Burning Man Live | Episode 70 | 06|01|2023

Steven Blumenfeld: The Tech of Art and the Art of Tech

Guests: Steven Blumenfeld, Stuart Mangrum

Yes, Burning Man has a Chief Technology Officer, and his name is Steven Blumenfeld. In this episode Stuart chats with “Bloom” about art, innovation, immediacy, and the power of the unexpected, with trippy side trips into AR, VR, and AI (and TLA).

Yes, we have a CTO. We have all the enterprise tech needs of any not-small non-profit, with the added complications of ridiculously challenging work sites, a staff that’s mostly seasonal volunteers, and an ethos rooted in Ten Principles that don’t always line up with ideals of Big Tech or engineering efficiency. You don’t build a city of 80,000 in the desert — or a global community of dreamers and doers — without bending a few bits and bytes. Or stepping on a few tech-bro toes.

Bloom shares stories from his colorful career at the intersection of art and technology, from working with Al Gore at Current Media to pioneering the “always two years away” world of virtual reality. And he does his best to reassure Stuart that AI will not be taking his job… yet.


BLOOM: Burning Man is about content in many ways. The content of the playa, the content of how we go about things, how we train our people, how we train thousands of volunteers every year to do that thing we do in the desert. The content could lead to having a media group at Burning Man, pretty much. Whether that content is just photos, whether it’s videos, whether it’s writing, all that is media about how Burning Man is created and what is created from it. How do we expose all that to our community?

BLOOM: Let’s get started, Stuart. What do you wanna talk about?

STUART: Well, I usually start by welcoming all of my invisible friends back to another episode of Burning Man Live, reminding them that I am still, in fact, Stuart Mangrum. I have not yet been replaced by our artificial intelligence, and telling them who my guest is. My guest is: he’s a neighbor, actually, He lives just a short drone flight away. He is Burning Man’s Chief Technology Officer, Steven Blumenfeld. Hi, Steven. 

BLOOM: Hi there, Stuart. The question I always get from people, by the way, is “How the hell does Burning Man have a Chief Technology Officer?”

STUART: Get outta my head. That was my first question. Burning Man has a CTO? WTF? Tell us about your job, I guess. That’s a good place to start.

BLOOM: I think the first part of it is: Burning Man has a lot of technology in and around the organization as a whole, also, the other part of that is I tell people that the organization’s 140 full-time employees. That kind of blows people away as well.

STUART: They’re like, what do they do the rest of the year? 

BLOOM: We’re a fairly large nonprofit organization and we have the same technology needs as any other other nonprofit. Burning Man is made up of about 112 different departments, I think, and every one of those needs to be represented in technology in some way, shape or form.  So it’s the same job as you would have anywhere else in the universe of technology, only we get to do it at Burning Man, which is kind of fun. 

STUART: I’m just thinking back over a lot of years of observing the growth of technology at Burning Man, it seems like back in the days, the ‘buy or build’ question always ended up with build because we didn’t have any money and we had thousands of volunteers, and then we ended up with a bunch of messy stuff.

I remember when we finally converted the web properties to a more modern platform, there was this dense undergrowth of like old Perl scripts and crap like that, you know.

BLOOM: And we still have that undergrowth that we’re still digging out of. Of course, everybody calls that “tech debt.” Briar patch? Ooh, I like that too. Tech Briar Patch. I may start using that. We are digging ourselves out. For eight months of the year, we are focused on this big gala event we do in the desert, and so for four months of the year we kind of focus on other things, and so a lot of tech debt gets cleaned up in those four months. 

But with the pandemic, we actually had the ability to take a couple of steps back and look at everything as a whole, and I was a new employee during the pandemic, so I didn’t even have the luxury of understanding what came before and why and how, so I had to kind of think about it in new light in many cases. 

STUART: Yeah. That was an interesting time to join the organization. It’s hard to believe it’s been three years. My god. It was the beginning of Covid. It was right after the departure of our longtime technology chieftain CameraGirl. And we were still very much in the throes of converting the organization from a seasonal-based event production company into this global nonprofit.

As you say, it was a time of pause and a lot of opportunity to get caught up on things that ordinarily get hammered by the annual fall of all of our deadlines for Black Rock City. One of them was the emergence of the virtual worlds, which I know that you played a bit of a part in. Do you think that was just a COVID flash in the pan, or do you think there’s a long-term place in our universe for virtual Burn events? 

