Turn off your phones, techies. Welcome to Burning Man

A desert festival where cell phones don’t work, the internet is an afterthought, commerce is outlawed and authentic human interaction is prized above all else seems a strange fit for the socially awkward technology geeks of Silicon Valley. And yet, a quiet lull falls over parts of the Valley the week before September’s Labor Day holiday, as engineers from all corners of the tech industry slip away to make their annual pilgrimage to the Nevada desert for the Burning Man festival.

They join 50,000 other participants in building enormous art sculptures and a temporary tent city where they live amid dust storms, dance parties and social experiments. Artists, woodworkers and welders are joined by engineers and designers from the likes of Google and Facebook, who bring their own professional skills to the Burning Man landscape.

“There’s such an overlap between tech entrepreneurs and burners,” says Johnny Hwin, an engineer who sold his start-up, Damn the Radio, this year, before attending the event for the fourth time. “I think a lot of that comes from the idea that entrepreneurs are very creative, driven people. And the culture at Burning Man is one that values creativity and contribution.”

The Burning Man festival was started in 1986 by renegade artists who burned a wooden man on a beach under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. A few years later they moved the event to a dry lakebed, called “the playa,” in the Middle of Nowhere, Nevada, and formed an experimental community for a week, still called Black Rock City, where no commerce or marketing is permitted.

Only coffee and ice are sold by the event organisers, and the population is governed by a gift economy (share massages and martinis freely with others as you would like bike repair and pole-dancing classes to be shared with you), the principles of radical self-reliance (bring all food, water and sunscreen you need to survive in 100F+ heat) and radical participation (come dressed in a pink tutu or a bunny suit and spend days building an enormous camp or art sculpture that you will burn seven days after finishing it). If techies want to bring a computer, they need to bring their own solar array and electrical circuits to power it.

Silicon Valley has a long history with Burning Man that became most notable in the late 1990s when the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, began going. The first Google Doodle, decorative changes made to the logo to celebrate different holidays and historical milestones, was an “out of office” message they left on the homepage when they went to the festival in 1998. It showed the Google name with a drawing of a stick figure “burning man” through the second “o.” Legend has it that Eric Schmidt won the job as Google CEO after showing up at Page and Brin’s camp at Burning Man. One employee jokes that the work productivity lost to employees preparing for, attending and recovering from Burning Man is reflected in Google’s third quarter financial results.

Tech know-how is now all over the playa. Hwin helped start his camp, the Shady Waffle, four years ago with friends from Silicon Valley. About 30 of them built a huge geodesic dome from which they served pancakes and waffles to Black Rock City residents every day. As they invited more of their friends in subsequent years, Hwin says the organisers “scaled” the camp, in the same way they might scale a software program or start-up company, to accommodate 150 campers.

Masked against the elements, April Dembosky gets ready to tackle the desert at this year’s Burning Man festival: 'I relish the reprieve from all screens'

Shady Waffle has now expanded to several smaller camps and an encompassing “village,” called The Chillage. Hwin gives most of the organisational credit to his friend Dustin Moskovitz, one of the co-founders of Facebook and now head of his own software company, Asana. But everyone works together to provide waffles, oatmeal and scones at breakfast, grilled cheese at lunch, music jams, light shows and a travelling art car.

In Black Rock City pedestrians always have the right of way, followed by cyclists. Art cars, which must look nothing like cars and be approved by the Department of Mutant Vehicles, travel at 5mph. They can be mini cupcakes, fire-breathing octopi or an enormous dragon bus with two-dozen people dancing on the roof.

This year, a group of Chillagers, led by a designer from Zynga, the social-network games developer behind Farmville, spent months building a car modelled after a giant USB stick, surrounded by barstools. They called it the Universal Sereal Bus, “a serendipitous breakfast destination”, and travelled around the playa serving riders breakfast cereal and electronic music. “Working in Silicon Valley and steeped in the ever-accelerating pace of technology, we have witnessed connections of all types forged between people and ideas,” writes Diana Dinh, one of the USB’s creators, on the project website. “At the risk of sounding unbearably geeky, we believe that technology brings us that much closer to a bright, wondrous future.”

I went to Burning Man for the first time in 2002, shortly after moving to San Francisco, and have been back eight times since. I studied philosophy and religion in college, work with words in my job and commingle with artists and fire spinners in my free time, so the technology feature that regularly stands out to me at the event is the utter lack of it. I relish the week-long reprieve from all screens and wifi-enabled devices, and the depth of conversation that comes when people aren’t being interrupted by outside forces.

When I started writing about Silicon Valley and technology, I tried to understand how such a vibrant counterculture scene and such a powerful technology hotbed could take root just miles away from each other. Historically, San Francisco is a town of outcasts – artists, expats, gays, hippies – who moved here from somewhere else and found community in being different. The more I talked to computer geeks who saw Silicon Valley as their own Mecca, where coding at a party was cooler than drinking, the more I understood that they were also outcasts.

By sheer geographic proximity, it makes sense that we would all end up at Burning Man together, in search of community and meaning. “There’s this idea that if we get this technology right, whether it’s the acid or our computers, we can party our way into a new way of being,” says Fred Turner, a Stanford professor and author of the book From Counterculture to Cyberculture. “That’s an old idea, but young folks are encountering it for the first time.”

Silicon Valley money and talent is increasingly evident on the playa. Some of the most elaborate, spectacular and ridiculous art projects have been wired or programmed by a Valley engineer, or funded by one. Participants have long bantered that the art at Burning Man was “bigger” and “better” during the first internet boom of the late 1990s. After a noticeable slump following the dotcom bust and later the market crash, the word on the dust streets is that the art is again improving.

This is partly due to the next generation of tech-burners who are infusing the playa with fresh ideas and fresh cash. “The point is not that tech workers have enough disposable income to fund participation, but rather that inspiration is a real currency in our working lives,” says Mark Slee, a Facebook engineer who went to Burning Man for his third time this year. “It can’t be consistently produced inside an office.”

And so, employees from Yahoo!, Netscape and Google, and now Facebook, Airbnb, Dropbox and Scribd make the trek.

“One thing that Burning Man does is give people a chance to experience the ethos of their workplace in its ideal form,” Turner says. For, rather like classical musicians, who play their individual instruments brilliantly but have to work under the confines of a conductor, engineers, he adds, “are tremendously creative and tremendously constrained”.

In the climate-controlled offices of Silicon Valley, engineers can only work on the devices and projects that further the business goals of their employer, he says. But Burning Man provides an outlet for building something according to their own ambitions, something that directly serves the community they’re living in, even if just for a week.

“They get to practise engineering in a way that is changing the world temporarily, not making a widget for a for-profit company,” Turner says. “Think about it like jamming rather than an orchestral production.”

Slee, the Facebook engineer, has been at the company for almost six years, working on everything from mobile apps to the profile page for an audience of hundreds of millions. But he had started to question the meaning behind it. It wasn’t until he first went to Burning Man three years ago that he thought of applying his programming skills to an LED light sculpture: three cubes of coloured lights that fade and shift patterns over 15-second intervals.

“People are creating magic for the sake of magic itself,” he says. He noticed people putting huge amounts of energy and funding into outlandish art projects and understands that it isn’t money, awards or career advancement that motivates them. “You’re getting a relationship with people out of it,” he says, drawing a distinction between the kinds of “light-touch” relationships he makes possible for Facebook users, and the more intimate ones cultivated around panels of rainbow lights. “There is this huge spectacle out there, but at the end of the day it’s just facilitating a human interaction.”

April Dembosky is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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