It’s been just under four weeks since I returned from Burning Man. My 15th deployment there as an employee and the 24th overall. Like a LOT of other people — I’m still trying to sort out what the fuck just happened back there. I’m one of the lucky ones. I was only out there for a month. There are still friends of mine out there that have been there since July who won’t get cut loose to fend for themselves until mid-October. Thanks to some of Burning Man’s new ventures in Gerlach, some of them won’t even leave at all.
Like many people, this event has shaped my life in untold ways. It’s like the stain that gets in your clothes or carpet that you know is never coming out, even while it’s still wet. Burning Man has a way of doing that. It’s not a cult you join — it’s a cult that joins you. One day you wake up and realize that 20 years have gone by, and pretty much your entire social circle, your significant other, and any children you happen to have had together are all traceable to this oddball festival out in the punishing Northern Nevada desert. One that currently, to untrained eyes, can look suspiciously like refugee cosplay for wealthy tech bros along with their assorted disgruntled employees and hangers-on.
It wasn’t always thus. I mean, people have been bitching about tech bros “ruining” Burning Man since the mid-1990s. It wasn’t until the event needed their money to occasionally balance the books on what could be generously called an “unconventional” business and labor model that was predictably unscalable that they had enough sway to start fucking with the actual culture (enough to where people at the highest levels of the event needed to make a public display of badly needed “Cultural Course Correction” to mollify the growing online fury of the torch and pitchfork set).
To know what really changed Burning Man, you don’t need to look much further than runaway housing costs in Los Angeles and the Bay Area over the last two decades. (It’s probably worth noting that some of those same tech bros had a hand in jacking up the cost of living underneath a stairwell in the greater San Francisco metropolitan area to well over four figures a month for people already existing almost exclusively on some liquid gruel marketed to entry-level coders, but I digress).