BLOOM: Stuart, that’s a really good question. I have been working in the virtual worlds a good part of my career. Virtual Reality is always the technology that’ll be here in two years. And I believe it’s still, it’s closer. With the advent of actual headsets that don’t weigh 20 pounds and they’re now portable, we’re a lot closer to that two year mark, but it’s still gonna be a while.

Since Covid started there was a lot of push to be in the virtual worlds. But as Covid started to wane and people were getting back together, no one wants to sit around in their dark room with a headset on versus going outside or seeing people in person. That’s a real big function that is not driving the adoption. It’s driving it in the opposite direction. You lose that personal touch in the virtual space. 

I do think that virtual reality, as I’ve said many times, will be our entertainment. Augmented reality is the utility that we will use every day, whether that’s glasses or… We use it now, right? Maps. That, in essence, is an augmented reality for many people. When I can get those on my glasses and be riding my bicycle or driving my car and I could see my map, I will be a very happy person.

STUART: As soon as we can get AR to tell me what the status is of a particular porta potty, whether I should open that door or not… Get back to me on that. I’m skipping ahead. I want to talk about on playa, but first still in the Covid year, you’re the other big project that we undertook, big infrastructure project was, building out our new Northern Nevada operations, and connecting Gerlach, in a little bit better fashion to the rest of the world. You know, Gerlach used to be connected, I believe, by two oatmeal boxes and a long piece of string to Reno. But now, if you’re lucky, I know you can certainly get a cell data signal. There’s a couple of towers that have gone in over the last five or 10 years. What about getting internet to the lonely berg of Gerlach Nevada? 

BLOOM: One of the things I had to learn when I came on is that we had employees in this far away town called Gerlach, and that we had to support them in some way, shape, or form. In 1999, Burning Man decided that they were gonna support the town with internet access. The team put together a free wifi system for the town, which we still support today, and it was put together with bailing wire and bubblegum and scotch tape and anything that could be bought at Radio Shack or donated by people who had leftover access points and ethernet cables that were crimped with, I think, nail clippers quite honestly; and antenna towers that were a piece of metal that we kinda hung on a building and the wind would probably change its direction on a daily basis. And, so things were kind of janky. 

They worked. People did get internet access, but it was hard to keep up and running. I looked at that and said, “We need to start moving more towards a professionally-managed infrastructure for the town” because we were growing out there and having more and more employees out there. It was no longer three people year round, it was a lot more, and it continues to grow. 

We replaced wifi radios with high end gear that allows us to do high bandwidth and a lot more reliable. The big news is that, this summer hopefully we will have fiber in Gerlach. Once that comes, I think it’ll be a game changer for operations, not necessarily for the event and participants, because we still will be limited by the amount of bandwidth that we can supply out to the middle of the desert.

But at least from a town standpoint and from an operational standpoint, we will have bandwidth that we can actually support our operations.

STUART: Gerlach getting fiber. I think that is a sign of the apocalypse. No, it’s great. but come on, it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump from there, actually, just a quick line-of-sight from Gerlach out to the playa. In ‘96 we got it all the way out to the old location, right, another 20 miles out there, and did our first webcast, which by the way, the history books have completely forgotten. Motorbike Matt, who has been leading our webcast team for a number of years now, wrote this great piece about the history of webcasting on playa. He wrote in there that it began in 2003, I think? Come on, we did it in ‘96! 

Why can’t you just do that now for 80,000 people, Steven? People want to know: “Where’s my wifi?”

BLOOM: You know, it’s not as easy as it sounds, handling 80,000 people that you don’t know who they are, when they are, and what the bandwidth requirements are. Right now we have, I believe it’s around 200 megabits for the entire playa. That’s it. You have better wifi in your home, better access in your home, that I pay many thousands of dollars for, by the way. Burning Man pays a fair amount of money for what amounts to something that you probably pay $50 a month for your home access.

In order to get to the playa we actually make a number of hops. We have a mountain relay that’s required from town, to even get it out to the playa. And, it’s a challenge. And the challenge is not only the environment, but also keeping it up and running during the event.

STUART: Actually, I don’t really care. I’m from an older time, Steven, when it was refreshing to step into a technology black hole for a few days at a time and not be connected to the world. But yeah, it’s a different world now. 

BLOOM: Can we dig on that a little bit?

STUART: Yeah. 

