Automation Avoidance

I read a newspaper column the other day that talked (yet again) about automation and how advanced robots might someday replace people. And while I’m pretty sure my automated vacuum cleaner will never replace me (because I do a better job), I can genuinely understand the concerns. As humans become relegated to more automaton sorts of jobs and electronic equipment takes on the intellectual heavy lifting, the future begins to look like something out of the Matrix or any number of dystopian novels and movies.

Then it hit me that there’s one place I go every year where the only automation is for the sake of human entertainment – Burning Man. A trip to Black Rock City offers seven days of back-to-basics living, of walking and biking, of human-powered innovation and of real relationship building among people. No wonder I breathe so much easier and feel so much better when I return from the Burn. It’s all so real.

In a desert environment where you have to rely on yourself and other people, and can’t turn to technology to solve your problems, living takes on a sense of super-realism. Dust storms, intensive art experiences, bodies often unadorned with clothing (albeit with plenty of “body art”), sets Burning Man so far apart from the deadening default world that you can’t help but feel alive, vital and excited to greet every day. It’s challenging to find those feelings in the day-to-day routine of life.

Human-powered fun at the Burn.

Human-powered fun at the Burn.

There’s never a day at Burning Man that seems routine. Even if you start every morning with a cup of coffee from the Center Camp Café, you’ll have been exposed to myriad unconventional activities – art, performance, whimsical art cars – during your walk or bike ride.   If you’re part of a theme camp, chances are you’ll be asked to help in set-up or take down. You can’t call in professional services you’ve found on the web when there’s work to be done. It’s all performed by hand, and it’s all a work of love.

Want to memorialize a lost friend, family-member or cherished pet? Put something together yourself to be placed inside the Temple. And if you didn’t think of it in advance, just write your thoughts down on any open space – Sharpie’s are usually available from one of the Temple Guardians.

In fact, the idea that writing on the walls of a building is encouraged rather than forbidden is one of the best examples of how Burning Man diverges from day-to-day life. You’re coloring outside the lines from the moment you enter the gates of Black Rock City and receive that magical greeting: “Welcome Home.”

I’m sure the Burning Man organization could have robots built to replace the Greeters, but why would they want to? Greeters provide a true human welcome, usually including a hug; and they help Virgin Burners become one with the Playa immediately. I remember one night when Lashes and I were doing a Greeter shift and a fellow came roaring in driving a spotless sports car and wearing a white suit. When we told him he’d have to get down on the desert floor and make a “dust Angel”, he looked mortified. But after he’d added a layer of dust to his immaculate clothes, he seemed to feel much better and far more relaxed. He was now ready to park his fully automatic vehicle and go into manual mode for his week at Burning Man.