Burning Man: The off-line experiment
by Elinor Mills Abreu
(IDG) -- On the surface there isn't much relation between Black Rock desert in northern Nevada and the San Francisco Bay area. Black Rock has no homes, no telephone lines and no civilization per se. But once a year the barren alkaline desert becomes a mecca for some of the most wired and tech-savvy people on earth.
What draws them to this isolated spot every Labor Day weekend is Burning Man. An event often described as a neo-pagan techno-fest or post-industrial tribal gathering. I see it as ritualistic celebration of spontaneous community, interactivity and free expression. An experiment in creativity, collectivity and chaos. However you define it, the connection between Burning Man and the Internet and its origins is clearer than the liquid crystals in my computer display.
Like sites on the World Wide Web, the Burning Man community is linked by theme camps, art installations and performances. Some have a blatant technology bent such as the Tesla Coil A/C current generator; the Electrical Luminescent wire bicycle propelled bouncing kangaroo; Y2Klay camp; and the Cyberbuss camp, which Webcasts from its silver school bus. Others just arise out of a sense of fun like the motorized living room; the Happy Birthday Camp where you are treated to a small gift and piece of cake; and the Air Hug, composed of walls of feather dusters, strings of beads and other sensations to stimulate your body as you walk through.
Beyond the mottos "no spectators" and "leave no trace," anything goes at Burning Man, except squelching someone else's freedom. Mind-altering experiences abound, allowing people to play with reality further. Nudity is de rigeur, pyrotechnics are commonplace, and bartering and alternatives to traditional commerce are strongly encouraged, much like pornography, hyperlinks and shareware initially propelled the Internet's popularity.
Many of the same people who paved the Internet are the engineers of the Burning Man community. The majority of participants are online enthusiasts; countless working as Web designers and in related geek jobs in Silicon Valley and Multimedia Gulch. For instance, the men who brought us VRML (virtual reality modeling language) -- Mark Pesce and Tony Parisi -- brought us the DJ Christ Superstar musical this year, and the visionaries of the popular Freezing Man ice cream truck camp work for Internet start-ups.
Like the Internet, Burning Man has experienced growing pains. Twelve years ago or so it fit on San Francisco's Ocean Beach, where founder Larry Harvey made a bonfire of a stick figure to find release after an ended love affair. Now, the man is 40 feet tall, with neon veins and explosives in his gut. In the past few years, the community has needed "street" names, like 5:30 and Venus, where this year's "Time" theme dictated my camp's address in the population of about 24,000. But that is the extent of the order at Burning Man. Mostly, people leave their cell phones and PDAs at home and pack their body paint, squirt guns and sun screen.
The majority of the participants are linked by common goals -- feeling free to express yourself in any way, to interact creatively in a community where "normal" rules don't apply, to push the limits of art and technology. These are tenets that early Internet pioneers strived for and are struggling to maintain as the world of laws and transactions quickly saturates the Net.
But for one week a year, these digital mavens can immerse themselves in a different virtual world and watch the Man burn.
Burning Man: Internet in the desert
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Burning Man: Internet in the desert
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