BLOOM: I think that’s really important. I definitely come from a world where you have to be connected 24/7, and the playa, it’s supposed to be that oasis where you can put your technology away and be in the moment, and have that immediacy of what’s going on. Having a phone or technology in your way kind of puts something between you and the thing you’re doing at that moment. Even taking a picture. I’m a photographer. I love taking pictures, but I’m never in any photographs because I’m always the one taking it. And in the last couple of years that I’ve been thinking about this, I always feel like I’m an outsider when I take my camera out. I’m taking a snap in time, an ephemeral moment that’s happening at that time, and I’m kind of taking a step away from actually being in that message or in that moment. 

I think that’s really important for Black Rock City is that’s the one place where I know I can not have my cell phone and it’s okay. And if someone can’t reach me at 12 o’clock and they know I’m on the playa, that’s fine. They can send me a message by carrier pigeon. I’ll eventually get it two days later. I’ll get back to them in three days.

STUART: Spoken like a non-digital native like myself. It’s a generational thing for sure. For us, it may seem like a brief respite, but for those younger than us, it’s kind of terrifying to be disconnected from your friends and your network and your extra brain. 

BLOOM: Live into that anxiety. 

STUART: Right? Immediacy, baby. But you know, I have come around the position that it is possible to still have an immediate experience and be connected to the world.

I’ve come to learn that there are people who can’t enjoy it any other way. We mentioned the webcast; for people who can’t physically make the journey out to Black Rock City or to any Burning Man events, they at least get a glimpse into what that looks like. So I’m grudgingly open to the idea of maybe having those phones work out there, but by Thursday they don’t anyway, so don’t forget about it. 

BLOOM: Yeah. We don’t control the carrier signal out there, and there just isn’t the type of bandwidth or the need for it out there. We’re actually looking at how we do support the carriers out there from an emergency standpoint, and even an operational standpoint, going into the future. It’s a big heavy investment for a three week period of time for the carriers and whether they’re willing to do that or not is another story.

I do wanna jump back to virtual reality, because you did bring something up a moment ago about people who can’t come to the playa. One of the things about virtual reality is that people who can’t, whether they can’t come for physical reasons or financial reasons or whatever reason, can have an experience. It’s not the same experience as being in the desert, but they can have a Burning Man type experience. 

Right after the pandemic, the first thing that I wound up doing was working on the virtual Burning Man for 2020. We pulled together a number of producers and produced 10 different virtual worlds. There were some really fascinating stories when we did a debrief. 

There was such a gentleman who was severely handicapped, in a wheelchair, and one of his bucket list items was that he wanted to go to Burning Man. He just wasn’t physically able to do that. His friends and him went into virtual reality and the, the story that they told us during our debrief, was that, they were so excited because they saw this gentleman able to dance in virtual reality and they were able to hold hands and party and just had a great time, while they wandered around the virtual playa, and looked at all the fascinating things.

To me that was really heartwarming and it really was the story of how a technology that’s meant for entertainment brought something to someone’s life that they would’ve never been able to do in real life, but in the virtual world they were able to do. It’s just one of those things that really shows the power of virtual reality. 

I don’t know how we’re gonna harness this all going forward. We’re continuing to do virtual reality things. We’re doing Desert Arts Preview this year in virtual reality because we’re not able to gather together like we have in the past. Last year, that was a big success and I think it’s gonna be a huge success this year. I’ve already gotten a preview. We’ve made it a lot easier for people to join this year by using a new platform. You can either do it online on your web browser, or you can do it in virtual reality in headsets. It is a very cool environment this year as well.

STUART: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about that and the development of the technology over time, always being two years away. But I know I’m looking at your career. You’ve been involved in a focused way in not just technology at large, but in media technology. You were the CTO of Current TV, Participant Media. Was your first trip to Burning Man, was that related to any of that work? 

BLOOM: Actually my first trip to BRC, and I’ve only been twice, was in 2012. Current TV was started by Al Gore and it was the first user-generated content television channel. We had developed a platform to allow users to supply content to us, and we would put it on the air. We covered every aspect of life. 

In 2006, Current TV did a “Live from Burning Man” production. We did it for two years, if not three years. We sent teams out to Burning Man. I pulled the short straw and I had to sit in the studio and help produce it as the CTO.

It was one of the first multi-day live events that we had done. We actually sent out a trailer with filters — every window, every door, every space — the equipment was encased in air conditioning filters. We ran something called an Isilon, which was a big hard drive storage system, and we were really concerned about the dust. So we spent a lot of time with duct tape and filters to make sure that it survived the trip out to the desert for the week.

