02:13 AM

Silicon Valley Culture And Burning Man...

{Rebecca Kaplan and team built the above 20-ft metal sculpture for Burning Man which travelled to San Francisco.)

There's a strange hush around San Francisco and the Bay Area. There's fewer people around, there's a little less traffic, and there are parking spots where there are normally none.

This week is the week of the Burning Man festival -- a celebration of abundance, creativity, the arts -- set within one of the most inhospitable places on earth, a place where NASA might test its Mars Rover because of the extremes of temperature, wind, solar radiation and dust storms.

About two hours drive outside of Reno, Nevada, a city of about 50,000 rises up from the bed of an ancient alkali lake where nothing grows. For about a week it is one of the largest cities in Nevada, and then it disappears, leaving no trace.

Residents of what is known as Black Rock City build incredible buildings and art installations. The creativity and ambition of many of the projects is breathtaking. Yet there is no commercial involvement or commerce allowed at the event beyond being able to purchase ice and coffee from a central location.

There are several daily newspapers, several dozen radio stations, and hundreds of theme camps that offer experiences of many kinds, or simply a shady place to escape the sun or the dust storms.

Despite the grandeur of so many installations there is nothing labelled "Sponsored by Google" or "Intel" or "Oracle" yet there are many people from those companies and more, attending every year.

Burning Man's culture of openness, creativity, self-organization, sharing, and innovation plays a key influence in SIlicon Valley's culture, and one has influenced the other, countless times. The idea for the open source movement could very easily have come from the open collaboration that Burning Man started. There is a lot of common culture between the geek engineer community and Burning Man.

Burning Man is part of the mythology of Silicon Valley, for example, it is how Eric Schmidt got his job at Google, by showing up one year and impressing founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both avid "Burners."

Beach party...

Burning Man grew from humble origins. It started as a beach party in San Francisco in 1986 and then moved to the remote and desolate high desert of Nevada.

The early days were wilder than today, there were no rules. People would set up crazy things such as a drive-by shooting gallery. These days each ticket to the event warns in large letters that participants face possible death but there are lots of rules to prevent death and injury.

But despite some rules, it is still an open event where much of anything goes. And people do die in unfortunate accidents.

A blank canvas...

The vast expanse of the playa -- the empty space at the heart of Burning Man, acts as a canvas for spectacular art projects. My favorite part of the Burning Man experience is cycling across the playa and discovering new art seemingly coming out of nowhere overnight.

The huge playa is like the Internet, a massive blank canvas, a platform for people's creativity. And like the Internet, you often don't know who is behind the projects, or even like some of the projects...

The event is not a weekend getaway. Don't think you can throw a bag in the back of the car and head off to party for a few days because you will likely run into serious problems. Even a little alcohol starts to dehydrate your body very quickly. And many people are hospitalized for thinking Burning Man is just another party town.

If you plan and pace yourself then the experience can be transforming. You spend the day sheltering from the sun and the heat and the dust, and then Black Rock City comes to life as the afternoon sun wanes. The temperature cools and its night becomes as glittering and bright as Reno or Las Vegas.

It has been about 5 years since I last visited Black Rock City and each time it feels very fragile as if it might not be there again next year.

One of the most striking aspects is the lack of commercial messages for an entire week. You only notice it once you leave: the ads in magazines; the advertising on the radio; even the brand advertising on the side of trucks becomes very noticeable and oppressive after a week away...

If you ever get the chance to go, you should take it. The event's temporary nature and spectacle are a good metaphor for our times. And "leave no trace" is a great lesson we can learn from Burning Man.

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Please see:

Burning Man - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Burning Man: What is Burning Man?

If you are headed to Black Rock City this year you should check out "Burning Man Now" and watch for your tweets, photos, etc, showing up on the site.