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.

On Friends Who Go to Burning Man

Over nearly a decade of attending Burning Man, we have made a lot of Burner friends – individuals who we met for the first time at the Burn, see annually for the event, and occasionally meet for camp-related activities. But it’s a different kind of thrill to meet old friends who, after years of hearing us talk about it, have finally taken the leap and trekked out to the Burn. We always love to show Burning Man virgins around, but it’s especially rewarding to do so when they’re our friends from the default world. There’s a special joy in sharing in their amazement at the size and scope of Burning Man, and the atmosphere of love, caring and non-commercialism that marks life in Black Rock City.

But showing virgin Burners around the playa is far from a one-way street. You get to see the Burn through the eyes of first-timers – as if you’re viewing it for the first time. In fact, it’s as close as you can come to repeating your treasured first year on the Playa. Your friends will spot things that you’ve overlooked or might have missed. Seeing the awe that is inspired by the big burns in your friends renews your own sense of wonder about these incredible events. Your own experience becomes that much richer.

As a result of our greeting old friends on their first Burning Man visit, we have become evangelists for the event – especially to people our age. It’s one of the reasons I started Sunrise Burners. We’re always honest with people about the harsh desert conditions, but we also let people know that such conditions invite increased camaraderie among attendees and allow you to open yourself to the kinds of friendships that can last forever.

We also try our best to describe the scope and size of artwork on the Playa; so it’s especially rewarding to see their amazement when they come face-to-face with the massive art installations and innovative art cars created exclusively for the Playa. We’ve had a couple of friends who went once, enjoyed it, but never felt committed enough to return. On the other hand, some of them have become regulars and look forward to getting back to the desert each August.

Morning Pickup:  Our usual job as Lamplighters.  We're greatful to the kindness of fellow Lamplighters for guiding and inspiring us.

Morning Pickup: Our usual job as Lamplighters. We’re greatful to the kindness of fellow Lamplighters for guiding and inspiring us.

I think I’m inclined to help people enjoy their first Burn because of the way my son and I were treated during our first year at the event and as part of Lamplighters. One of our campmates who had been around Lamplighters forever took us under his wing and made certain we had the best possible experience. I’ve never forgotten his kindness, and I know from our communications that he’s never forgotten us and remains proud of how we became true Burners because of his efforts to cushion the bumps and bruises so common to virgins. It’s our intention to do the same with new Burners – young or old. So thank you Know Matter What for showing us the way to be good Burners.

Only a few months remaining until the Carnival of Mirrors kicks off and our 2015 Burner experience begins. We’re excited to see some of you there, and to do what we can to make it a fun event – one that you’ll want to repeat every year.