This week I'm participating in the Burning Man festival out in Nevada's spectacular Black Rock Desert. Perhaps it's not super on-topic for this blog, but it's very much on my mind, so I figured I'd give a quick view of Burning Man from a memetic perspective.

When we talk about a "culture" what we usually mean, in broad terms, is a large memeplex that guides the behavior and interactions of a group of people. Like all memeplexes, cultures compete with each other and evolve over time. Various elements of a cultural memeplex will gradually mutate, as new ideas are either generated internally or copied over from rival cultures. Occasionally whole cultures will die off, unable to spread themselves in the face of the changing memescape (globalization has arguably caused several such extinctions). Once in a while a more or less totally new culture arises, cobbled together from random bits and pieces of its antecedant environment. The Burning Man culture may well represent such a phenomenon.

There are quite a few places around the web that can tell you about the history and nature of the event. Rather than duplicating that content, here's an e-mail I recently wrote to my Burning Man camp (which includes a number of first-timers), entitled "What It Means to Be a Burner":

To me, being a Burner is fundamentally about working with those around you to make the best community possible. But not in a hippie, "let's all hold hands until everyone's happy" kind of way. Burners are some of the most hard-nosed, practical, and sophisticated people I've ever been around. Because holding hands doesn't make the world go around. Hard-working people do, and the better they work together, the better the community.

Just about everything in the culture can be traced, one way or another, to that purpose. A truly worthwhile (and very concise) read is the 10 Principles, if you haven't seen them yet. I pretty much agree with all of them, but there are a few in particular that stand out to me as major parts of the Burner ethos.

Perhaps the biggest is gifting. When I talk to "non-burners" about the event, they often say things like "Oh, that's the one with no buying and selling, just a barter economy, right?" No, Burning Man is not a barter economy. When someone gives you a gift at Burning Man, there is no expectation of anything in return. People give because they like giving. If you want to enjoy your playa experience, I highly recommend finding ways that you can give to the community. Whether it's an awesome costume for people to look at, a cool performing skill, or even just really good cooking, giving to each other is a central part of life on the playa.

After that, my next-favorite is radical self-reliance. This is one that has played a huge role in my personal life. Going and spending a week doing everything to survive in one of the world's most hostile environments reminds you of something very important: you are the product of millions of years of highly selective evolution, and you are insanely badass (paraphrasing Neal Stephenson). Sometimes modern comforts make us forget that, and we settle into listlessness, apathy, and cynicism (which never saved the world). So I encourage you to take radical self-reliance seriously: on the playa, you should strive to never need help from anyone. Just don't worry too much, because everyone needs help sometimes, and when you do the Burning Man community will be there for you (a phenomenon often encapsulated by the popular idiom, "the playa provides").

To these I might also add my own observation: Burners are ruthlessly self-improving. Realizing your own abilities shows you your potential, and having seen that, it's pretty hard to justify stagnation. You can always do more things, and you can always do them better. You want to know why Burning Man is still so amazing and "fresh" after all these years? It's because every year Burners work their asses off to do even sicker, more ridiculous, more awesome projects than the year before.

Finally, Burners are some of the kindest, most respectful, and most understanding people you will ever deal with. Even the most bitter ideological adversaries will happily agree to disagree (unless it's the "hot and grumpy" part of the playa afternoon), because at the end of the day we're all in this together, and who really knows anyway. Burners will not judge you, although they may give you friendly advice ;)

As you can probably tell from the above, I'm a huge fan of the event and would recommend it to anyone as just a fun time and a great experience. But I would especiallyrecommend it to those with an interest in the evolution of culture, because it's so fundamentally different from the "mainstream" cultures that I've encountered. It's hard to say right now whether this new memetic species will flourish, or have a few choice elements picked out and incorporated into the mainstream, or just die off entirely. Whatever happens we should pay close attention, because it's one of today's best opportunities to see memetics in action.

30 Aug 2011 | Tags: Memetics, Burning Man

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