Justin Gunn, I think was the person who actually brought the idea to current and helped facilitate that at Burning Man as well. Justin is part of the VR team that we work with now, the BRCvr group. 

STUART: So how’d they get the signal off the playa? Satellite? 

BLOOM: Satellite. We actually purchased a satellite system so we could do this because it was cheaper to purchase it than to rent one for the entire week.

STUART: Fun fact, the very first connection from the playa anywhere was actually in 1995, the guys from Monk Magazine uploaded some photos via their sat-phone, put ’em on their website.

BLOOM: Nice. 

STUART: They get honors for the first, well, sort of the first time. The first video was the next year in ‘96 when we sent the Burn out. Everybody got to see the Burn, yay, including, I’ll never forget this one guy in Japan. We got so excited. It was like “Somebody in Japan is watching this. I can’t believe it. They’re in Japan!”

BLOOM: Why don’t we talk about what we did? The live Burn, 20 and 21?

STUART: Oh, you mean those Burns from an undisclosed location that looked suspiciously like, I don’t know, something up there in northern Nevada in the desert. Yeah. 

BLOOM: Yeah. Those things. 

STUART: How did that happen? 

BLOOM: “We will always burn the Man.” That’s how it happened. 

STUART: That is the sentiment to be sure. It happened twice. We never missed a year of the burning, even though we didn’t really have an event either of those years. 

BLOOM: We didn’t have an event. I think you were one of the hundred people that were there as part of the contingent to make sure it was safe and part of the production contingent. Once again, I was back in the studio. I didn’t get to go. I was back in the studio with Dustin Fasman, actually.

STUART: The first year the three of us were in the studio together.

BLOOM: Yeah, that’s true.

STUART: It was strange to be sheltering in place in a closet at headquarters with a bunch of monitors. That was fun. 

BLOOM: It was fun. You mentioned the guy in Japan who had seen Burning Man back in 1996. When we looked at the stream, we had people all over the world that watched the live stream, which totally blew me away, the numbers that we had and, and the locations. Of course, you know, North America’s always gonna be the largest contingent, but we had people from Israel, from Japan, from Yugoslavia I remember, a lot of the Baltic states, from Russia, and small islands around the world. There was something about that, bringing the community together through video; bringing people together through the use of audio and video.

STUART: This podcast is downloaded in, last time I checked, about 125 different countries. Like you said, mostly the English speaking world, but a surprising number of places that aren’t. Hello, international listeners. Thank you for tuning in, and tell a friend!

BLOOM: Now with AI, they can hit the translate button. We can translate it.

STUART: Oh my God. We gotta talk about AI. 

BLOOM: Do we have to?

STUART: Steven, is AI going to take my job? Somebody showed me the other day that they’d asked ChatGP-whatever to generate a Burning Man theme, and it was “Hearts on Fire.” It made my stomach turn, but I think a lot of people would probably like that better than the crazy stuff I’ve been cooking up. Am I doomed? 

Okay. What do you think the role of AI looks like going forward? As somebody who’s watched developing technologies over a long period of time, I know you got your eye on this now. How do you think that’s gonna impact our world? 

BLOOM: It’s gonna have a huge impact, but let me answer the specific question about jobs. There’ll be job categories that will just go away, just like the telephone operators of the past, and you know, you can name any number of jobs that just kind of disappeared, right? If you worked at Blockbuster, no more Blockbusters. 

STUART: Toll takers

BLOOM: Toll takers

STUART: Directors of Philosophical Centers

BLOOM: Well, so the creative endeavor is kind of interesting, right? From the standpoint of, let’s say, someone who’s doing graphic design as an intern, they’re given prompts, right? The boss comes in and says, “Hey, I want a logo and I want it to be red. And the client has these type of visions.” And then some intern designer goes off and creates ten of those, and takes some two or three days. They’re not being creative in and of themselves. From at least a prompt standpoint I could do that in DALL·E in two minutes and create a thousand of those things. So, that’s the type of job that I do see from a creative standpoint going away. 

But from what I’ve seen from AI today, it is very machine learning-ish. What you put in, you’re gonna get some variance of the same answer all the time. It’s gonna learn more and more and have more and more different answers, but the human’s mind, the creativity of the human’s mind to think outside of that box, is still gonna be important. The human just comes up with things that are just bizarre sometimes. In AI there is a hallucination factor, and we hallucinate as well, but our hallucinations are usually a lot more on target than a machine hallucination.

