At Burning Man, iPhone Apps Become Bytes of Passage

"Our intention is to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of…

Burning Man 2008

"Our intention is to generate society that connects each individual to his or her creative powers, to participation in community, to the larger realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond society. We believe that the experience of Burning Man can produce positive spiritual change in the world. To this end, it is equally important that we communicate with one another, with the citizens of Black Rock City and with the community of Burning Man wherever it may arise. Burning Man is radically inclusive, and its meaning is potentially accessible to anyone. The touchstone of value in our culture will always be immediacy: experience before theory, moral relationships before politics, survival before services, roles before jobs, embodied ritual before symbolism, work before vested interest, participant support before sponsorship. Finally, in order to accomplish these ends, Burning Man must endure as a self-supporting enterprise that is capable of sustaining the lives of those who dedicate themselves to its work. From this devotion spring those duties that we owe to one another. We will always burn the Man."

For one week each year, an enclave of the Nevada desert becomes flooded with more energy, excitement, and creativity than an IV drip of Red Bull.  It dances, it sings, it glows, it burns.  Its inhabitants dream in Technicolor.  While its nostalgia for shamanism and tribal living may be manufactured, its zeal is authentic. This pocket is Black Rock City, a pop up metropolis home to the equally legendary and notorious Burning Man festival.  One part exercise in Emersonian self-reliance, one part enclave for artists and bohemians, one part unbridled revelry, Burning Man is a temporary utopia fueled by raging wanderlust.  Cyberpunks and swamis converge to create a simulacrum of society, where structures and creations are as ephemeral as buffers.  Boundaries and identities are deconstructed and social norms are discarded.  At Burning Man, you’re free to be whoever you want to be, if only for one week.  A week’s worth of memories are temporarily processed and embedded on the motherboard of your mind.  Your only souvenir? A blank slate.

Bytes of Passage

The 2011 art theme, Rites of Passage, underscores transitions and development as functions of time.  Four related engineering feats will be on display, namely the 1MileClock Project, the Luminous Passage, City Lights, and The Water Project.  Burning Man may encourage participants to find submit to the forces of synchronicity and find inspiration in serendipitous encounters that transform strangers into friends.  However, as what is natural becomes increasingly mechanized, you may prefer to remain plugged in to  the matrix of technology rather than rough it.  If your roommate wanders off unannounced, lured by exotic beats wafting through the air, and you’re too tired or disoriented to trek across the playa, BurnerMap can make the search process much simpler.  The free app enables you to generate a personalized, printable map and easily share camp info with your buddies.  iBurn, the official Burning Man app, is perhaps the most comprehensive.  The open source app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch includes a map, as well as art, camp, and event info.

Burning Man Inhabits The Whole Earth

However, considering the proximity between Nevada and Silicon Valley, perhaps it comes as no surprise that Burning Man’s ten principles of radical inclusion, gifting, decomodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation, and immediacy are strikingly similar to values espoused by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog.  In 1968, Brand created the Whole Earth Catalog with the intention of instilling humanity with a greater understanding of its interconnectedness and a commitment to living in the most authentically natural way.  Like Burning Man, the Whole Earth Catalog prided itself as a source of discovery, a compendium of resources for those interested a creative and self-sustaining lifestyle.  The parallels that exist between Burning Man’s mission and the purpose of the Whole Earth catalog shine too brightly to be ignored:

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.”

Cyberculture sage and Wired editor Kevin Kelly has referred to the Whole Earth catalog as a prototype of the Internet, while Steve Jobs, in his 2005 Stanford commencement address, likened Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog to the Google of his time, and concurrently instilled its “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” maxim in a new generation.  While the seeds of Apple’s tree may have germinated with the nourishment of the Love Generation, it is Generations X and Y that bear its fruit.  Instead of Whole Earth, we have Whole Foods. Today’s technologists want to hack boundaries and develop a better code for civilization, something that is evolving exponentially as we share more information faster and more extensively.

“The idea was to live outside the given limits, in a chip, on a disk, as data, in a whirl, in a radiant spin...The technology was imminent or not.  It was semi-mythical.  It was the natural next step.  It would never happen.  It is happening now.” - Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis


Rites of passage are thresholds that remind us that we have reached a turning point, from which we emerge fundamentally changed.  While Burning Man has traditionally fetishized the symbiotic livelihood of the noble savage and has largely advocated the temporary disposal of time-keeping devices and other connections to modern civilization, in the era of the smartphone, it seems that humans and their gadgets are increasingly inseparable.  As the self becomes increasingly networked and quantified, and personally identity becomes increasingly digitized, pixelated, and processed, it seems that Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic vision of the discarnate man has finally manifested.  Discarnate man is electronic, not restricted by the limits imposed by flesh, blood, and bone.  Half human, half machine; half mortal, half god, he is a synapse of contradictions. He is simultaneously nowhere and everywhere at once.  He is, after all, in the cloud. His days aren’t numbered, they’re downloaded.  Discarnate man is a pattern of information, navigating a digital world with an analog map.  But can he be burned?

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