My blog post for Ministers of Design
Burning Man, the festival in the Nevada desert, oft-presented as the ultimate celebration of counter culture has undergone a bit of a transformation. The “playa” has now, for better or worse, becoming the playa-ing ground of some big-time tech players.
Once a year, tens of thousands of people (dubbed “burners”) gather in the Nevada Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, and all things DIY.
Along with the hippies, however, also came the CEOs and the venture capitalists. Now, you might be wondering, how can a place that is supposed to be devoid of any sort of cash or barter transactions become host to business wheeling-and-dealing.
Among the 68,000 attendees are some unexpected names – Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. It is not a rare sight to behold wealthy techies arriving, via private jets, to luxury desert camps fully staffed with cooks, masseuses, and assistants.
Burning Man’s founders are not exactly fearful of these new playa-ers–after all, they often fund the massive art installations and the festival’s nonprofit pursuits.
“What we’re seeing are many more of the Fortune 500 leadership, entrepreneurs and small startups bringing their whole team,” said Marian Goodell, Burning Man director of business and communications.
But what other way to describe what is taking place than “gentrification?”
“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.”
For those with money to spend, there are camps that come with “Sherpas,” who are essentially paid help. “The tech start-ups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,” says Tyler Hanson, a “Sherpa.” “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society.”
So, if you can grit your teeth and close your eyes (not just to the sand in the desert), Burning Man might just be the next frontier for some surreptitious networking and deal-making…you know…like the cool kids do it. Hippies meet hipsters; hipsters meet hippies.