STUART: Well, there is something to be said for the unexpected and the role of surprise and wonder. When you’re working from a very limited set of parameters of a very limited solution set of emerges. Yeah, I think Burning Man is all about left field, right? For me, it is that notion of awe and wonder and things that you do not expect, that’s really kind of at the heart of the experience, right?

BLOOM: Yeah. 

STUART: You couldn’t prepare yourself for, or prepare an AI for, so… 

BLOOM: Who would think of coming up with a piece of artwork, like the library this year, Unbound? I don’t see an AI coming up with that. If you knew the prompts that you wanted to give it, certainly it could give that back to you, but you would have to be driving those prompts to do something like that, or Paradisium. You would have to know upfront that that’s what you wanted to do. And I think that a lot of artists that I know may have an inkling of where they want to start, but they don’t really know where they’re gonna end. They start down a path and then the serendipity of having an extra piece of wood that’s red, or green or purple, or whatever it is kind of leads them in a direction that changes as they design their artwork.

STUART: Or the necessity of working with found materials, right? Making do with what you have, as so many of the artists that I’ve known admire who do work specifically with up-cycled or scavenged materials, they don’t know what it’s gonna come out like because they don’t know what they’re going to encounter. What color of glass is gonna be broken down and melted for this gigar or whatever. That process of discovery is, for me, very, very close to the artistic process. 

I also admit that there’s art that is done using AI as a tool, particularly visual arts rather than sculpture, that’s amazing, that really does come up with some unexpected twists, particularly around combining genres or interpreting this cat through this dog lens, however you wanna describe that. That is pretty intriguing, for an artist who puts a lot of parameters in and really has a vision of where they want it to go, rather than just say, “Oh, just mix these two things together and see what happens.”

BLOOM: Yeah. We have a good friend, Steve Tietze, who we’ve worked with on some virtual 360 video shoots and so forth. He’s a computer graphics expert, I would call him, and he’s done some amazing AI work. But it’s taken the knowledge of how the systems work; what prompts to give. It’s not as simple as just saying, “Go do this.”— to really drive to get his artistic vision out of the AI system. He’s done it. And yes, there are those twists and turns and interesting little things that maybe he didn’t know were going to show up that he goes, “Ah, you know, that’s really interesting. I like that.” But he came at it from a place of a lot of knowledge to actually get to where he wanted to go. 

STUART: That’s a really interesting point. For all that it may seem like natural language programming, any system only has the vocabulary that it has, even a learning system. So understanding that does seem pretty key, than just assuming that it speaks the same language that I do. 

BLOOM: Well, Stuart, you speak a lot of different languages, even if they’re all English, or mostly English. 

STUART: Hablo un poco de Español. 

BLOOM: I do know that. And I know you’re very well-read. That’s one of the important things, as these technologies start taking over, us as humans — us as humans, if we are human, if we will still be called humans in the future — Us as humans…

STUART: or NIs, Natural Intelligence. 

BLOOM: Natural intelligence. Ooh, I like that. 

STUART: When you start describing a learning AI, because you liken it to being a reader, I’m like, well, yeah, I’m kind of a self-programming, learning machine too, right? Getting less and less efficient as time goes by. 

BLOOM: Throughout my career, it’s always been a joke that no one understands what I do, but I must do okay at it. What I really am at the end of the day is an information processor. I just process a lot of information and I know how to do that, from all kinds of the weirdest things. 

STUART: It’s an ongoing process. It’s a process of asking questions, right? The key is not just going for the easy answer, but going for the more difficult question all the time. And every question leads to more questions. 

BLOOM: We’re going to need to have the intelligence and the knowledge of the world around us, so we could help drive these artificial intelligence things, so that they don’t take over our jobs and give us things that we don’t want, and they don’t take over the world.

And most technologies drive towards total efficiency. That’s kind of their scope. That’s what they’re trying to do. And efficiency for efficiency’s sake is not always the most valuable thing. If we allow the AIs of the world and the robots of the world — now I’m starting to sound like a end-of-the-world-ist here — what’s gonna happen is we will have a very efficient world that we can’t live in, as opposed to something that we want to live in that has some efficiencies that make our world a lot easier to live in. 

STUART: It’s a good point. Like all commercial technologies, it’s designed to make money and save money, right? That’s the efficiency imperative. So like every algorithm that came before it, it’s there to try to improve somebody’s bottom line, which is why I think using AI in pure creative processes is something to keep an eye on. Is it even possible when the language that’s instilled in you is, as you say, efficiency or bottom line language, right? 

