scoff at illusions. But you can feel that energy all around you, even though it’s started with eye tricks and music. Isn’t everything in our mind an illusion of some kind?
What I have been describing is Burning Man.
I can’t say what it is for everyone. I can say what it did for me. It reconciled contradictions: It is playful and hard. Sacred and profane. Left brain and right. Light and shadow. Wakefulness and slumber. The anima and the animus. The ecstatic and the reflective. It is love and it is death. And it fundamentally changes you, all while you are just discovering your constants.
There are no words, no videos, no pictures nor articles adequate to limn the experience. Yours is but one perspective among many thousands of perspectives, which still manage to be blind men’s hands on a great elephant. Burning Man is a landscape of the ineffable animated by a city of lost souls. That’s because we’re all lost to some degree, so when you go you’ve found home for a time. Next year it will be there, and it will not be there.
Much of reality is socially constructed. Black Rock City—including its laws, its culture, and its aesthetic—is socially constructed. What has evolved there in the desert is far more than a kaleidoscopic coral reef of music and lights. It is a spiritual oasis that hovers at the intersection of reality and dream.
But what is “Black Rock City”? During certain parts of the year there’s really nothing and no one there. The desert becomes an empty canvas upon which 70,000 artists will paint a new experience. When we think of a city, though, we usually think of something more permanent. New York City, for example, includes the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. And yet prior to the construction of any skyscrapers, New York was there, just as New York continued to be there after the old World Trade Center fell on September 11, 2001.
Neither Black Rock City nor New York City is the sum of its structures. These cities are also collections of people who come and go—clusters of laws, cultures and ways of life—places, proximate and approximate, situated on the earth. They’re all of these aspects in a mix of physical and social construction. Buildings, people, rules, and ways of life constitute layers of reality. The invisible filaments of community bind all these layers together in novel ways.
In every city, whether at Burning Man or within the Five Boroughs, there is emergence. Some call it emergent complexity, which is a mouthful. The best way to describe the phenomenon is complex, unplanned order.
“Cities have no central planning commissions that solve the problem of purchasing and distributing supplies,” wrote John Holland, the late complexity theorist.
How do these cities avoid devastating swings between shortage and glut, year after year, decade after decade? The mystery deepens when we observe the kaleidoscopic nature of large cities. Buyers, sellers, administrations, streets, bridges, and buildings are always changing, so that a city’s coherence is somehow imposed on a perpetual flux of people and structures. Like the standing wave in front of a rock in a fast-moving stream, a city is a pattern in time.
Frédéric Bastiat, the great nineteenth-century economic journalist, put Hol- land’s question more succinctly: “How does Paris get fed?”
It’s not just cities, of course. Emergent systems include language, coral reefs, galaxies, and rain forests. What all of these have in common is that they come into existence as if by an invisible hand. That invisible hand always includes some set of rules underlying all the complexity. For galaxies, those rules are physical laws. For the Internet, those rules are computer code. For cities, those rules are laws.
When it comes to emergence we have to be careful about the difference between rules and plans. The former enable order to emerge. The latter limit emergence.
”There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder,” wrote the great urbanist Jane Jacobs, “and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”
When Jane Jacobs wrote the preceding words in her timeless The Life and Death of Great American Cities, she was making an impassioned plea to the people against the planners of New York. These planners had decided that the organically grown qualities of the city—where neighbors made creative collisions on imperfect streets—weren’t good enough.
Instead the planners would impose their visions by tearing down old neighborhoods and dividing them with highways. They’d move the poor into public housing and hope the jazz followed. The planners thought they knew better than the people. But Jacobs saw things differently. She saw patterns of interaction in the noisy and chockablock neighborhoods. She saw emergence.
Why was Jane Jacobs so intent on protecting those patterns of interaction?