Burning Man and Cyberspace, 1997

by Larry Harvey
Larry spoke at the 9th Annual Be-In, January 1997. These are notes from his talk.

Everyone is agreed that the growth of cyber technology is destined to transform the world. It will profoundly affect the distribution of economic and political power in our coming century and, with equal certainty, it will transform the manners and mores of everyday life. Most of these effects are incalculable, but it does seem clear that this revolution will liberate us, like other technologies before it, from the constraints of time and space. Whether it is good, in a given instance, to be liberated from time and space, is, of course, another question. As Americans we tend to believe that any advance in individual liberty or convenience is an advance upon the road to freedom. Yet I believe many of the problems which beset our modern convenience culture result from having been “liberated” all too well—displaced from the necessary axis that we as human beings require in time and space. If the “information superhighway” functions in any way like an actual superhighway, we are in serious trouble.

For the past 12 years I have directed Burning Man—a project dedicated to discovering those optimal forms of community which will produce human culture in the conditions of our post-modern mass society. Within a desert wilderness we build a city, a model world composed of people who attend our event from all over the globe. This virtual community is demographically diverse. It is multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and represents a wide range of age groups. It is formed in the image of the great ecumenical world that surrounds us; a teeming population of uprooted individuals. In other words, this intentional community that we create from nothing, and that returns to nothing when we leave, has been “liberated” from nearly every context of ordinary life. It is, like cyberspace, a frontier in which individuals can exercise remarkable freedoms. Our desert world and the blank expanse of its playa form a decontextualized arena of action. Here it is possible to reinvent oneself and one’s world aided only by a few modest props and an active imagination. Burning Man, then, is a compelling physical analog for cyberspace, and, unsurprisingly, we have attracted many people who regard the experience as the equivalent of cyber-based reality.

However, it should also be noted that Burning Man is very different from the world of the Web and the Internet in certain crucial ways. It is neither vicarious nor anonymous. Cyberspace is a mediate realm, a disembodied sphere of information, whereas experience at Burning Man is relentlessly immediate in its demands. Participants in our experiment must confront the pressing task of survival within a natural world that is subject to volatile and life-challenging change. Liberty, at Burning Man, is tempered by our primal needs as human beings, and this shared experience, symbolized by our species’ attraction to fire, forms a central and necessary basis for our community. A second basic lesson we have learned while acting in the abstract and liberating space of the desert is that in order to found a cultural sphere human beings require a center of gravity, a powerful axis in time and space. At our event this transcendent center is most conspicuously supplied by Burning Man himself. Seen from a distance this ceremonial statue constitutes an ultimate landmark upon the face of the featureless playa. Participants are practically dependent on it as a guide to navigation. Observed close at hand it towers five stories high and, like a pyramid of ziggurat, appears to unite heaven and earth as if on a great cosmic axis. Furthermore, our festival recurs upon an axis in time. Year by year, it feels to many as if they as if this ritual repetition represented a single suspended moment out of which temporality itself exfoliates. We have relied on these ceremonial elements, so reminiscent of the ritual religious practices that have shaped civilization since the inception of human culture, as a means of creating community in an anarchical liberated environment. With little but our shared humanity to guide us, we’ve sought to generate a primal context; an experience defined by the most basic and irreducible elements that are needed for the generation of culture. I believe that an immediately shared struggle for survival, combined with the perception of powerful unities in time and space, are chief among these necessary conditions. As the world of cyberspace centrifugally expands, and as the greater realm of society continues to atomize into smaller, independent, and potentially unrelated units, we must begin to consciously craft such models. We live in a non-traditional and fast changing society, a mass regime whose economic and technological dynamic attrits and intrudes upon the integrity of the cultural process . Yet I believe that we have begun to demonstrate that it is possible to reverse this disintegration by using the very tools of communication that our technology has developed. All that is required is that we begin to think through to the desired end, to define the necessary conditions for a thoroughly human way of life.

The world of cyber technology and communication represents a wonderful tool, yet it comes value free. The exchange of information by itself cannot produce meaning, for meaning is a highly complex and organic product that is only propagated within the context of culture. Our mistake, as Americans, however, is to consistently mistake the tool for the task. If technology itself is left to dictate our ends, then I think we can look forward to an increasingly disassociated way of living. Real community can only be attained through the experience of certain primal unities in the physical world.

Yet clearly, it is equally possible to use these new means of communication to precipitate individuals into worlds where such experience becomes feasible. Both Burning Man and the Internet make it possible to regather the tribe of mankind, to talk to millions of dispersed individuals n the great diaspora of our mass society. Living as we do, without sustaining traditions in time and ungrounded in a shared experience of place, it is yet possible to transcend these deficiencies. We must use technology to create space stations here on planet Earth, islands of intense and living contact. It is time to come home.