STUART: So I gotta call you out. A lot of people say the Burning Man is a hippie movement. And I sometimes react to that by saying, well, from my perspective, personally, I’m more of a punk. But you’ve got a little more hippie in you, Steven. Like many prominent members of our community… you are a fan of the Grateful Dead. Is that true? 

BLOOM: Oh, yeah.

STUART: How many shows? 

BLOOM: I have kept tickets from when I was 21 on, so I’ve seen at least 80, if not 100 shows.

STUART: Wow. Okay. Pick a lyricist. Robert Hunter or John Perry Barlow. 

BLOOM: Hunter. 

STUART: We can stay friends then. I would’ve expected you to say Barlow just because, like you, he had a foot in both worlds, in media and entertainment, and in technology. But no, you’re right; Hunter’s songs are better!

BLOOM: Yeah, they are. 

STUART: Barlow probably had a bigger impact outside of music, in all the work that he did, digital rights and all that. 

BLOOM: Yep. I recently read an article about the Wall of Sound, which is now coming back. There’s somebody in Connecticut that has rebuilt the Wall of Sound in an old church.

STUART: That was designed by Owsley, right? The acid chemist? And it was, there was a huge tech breakthrough. Right. You know, it’s like he put together a lot of stuff that hadn’t been meant to be put together to build that huge sound system. My God. Yeah. So Owsley is, I guess he’s a Burning Man forefather in more ways than one. You look at all the giant sound systems we have out there now. Maybe occasionally a little bit of LSD 25. We should put him in the Pantheon. 

BLOOM: That’s funny.

STUART: Steven, I’ve heard you say before that Burning Man is in some respects a media company. What do you mean by that?

BLOOM: Most of my career has been in media, whether that was games or broadcast, all kinds of digital media and moving media, I guess.

When I interviewed for this job I saw things that had a lot of content involved in them. Burning Man is about content in many ways, whether that’s the content of the playa, whether it’s the content of how we go about things, how we train our people, how we train thousands of volunteers every year to do a thing, to do that thing we do in the desert. 

I also took what I know about like TED and TEDx, and how they kind of grew, and I saw a lot of similarities in that. Even when I first met you during my interview process, I think I said pretty much the same thing to you, that the content could lead to having a media group at Burning Man. And you lead the media group at Burning Man pretty much, so I think we hit it off, from that aspect, right up front. 

STUART: That is just one old, really old printing press, and this microphone right here. 

BLOOM: Yeah, and a couple of cameras and some film laying on the floor. I see some 35 millimeter film on the floor.

But you know, it is interesting. As the Org has developed over the years, we do find ourselves with more and more content. Whether that content is just photos, whether it’s some videos, whether it’s writing, all that is media. And how do we look at all that? How do we expose all that to our community? 

That’s one of the things that we’ve tried to do through Jackrabbit Speaks and through the Journal and through many different areas. And we’re still learning how to do that. And we’ve got a project going on in-house now to look at how we expose a lot of the things that we have built up over the years, both to employees and to the community, about how Burning Man is created, and what is created from it. 

STUART: Well, that sounds exciting. Can I be part of that? 

BLOOM: I think you own it.

STUART: You know, I get frustrated sometimes when I look at the long history of our communications efforts. I think what I lose sleep over the most is just that we’ve just grown so organically and chaotically, we never put anything away. Our channels are just such a mess. Our website is kind of a Winchester mystery site, full of trap doors and false ceilings and all that. I would love for us to get to a point of greater clarity in how we communicate with the world about what we’re doing, and put the focus, not on what we’ve done, but on what you, in the big sense, big second person who’s gonna do next. I’ve always looked at Burning Man as more of a container for content than the content itself. And so the more that we can enthuse and encourage and inspire people to go out there and have their own weird confusing breakthrough experiences, then that’s what our job is, not to tell people what Burning Man is. I think along the way, we might have lost sight of that, that the more you tell people what it is, the less room there is for awe and wonder…

BLOOM: and experimentation, yeah. 

STUART: Finding the right balance there of enough, and not too much, is an ongoing struggle, but I’m glad to have you on the team to help figure it out, Steven. 

BLOOM: Thank you. I told many people this: this isn’t the hardest job I’ve ever had, but it certainly is the most challenging job I’ve ever had, because it can go in so many different avenues.

I was gonna ask you a question about the container. Last year again was my first time being on playa in a decade. I saw things that I don’t think you would consider content necessarily, but just awed me, blew me away. And they were technology and, the one that I’ll bring up because I was talking to somebody about this last night was the dragonfly, which was this container that held solar panels.

