Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists

Kevin Kelly

Bonfire of the Techies

Originally published in Time magazine, August 25, 1997

Hordes of Playful Digerati Assemble for a Hallowed Annual Rite

On the last weekend in August, my two young daughters and I will pack
our suburban minivan with 2 1/2 gal. of water per person per day and
head off to northern Nevada. There, in thousands of square miles of pure
desert nothingness, 20,000 cheering, dancing celebrants will circle a
towering, two-legged wooden sculpture and burn it to the ground.

It happens every Labor Day. Burning Man, as the festival is known, is an
annual outbreak of techno-tribalism that has the makings of the next
great American holiday. If this year’s party is like past ones, the
immense desert flats will be teeming with offbeat stunts, weird art,
flamboyant performances and bizarre, gasoline-powered contraptions. When
we pulled up to Burning Man for the first time several years ago, we
were greeted by a fat guy riding a large, furry rabbit motor scooter. He
sat behind the ears. Across the desert we could see a truck hauling a
mattress behind it, stirring up a huge, blinding vortex of dust. Three
passengers in gas masks were reclining on the mattress, waving insanely.

It gets even stranger. Each year a do-it-yourself city appears
overnight. On one makeshift street, a three-story tower of scaffolding
grows like a high-tech mushroom; draped with a parachute, it becomes an
instant cafe. At a table, generous folks with a spare gallon of blue
body paint offer to turn you into an alien. Behind them, two guys have
built a house out of old wooden doors hauled in on a yellow rental
truck. Inside you hear hypnotic techno music. The house will be gone 48
hours later, as will the rest of the instant city.

This premillennial Woodstock got started 12 years ago when an unknown
artist, Larry Harvey, built a wooden statue on a foggy beach near San
Francisco and then set it on fire. For Harvey it was a catharsis to heal
a broken relationship. For his friends it was a soul-energizing blast,
and Harvey decided it should be an annual ritual. He cast a single
brilliant rule: no spectators. What he wanted, he said, was to create “a
Disneyland in reverse.” Everyone had to be a participant and march in
the electric-light parade.

In succeeding years, Harvey’s wooden statue became a 40-ft.-high man;
the flames leaped higher, and the crowd grew ever more animated and
theatrical. The intensity eventually taxed even the beatnik- and
hippie-hardened San Francisco police, who asked Harvey and his acolytes
to move off the beach. The Zen of the desert beckoned.

Once on the public lands of northern Nevada, where the rules are few and
the possibilities infinite, Burning Man blossomed into a full-fledged
happening. By word of mouth, via friend of a friend, with photocopied
flyers posted in music stores, Burning Man quietly gathered a tribe of
hundreds each summer to partake in the meaningless but mesmerizing
ritual. And there, in its seclusion, it might still be, if it weren’t
for cyberspace.

News spreads quickly and efficiently via E-mail, and when the digerati
got wind of Burning Man, something clicked. The pierced and tattooed
young Netizens of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area spend their workdays
and worknights making little decentralized theaters of do-it-yourself
creativity on the World Wide Web. Burning Man and its temporary city are
material manifestations of the same creative urge. It was a perfect fit,
a perfect way to celebrate a year of laboring on the Internet.

And so the Netizens flocked to the desert, where Burning Man’s
neo-tribal vibes were amplified with the technology of the digital
revolution. They set up Burning Man Web pages and E-mail lists. They
started two Burning Man radio stations, broadcasting live from ground
zero in the desert. From a laptop they produced a daily Burning Man

If you build it, they will come–and they have. The population of
Burning Man doubles every year. Last year it was just shy of 10,000. Its
cheery inventiveness pulls in mid-40-year-olds like me, who load up the
family minivan and find a spot–any spot!–in the vastness to camp and

I would make the trek just to see the guy whose obsession is a jet
engine the size of a truck muffler bolted to go-cart wheels; he sits in
front of the glowing, screaming toy and zips across the alkali flats.
It’s nothing like piloting a computer. And there’s the elaborate camera
obscura some thoughtful person usually sets up, big enough to walk into
and see the desert upside down. And this year, if my girls can be talked
into it, we’ll squish in the mud of nearby hot springs and wander around
as dried-mud people, just like everyone else.

Burning Man almost did not rise from its last pile of ashes. Two of the
key organizers quit last year after one young man died in the chaos and
dust storm churned up by thousands of vehicles driving every which way
on the roadless flats of Black Rock Desert. The karma of mayoring such a
bohemian city was more than they bargained for. But Larry Harvey, a
visionary in the classic sense of the word, is undaunted. “They told us
it would fall apart at 1,000 people,” he says. “Then at 5,000. But we
could have a million people and still make it a positive, uplifting

He may yet get his wish. The location is kept vague, and tickets (to pay
for portable toilets and the like) are best found via the Web. By not
advertising the event and making finding it a rite of initiation, Harvey
gets his crowds and his harmony. By now, it’s self-feeding, bigger than
Harvey or anyone else. Its main draw seems to be its utter lack of

Anything lacking meaning will be assigned one. My bet is that Burning
Man will be the holiday for deskbound, no-collar workers. Not only does
it offer the usual American pastimes–fast cars, parades, costume balls,
picnics and all-night music–but it also provides the more contemporary
attractions of survival camping, neon lights, nudity, performance art
and staged extravaganzas. It’s got the sun-dried culture of postmodern
road warriors: deep ritual without religion, community without
commitment, art without history, technology without boundaries. As
essayist Bruce Sterling writes in the only book about the event, Burning
Man (HardWired; 1997), which I and others at Wired magazine had a hand
in producing, “It’s just big happy crowds of harmless arty people
expressing themselves and breaking a few pointless shibboleths that only
serve to ulcerate young people anyway. There ought to be Burning Men
festivals held downtown once a year in every major city in America.”

Why? It’s hard to say, precisely. Even after a day spent visiting the
various tribes at the event–the pyromaniac camp, the rave camp, the
wind-surfers camp, the rainbow camp–and then standing before the
terrible heat of the very big fire of the neon-lit man, the answer is
not any easier to articulate. Harvey, in the sly coyote logic of a true
desert mystic, puts it this way: “If we didn’t burn it, we wouldn’t be
able to burn it again next year.”

Kevin Kelly is executive editor of Wired magazine and the author of Out
of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization