Dusty tech billionaires may be the only thing that can help Burning Man, which came to its annual fiery conclusion this weekend, overcome a pleasant problem: Even after capping attendance at around 70,000 people, the interactive arts and music festival is having trouble handling its own overwhelming popularity.
It’s hard to overstate how surprising this is. Despite the fact that the festival is held in a frustratingly inconvenient corner of the Nevada desert with some of the harshest weather in the country, curiosity still compels burners from every imaginable industry to trek in from all over the world.
But, recently, Burning Man has taken a lot of guff for the presence for expensive campsites that cater tech elites with a luxury services during a festival that was traditionally known for harsh camping. For somewhere between $10,000 to $25,000, wealthy burners get picked up at the local airport, driven to air conditioned tents, and served steak tartare.
Burning Man founder Larry Harvey doesn’t seem to mind, however. He knows that he has to make some compromises to bring in CEOs who have neither the time or money to build their own campsites.
“I’d like them to have a soulful experience. I’d like them to feel connected to the great human experience in ways that will constructively influence the course of world affairs,” he told me.
Harvey has global ambitions and recognizes the inherent difficulties of becoming mainstream from a remote desert weekend event. “You can apply the ethos to nearly anything,” he explained to me.
The courting has slowly paying off. At Google’s 2013 I/O event, CEO Larry Page expressed an interest in developing Burning Man-type zones of loosely regulated experimentation:
“I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out what is the effect on society, what’s the effect on people, without having to deploy kind of into the normal world. And people like those kind of things can go there and experience that and we don’t have mechanisms for that.”
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has brought Burning Man art and events to his $300 million makeover of downtown Las Vegas. His organization, which aims to make the rundown downtown into a tech hub, supported a giant art sculpture, the Life Cube (pictured above), which was covered in art from the local community — then burned in a giant rave celebration.
“The hive switch got turned on by raves. It was a feeling of unity with the other people in the space, unity with the music and with one another,” Hsieh recently told Playboy Magazine. “That’s why I go to Burning Man. The art, especially at night, just puts you in a state of awe.”
Hsieh’s Downtown Project is built on Harvard Professor Edward Glaeser’s economic theory that innovative cities thrive in environments of densely packed populations that share ideas and resources. The more people fly in and attend events, the more ideas they exchange and the more businesses they create.
Harvey imagines more of these happenings all over the world. He wants more interactive art sculptures that bring strangers together on the street. He wants events that bring like-minded creatives to dance and mull disruptive ideas under the moonlight of their respective cities.
This will require a lot of money to fund grants to artists all over the world. In truth, most major artistic movements have always had patrons. In Greece, wealthy Athenians helped build one of humanity’s first great artistic communities. During the Renaissance, patrons funded the arts that would inspire the growth of Western democracy and individualism.
Burning Man is no different in this regard. It has ambitions make the world a bit more crazy and creative. Only the Silicon Valley elite have both the optimism and wealth can help make this happen.
And, if the tech elite’s reach is any indication, Burning Man will continue to spread quickly. It may even be coming to your backyard very soon.