STUART: A shipping container, right? 

BLOOM: Yeah, a regular shipping container that he held these solar panels that when you got it started, would unfold and fold into this huge dragonfly wing that was, I’ll say maybe a quarter of a football field, and would supply energy, would supply solar power, for a community in faraway places during natural disasters because it was a shipping container, so it can be shipped and moved fairly easily. We know how to do that. It wasn’t moving a thousand panels, it was moving one shipping container. It would just show up. 

But that’s content all in of itself, and the experiment and the learning around that, was just fascinating. I sat there and talked to some of the engineers about that for a couple of hours and just learned so much about why they did it and how they did it, and the philosophy around, what this could become. That was just one of the things that I had learned last year. And I was gonna ask you, what did you learn? What would you put in your container for BRC that you learned the last year or two? 

STUART: First I would get a refrigerated container because I’m old and I get hot flashes. No, I… Your telling that story makes me think about what an amazing history of innovation there is out there. I’ve seen things like Dezso Molnar’s  pulse jet engine car, and Jim Mason with his gasification experiments that led to a thriving business where he makes these generators that’ll run on anything, on coffee grounds. That spirit of adventurous tinkering with technology is something that we can’t lose. 

You know part of that, I think, is… I wanted to ask you about app development out there. We have a community of independent developers who have come up with some interesting applications, not done by your team, but supported with data. Can you give, give us, tell us a little bit about that effort. 

BLOOM: Yeah. So we call that community the Innovators Community. For many years there’s been things like iBurn and Time to Burn which is based on APIs that we supply from our data. But the data is mostly location data, time data, data about what events happen. And so we’ve started a process internally in Tech to look at: What other data can we supply to the Innovators Community? What do they want to know about Burning Man in real time or in advance that we should be supplying?

I find it fascinating that this community of people spend their time and energy to build these applications for the rest of the community. I was told recently that 30% of people on playa, so 30% of 80,000 people use one of the Burning Man applications, of which we don’t do much. We just produce the API that has data that they can pull from. I would like to see a lot more of that. Last year there was a GPS device that someone had created that had all the coordinates for the playa last year, and in the dust storm when you were driving around and couldn’t see two feet in front of you, this thing was invaluable. 

And I think we had like three or four of them. It was a friend of Chef Juke who had done this. Chef Juke being one of the people who heads up the DMV and is also on my team, and heads up User Success. He had one in his car. We couldn’t find our way through the dust storm, because we couldn’t see two feet in front of us. So we had no idea where we were going, yet we had this little device that was very specific to the playa, that knew our GPS location and had a little map, and a little $9 box with an Arduino inside of it, but using our data it absolutely helped.

So it was one of those things that we supported, we didn’t know we supported. Someone kind of gave us one and said, “Hey, you want to use this?” And it turned out to be just what we needed at the right time, at the right place.

STUART: Boy, I could have used one of those last year. Friday there was a pretty substantial whiteout and I had made the great decision to go all the way out to the trash fence before it started. So I spent most of a long night inching my way back, trying not to run over anything. But discovering the unexpected, I stumbled into — literally stumbled into — a number of art projects I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Even in a dust storm, there’s, there’s redemption power of redemption. 

BLOOM: I think I had the opposite. I was supposed to go out to the Bijou theater for a friend’s birthday. I think it was Friday night. I was going out there and the storm was getting worse and worse to worse, and I got lost. An hour in, and, you know, it should have taken me 30 minutes to get there. An hour in, I just, I gave up. And I gave up at Black Rock Station, and stopped there and said, “Oh, you know, I’m out of the dust storm. Let me sit for a while.” And then I wound on my way back to my camp, only to find out the next morning that the Bijou theater was a hundred yards from where I stopped. I don’t know what I learned from that other than: Be persistent and keep on going when you think you know what you’re doing, sometimes is the right answer. 

STUART: Carry a compass. 

BLOOM: Carry a compass, yeah. 

STUART: Just like the olden days. We used to navigate by the stars, if we could see ’em, and by a compass, if we couldn’t. I have a little tiny compass that I put on my wrist strap that has gotten me outta some jams, I’ll tell you what. 

BLOOM: There is one thing that’s fascinating about the Black Rock Desert is just the stars. 

STUART: Oh my God. Did you get to see it on a dark night? 

BLOOM: Oh, many, many, many nights. One of my favorite things is just riding my bicycle, going out where nobody is, with the lights off on your bicycle so there’s nothing around you. Just being able to be out there and stop and look up at the stars, it’s just incredible. I’ve seen stars all over the world and this is probably some of the best star viewing I’ve ever seen. 

STUART: I have to agree. A moonless night on playa, particularly when Black Rock City’s not there. I’ve had a few of those camping trips. And by the way that’s an amazing place year round, not just during the Burning Man event. You have kind of a limited camping season because it does get really cold and wet starting in… end of October, I think. But a moonless night up there, you’ll see like every single satellite, you’ll see the Milky Way like a solid band of white. And as a city boy… you’re from New York. I’m from LA. I thought that was just an artist’s imagination that a night sky could look like that.

BLOOM: Yeah. It’s incredible. I always think about Powers of Ten. There was a short that we saw, I think in grade school, where they start at the Earth and then go up to the stars. It’s called Powers of Ten. And out there you just feel so small, but on the other part, you feel so connected to everything around you. 

I know I’m starting to get philosophical here because I’m looking forward to actually doing it again. And I already planned my trip, mid-June, when I start heading out there to get things set up, already thinking about what nights I’m gonna go spend out, in a tent on the playa way before anybody ever shows up.

STUART: I’m sorry, Steven, did you just say mid-June? You know, the event’s not until the end of August. Right? 

BLOOM: I know. 

STUART: So what is next for Burning Man Technology? Put on your futurist hat and tell me what you think is gonna be coming up for us in the next few years.

BLOOM: You asked about media. I always want to build the Burning Man TV channel. We’ll see if we ever get there. I think it would be fun. 

From a pure technology standpoint, as you mentioned earlier, there is a lot of Winchester Mystery House technologies. A lot of these things were developed by volunteers who are no longer around, and they’ve become integral in how we run the organization and how we run the event. And so we’ve had to pick them up and kind of carry them forward. Many of those are being rethought, reworked, so that they can fit into the environment that we have today and not what was built back in the early 2000s.

As technology has moved forward, a lot of that is web applications and the way we do playa events and how we place art, and also how our website just works in general. It’s gone through a major revamp in the last two years that no one will notice. But, underneath has actually been a fairly big revamp that’s going on. 

From a what’s next standpoint that people will see, I honestly don’t know what’s next. I am intrigued by a lot of different things. I am absolutely intrigued by AI and how that’s gonna either help hurt or just change what we’re doing. I’m fascinated by new holographic technology, and display technology. Drones and image mapping are two areas that, from an art standpoint, are just gonna grow. I was recently looking at some scientific papers about free air holography. So how do you do holograms in free space? 

STUART: Smoke and mirrors?

BLOOM: Yeah. Kinda. 

STUART: A particulate to project onto? 

BLOOM: Exactly. So I’ve seen it done with water mist, which is kind of interesting, but this is using just regular air without any particulates. And how do you do that? I could see that we’ll have holographic art in the middle of the playa, all around, that we could change on a moment’s notice.

STUART: If you replace the Man with a hologram, I’m quitting! That’s pretty interesting though. No, I was going in a different direction. I was going to like, you know, maybe your virtual world avatars could like pop up on playa.

BLOOM: We did try something like that. We were trying to see if we couldn’t get people in the virtual world and people at the playa to communicate with each other.

And we actually did, if you went to the ARTery last year, we didn’t publicize it all that well, but there was a screen there that was in VR space. There were people there in real time, and we were able to communicate back and forth between BRC and BRCvr in essence. 

I’d like to see more of that. We’ve actually talked about having an art car that wandered around the playa that had headsets on it and had monitors on it. Maybe a little bit too much from a privacy standpoint, when you have cameras and monitors and things like that. So, we tried it out in the ARTery and it worked really well. Had some interesting conversations with people around the world, while I was at the playa. 

STUART: Maybe one of them was that guy from Japan. 

BLOOM: It could have been. 

STUART: Thank you so much for joining me, Steven. 

BLOOM: It’s always a pleasure to join you, Stuart. 

STUART: Our guest today has been Steven Blumenfeld, Burning Man’s Chief Technology Officer.

And, for the record, this episode is in fact a production of the non-profit Burning Man Project, made possible strictly by the generosity of beautiful people like, perhaps you, who slip us a buck or two at donate.burningman.org. 

Thanks for everyone who put this together. Thanks Vav. Thanks DJ Toil. Thanks kbot. Thanks Deets. Thanks Kristy. Thanks Andie Grace. And thanks Larry.