When I first heard that one of the modules for our MBA would focus on the future of work, I couldn’t have been more excited. I’ve always loved science fiction, and as technology has progressively made our wildest sci-fi dreams come true (sans flying car), it’s been incredibly entertaining to predict what might be around the corner.
And so when I discovered that the largest tech conference in Europe had a thematic focus on the same topic, it was a no-brainer to attend. At Web Summit, I would have a chance to hear from the leaders of their fields on the very topic which we as students would be exploring.
As I browsed through the list of speakers — C-level executives from tech giants like Facebook & Amazon, politicians, and AI scientists — I spotted the CEO of Burning Man, at first seemingly incongruous with the theme of technology and the future of work.
But then it hit me — Actually, Burning Man was one of THE most relevant communities to study to envision what the future might look like. Descriptions of Burning Man sound remarkably similar to various predictions of the future:
Unlikely as it may be, clues of a future society could indeed come from an annual nine-day festival in the Nevada desert where a fully functioning city of 70,000 is created from the ground up every year. With no money, no centralized institutions, and a culture that is maintained despite a rapidly changing membership (guided by ten “principles” i.e. behavioral guidelines), Burning Man’s Black Rock City might be the closest thing we have to an experimental futuristic society.
And then, on Day 1 of Web Summit, I learned that I wasn’t the first to think of it: Gary Marcus, an NYU neuroscientist, mused during his talk on the future of the worker:
“I sometimes think of the festival called Burning Man, where for a week people have no money… they sit in the desert and find meaning in some way that isn’t tied to money. Can you sustain that lifestyle for a lifetime?”
Well, luckily for me, I would get a chance to ask CEO Marian Goodell that exact same question the next day! I was lucky enough to chat with the fellow Oxonian and explore what lessons could be extrapolated from Burning Man.
Gary Marcus Indicated that Burning Man is a place where people never need to work. Do you think the Burning Man lifestyle could ever become permanent?
“No, I don’t think it’s practical. That’s probably where VR could be fun, and Second Life has tried this, but physically I think it’s incomprehensible. I think [extending Burning Man] is more of an escapist approach. The best analogy I can talk to is my own family. I love my family, and there is great safety in family, but if I had all the options in the world that’s not where I would go back to as an adult —to sit and stay in safety. Some people would, but I don’t think that that’s a progressive approach.”
I’m particularly interested in Burning Man as it relates to VR societies. In a VR world, many communities will effectively be pop-up communities with an environment built from scratch, much like Burning Man. How is culture created and maintained in that kind of world?
“Socially, we have evolved Burning Man by looking at what’s happening at the event and responding. We didn’t start by writing the ten principles. The principles were basically recording the reality of what was successful. And I look at that as a framework that you could bring to VR.”
So the ten principles [the “behavioral rules” of Burning Man] came about as an observation of the culture rather than being imposed.
“Yes, totally. They were established in 2004 and they were in response to the growth of the people out in the world that we were identifying as leaders — we called it the regional network. There were certain things they were asking — ‘Why don’t we want to sell food at our events? You have no trash cans, is that an important part of what you’re doing?’ At one point hamburgers were sold at Burning Man. The decision not to use commerce evolved over time.
VR is going to add new challenges and new levels of engagement. You either have an organization offer guidance, or have enough dedicated people that understand the framework that they will help hold the center — which I think is what [Burning Man Project]’s trying to do in the world. The organization doesn’t want to police all the framework –what we’re finding over time is that people are adapted and committed to what is Burning Man, and take it all seriously.”
One of the principles, radical inclusion, may be challenging to scale up to the real world or VR world, where we see huge divisions along race, gender, etc. What can Burning Man teach us about any issues seen with this rule?
“[Radical inclusion] is one of the biggest challenges. Some people are interpreting it as ‘we have to welcome everybody’. What the principle says is that you welcome strangers to the table, but if they don’t follow the rules then you don’t have to welcome them to the table. It may show up in the VR world too. You don’t have to actually include [e.g. a predator] in your society. ”
Do you think VR experiences will allow us to have real-life results? Can you get the soul change that you do in Black Rock City in a simulation?
“I can’t imagine that you could get the feeling of soul transformation being in VR. What I suspect that you can get is a throwback/flashback kind of experience, if you’ve been there. And if you’ve not been to Burning Man you’re getting an appetizer, a taste. I still believe that what Burning Man produces is a real faith in humanity, and a real sense of connectivity, and a real desire to make eye contact, and a real genuine belief that we’re going to do more together than apart […] In my current imagination I can’t see that VR would provoke the transformation that comes when you’re in the weather, the physical environment.”
I think the reality of emulating the physical experience is still a decent ways off — but there’s still some work going on there. Eventually, we won’t just have VR headsets but VR pods, or have the physical sensations directly wired to our brains. What do you think of that world?
“What’s the point of living at that point? I can’t even imagine.”
Fair enough! Thank you so much for your time, Marian. One last question, considering the results of the election, do you have any final words for young people that might need encouragement for the future?
“Before the results of this election, I often have told people even when it looked hopeful that Burning Man was still a great hope. If politics and society are awry, civic engagement and communal effort [two of the ten principles] mean that you go out and engage with solutions for your society –whether it means public art, helping the poor, being a politician, painting a sidewalk, or changing your community.”Back to top of article