In a few short days, upwards of 60,000 people will begin an annual migration to the Burning Man festival in the remote, forbidding Nevada desert. But while "Black Rock City" still has no indoor plumbing, no running water, and no cars (except those that have been mutated into flame-throwing octopi), technology has arrived with a vengeance—setting off a passionate debate in this very passionate temporary community.
"You can't f**k in the road, you can't sh*t in the road, and you can't use your cell phone in the road," Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, said at a 2009 press conference. "It's a private function. Do it in your tent!"
That was a few years ago. How have Black Rock City citizens learned to balance being connected while disconnecting from "the default world"? The ubiquitous use of smartphones and the Internet at Burning Man is yet another challenge to be met creatively in the dust.
Here's what "Burners" have come up with so far:
Burning Man attracts hackers of all stripes. So there is an ISP, set up and maintained by volunteers. A super low-cost, solar- and wind-powered, experimental, open-source radio mobile network, also all-volunteer, has handled thousands of VOIP calls and texts for the last six years. The team, including a research group at the University of California, Berkeley, uses Burning Man as a test bed for a technology applicable to many disaster-relief and international development settings.
Since 2009, a commercial carrier has also set up a temporary tower to provide limited service during the event.
And there's even a 5-star iPhone app for scheduling all of the thousands of monkey-chant sessions, Thunderdome battles, and Billion Bunny Marches that happen during the week.
While the use of cell phones for checking in on one's kids or email to coordinate necessary logistics with a huge DJ act or art project is generally OK, public use at the event is still anathema.
Burning Man may be one of the few cities where public sex is actually preferable to public texts. Taking Harvey's cue, some have suggested hiding in the Porta-potties or limiting computer use to the "downtown" areas of Center Camp.
Burning Man doesn't explicitly ban technology. Instead it has 10 core principles that express the value of not being wired, one of which is "immediacy," while another is "participation." "No Spectators!" is a common refrain. This has real effects. A recent scientific study found that participants were measurably more in touch with their emotions during the event: less inhibited, but also more thoughtful in exploring how they felt.
FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is an expression I first heard in the Burner community, but it rules on social media. FOMO is the reason that being on Facebook makes people measurably less happy.
This is because you are spectating the edited highlights of other people's lives, breathing a thin atmosphere of false connection, instead of living your own, grounded life.
The only cure for FOMO is being here now—and making that "here" as fun and challenging and engaging as it can possibly be, whether you're sampling sushi and sake on the wings of a giant duck or killing it on a big pile of work.
[Image: Flickr user Ever Falling]