Even if you’re only tangentially aware of Burning Man, you may have seen this story on the New York Times website, which has been making its rounds on social media here. But if you haven’t, it shakes down to this: Burning Man, the once refuge for hippies, artists, and creatives, is turning into a playground for the rich and privileged. Instead of spending a week roughing it, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are throwing money around in what feels like “a secret game of I-can-spend-more-money-than-you-can.”
What do the pieces look like in a game like this? Writer Nick Bilton cites things like “meals prepared by teams of chefs, which can include sushi, lobster boils and steak tartare… people who build yurts for [the entrepreneurs] that have beds and air-conditioning… and luxury restroom trailers, just like those used on movie sets.” The article even mentions a personalized concierge program, where you have a “Sherpa” who basically handles every single bit of your experience, from costumes to food to drugs.
Two things stuck out to me in this article. First is a quote from Tyler Hanson, a veteran Burner who worked as one of those Sherpas, who said, “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society.” Second is the quote from Elon Musk, who in reaction to the premiere episode of the HBO series Silicon Valley, said, “I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley.”
Musk is totally right – Burning Man is Silicon Valley. But I don’t believe it's Silicon Valley in the way he's thinking. This game of luxury and one-upsmanship at Burning Man can be considered a parallel to, or worse, a warning sign for, what’s happening here at home in San Francisco and the Bay Area.
You can look at this growing population of fully private camps with RV blockades and exorbitant $25,000 fees as a form of gentrification. What was once a teeming community of open and free expression is becoming a party playground for the rich and famous. Sound familiar?
It’s a sentiment that’s shared among a lot of San Francisco residents, and spoken of or seen almost everywhere you look these days. What a lot of Burners are afraid of is the gentrification of their beloved festival, which may signal an end to the radical free spirit that Burning Man once exemplified.
I still want to believe in that spirit of Burning Man. Last year, I went to Black Rock City in search of something spiritual. It sounds cliché, but I left to do some soul searching during what was a very hectic time in my life. After I passed all the fuzzy boas, the house music, the drugs, and the unwelcoming rich camps, I found something. I found that somewhere, deep in that dusty desert, the heart of something beautiful still beats on, in spite of the people who try to drown it out with their soundproof RVs.
I still believe that same heart beats in San Francisco.
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