Burning Man 2013 Asks Us to Consider Consumption

Posted by Rachel S on Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Burning Man is always thought provoking but this year’s theme Cargo Cult – Who Is John Frum? digs into our culture of consumption and how distanced we are from the origins of our stuff, but nonetheless reliant on it. The theme is drawn from World War II when GIs dropped onto a primitive South Sea island chain called Melanesia. They brought portable electricity, vehicles, communication equipment and tinned food. Like gods descending from the sky and rolling in from the sea, the soldiers brought mysterious bounty and then just as suddenly disappeared taking their power and goods with them but leaving behind piles of refuse. These shabby relics of consumption spawned a rustic religion.

The natives began to build shrines to plea for the return of these mystical beings. They constructed totems to appeal to the departed foreign gods and their leader “John Frum” (as in ‘John from’ Albuquerque). This movement is called a cargo cult and reflects a belief that certain rituals will lead to receiving material bounty. This has clear connotations for us today as conspicuous consumers who often measure our worth in terms of our accumulated stuff. And the theme reminds us that this is stuff we don’t make, grow or fully understand but are still overly reliant on, addicted to and would likely be as bereft as the island natives if we were denied access to our goods and services.

What’s interesting to me this year is a controversy brewing over technological access to the playa. In our digital age, a good chunk of our cargo is digital – in the form of our social media profiles, MP3s, video and image files and our apps. Picture the Melanesians gazing skyward, arms outstretched, scanning the skies for a glimpse of a bi-wing plane. Now picture yourself, arms outstretched, gazing at your smartphone, desperately looking for four bars of 4G connectivity.

No cell signal at Burning Man

Burning Man is quite literally in the middle of nowhere – the two closest towns, Empire and Gerlach, have less than 225 warm bodies combined. You can imagine that there’s not an abundance of cell towers in the harsh desert and finding WiFi is as likely as coming upon a four star B&B in Center Camp. The lack of electricity and utilities is part of the charm of Burning Man. It’s a pop-up infrastructure that strives to leave little to no footprint to indicate that nearly 70,000 people will plod the playa after ponying up $380 for the privilege.

Burning Man 2013 - the carbon footprint

Despite the free-for-all vibe that permeates Burning Man, there is a marked intolerance of cellphones. But if you can’t check in, let your Facebook friends know you’re there and upload Instagrams of everything you experience, are you really there at all? With so many of us adopting the philosophy of “I think, therefore IM” how frustrating must it be to have to experience something without sharing it with your circle?

Empire and Gerlach do have cell towers, but with the capacity to serve 400 people, not 70,000! But David Burgess of OpenBTS has been providing impromptu cell coverage to the Burning Man masses much as God provided manna to the Israelites in their desert. Over the past five years Burgess has brought along the equipment required to pop-up a cellular network for those that can’t survive without access. He calls the station Papa Legba and seeks to limit the connectivity to within the event, but once you introduce a concept it tends to gain momentum. How many years until Burning Man becomes Coachella and artistic integrity suffers while giant flat screen monitors are erected?

To be fair, you must not conclude that Burgess is just delivering signal to the effete and elite. Know that the lessons he’s learned at Burning Man have helped his company bring coverage to remote areas of the planet. Burgess says, “Because there’s no infrastructure, it forces us to contend with a lot of problems that our rural customers have to contend with in very remote places. The power systems we installed in southern Zambia were informed a lot by our experience in Black Rock City.”

Like it or not, since Burning Man isn’t an event known for issuing edicts, the signal is likely to persist and grow. So we have to ask whether Burgess’ introduction of cellular sophistication to the otherwise rustic Burning Man epitomizes the Cargo Cult or amplifies it?


image sources: Burners.me, BohoCrush.com, DisInfo.com, Instant.ly, PapaLegba2012.wikispaces.com, LATimes.com, Wikimedia.org

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