Burning Man has become a meme. A fast moving, rapidly expanding, global meme.
That was my take away from being at Burning Man this year. It has moved beyond the San Francisco Bay-area word of mouth, organic growth of the 1990s and the 2000s, and blown up into a phenomenon.
I first became aware of the Burning Man gathering about 10 years ago. I was struck by the unique and amazingly creative images I saw in the media. As a non-camper I was impressed that thousands of people would journey to a dusty Indian reservation in the northwest corner of Nevada to spend a week in desert conditions, bringing in not only all food and water, but astoundingly large and unique works of art.
A Personal Journey
In late 2011 I made the decision that I would go to Burning Man 2012. I did this as a futurist, having a strong sense of 2012 as a year of future possibilities, due to the elections in the United States, the Mayan Prophecy and my own writings and perceptions of this Transformation Decade. Simply put, Burning Man has metaphorical lessons for the future of humanity. Some of the Ten Principles of Burning Man are clearly principles that are needed in the next few decades for humanity.
In 2012, I led a team of young people, many graduates of the Ringling College of Art + Design, to Burning Man. In addition to giving in to the transformative experience that is Burning Man, we also shot a short documentary of Sacred Spaces Village, the largest (and perhaps most spiritual) of all the theme camps. The documentary “Holding Space” can now be seen on my YouTube channel.
Reflections on Burning Man 2012
After returning from Burning Man 2012, I wrote a couple of columns [Part One, Part Two] about the event. It is one of the most important events on the planet. For one week, in one place, it is the height of creativity, thinking, and freedom of expression. It creates a space for personal exploration and experience that most find to be unique and transformative.
When I left Burning Man 2012, I had a sense that, when the history of the event was written in, say, 2020, 2012 would be the year viewed as a demarcation of a certain before and after. The years leading up to 2012 were of a certain nature and size, while the years after would be of a slightly different nature and larger size. The trip to Burning Man 2013 confirmed that to me. It has outgrown its organic past and become a meme.
The manifestations of this change were clear. There were some 64,000 people attending. A few years ago, there were fewer than 50,000. There seemed to be an unusually large number of Bergins – virgin burners – this year. People who had heard about Burning Man from friends, media and (most definitely) YouTube, which has a seemingly endless number of videos that are totally fun to watch. People were saying the same things and wearing similar outfits, as though they had seen what to wear and heard what to say on YouTube. Attending Burning Man has moved from a word of mouth event to a larger identity.
Reasons for the Change
I spoke to a number of experienced burners who have attended for years and they all expressed the view that this year was different – there did seem to be a lot of first timers. Some of them groused that “it wasn’t like ten years ago” or “it certainly has changed.” Ten years ago, most people camped out in tents and the occasional RV stood out. Now, there seemed to be thousands of RVs.
This is always what happens when an event takes off or a quiet resort becomes popular. Some place or some experience that is special or hip almost always undergoes this transformation. Being in Aspen in the 1970s or being at an early Lollapalooza festival provokes similar comments from the old timers.
The difference is that this is Burning Man. The offset of perceptible change in numbers of attendees and type of attendees is that it is a transformative experience and one critically important now for humanity. The fact that people who hadn’t heard of it until the last few years are now attending is a good thing. It is an event that is impossible to attend without experiencing personal change and outlook. If these new attendees take back a deeper understanding and practice of any of the ten principles, the world is a better place. I would imagine that some 500,000 people have attended Burning Man at least once. I hope that critical mass continues to grow.
I have written here about Occupy Wall Street being a meme that, in historically unprecedented speed, became a movement. Though Burning Man is very different, it is now a meme and the world will be better for it.