When the Burning Man leadership team was hammering out the 10 Principles, they must have tripped all over themselves trying to describe a culture that rejects the heavy commercialism that is typical of the default world. What they came up with was the term “decommodification,” a genuine mouthful and a conversation stopper.
But what the principle entails is something that I personally value greatly – escape from an environment in which everything seems sponsored by a commercial entity. Driving on Wal-Mart Way, attending a basketball game at the Sleep Train Arena or watching baseball at AT&T Field, wearing a ski resort logo hat with an automobile’s name on the back, seeing constant ads on facebook and gmail. It’s numbing and causes us to forget what a truly commercial-free environment feels like.
At Burning Man, there are no ads (except whimsical parodies), and no sort of branding outside of Burning Man centric activities. (It’s probably a subject for another blog post how Burning Man camps and events market themselves both on and off the playa).
Nonetheless, this attempt at a brand-free world is what the organization means by decommodification. Some people take it very seriously and block out or subtly change brand names on their vehicles. A “Ford” truck becomes a “Food” truck, or a Buick automobile is somehow recreated as a Fuck-mobile.
It’s a relief to get away from all the commercialism of the modern world, and to see ubiquitous brands like Wal-Mart or Bank of America turned into spoofs of themselves (Mal-Mart and Bank of UnAmerica), because in the default world, even when we’re not buying things we’re surrounded by commercial imagery.
Decommodification is only tangentially related to the commerce free concept of “gifting,” which minimizes or eliminates product sales at Burning Man. Off-playa, free stuff is often just a means of promoting brands and products, whereas gifting at Burning Man comes with absolutely zero expectation of a vis-à-vis payoff. The nature of decommodification means our gifts should not only be free, but also have no marketing purposes whatsoever.
Corporate identities sometime sneak their way onto the playa. I recall a number of commercial products being given away, including Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. If we are honest with the way life works on the playa, we’d acknowledge that Ben & Jerry’s is an acceptable brand on-playa because of its corporate reputation for loving kindness and liberal politics, while other corporate entities such as BP or Nike might be perceived politically as more corrosive to society.
But overall, corporate intrusions on the playa are few and far between, and therefore our lives feel more untethered from commercialism during the week of Burning Man. I’ve always viewed the Burn as “the world turned on its head for one week in the desert,” and the principle of Decommodification helps create this environment and helps delineate life on the playa from life in the real world.