I think that I would go to Burning Man if I had a time machine. I’ve never been, but my take from reading and hearing about it is that it’s been invaded in a major way by people with lots of money, little real interest in what Burning Man is about, along with a gaggle of wealthy Silicon Valley types. In other words, the kind of people whose general absence make Houston such a great city. As this continues, it seems to have the makings of a Fyre Festival in the desert; Cory Doctorow writes about some moves the people running the thing are making to try to prevent the worst of it.
The wealth part is one thing, but Doctorow also talks about the spirit of the event.
Burning Man has long struggled with the tension between its commitment to “radical decommodification” and grifters and their ultra-high-net-worth marks who organize “turnkey camps” where you can pay giant sums to pretend to be a Burning Man “participant” while being looked after by paid “sherpas” (including, rumor has it, sex workers), in luxury settings designed to repel non-paying attendees (sometimes guarded by private security guards).
One such camp has been the subject of a lot of complaints.
[Management] has also started to purge known grifters, including Humano the Tribe, a turnkey camp that has been likened to the Fyre Festival due to its sky-high prices (up to $100K per attendee), and history of deceitful practices and mismanagement, including raw sewage spills, mass-scale littering (Burning Man is the world’s largest leave-no-trace event) and alleged sex trafficking for its highest rollers.
It’s hard to feel bad for people charging a cool $100K to sit in an RV in the desert or the people who have given them money for this and may not get it back. Schadenfreude!
It seems to me that this is just the life cycle of anything good and interesting: people hear how good and interesting it is, and flock to it, and ruin it. It’s not just Burning Man; I’d argue that it’s also SXSW, the city of San Francisco, and my former favorite divey beer joint here in Houston.
Sometimes things evolve. SXSW is still an interesting thing, it’s just a different thing. San Francisco is still a great place, it’s just also a cautionary tale for what happens when you construct an experiment in massive economic inequality and extreme entitlement.
Maybe the management of Burning Man will figure this out. Maybe they won’t and it will be something interesting but less special. I wouldn’t worry; the people who are doing new and interesting things will find somewhere else to do them.
I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with trying to preserve what it (or anything else) has been before; it’s just hard to fight what seems to be a consistent pattern, so there’s no shame if it doesn’t work out. Creative expression will find an outlet. It just might not be where it used to be.