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Jay Michaelson

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Why Didn't Burning Man's Organizers See This Coming? Because They Couldn't See Themselves

Posted: 02/23/2012 12:37 pm

We told you so.

Many longtime burners, shocked at the decision by the Burning Man Organization (or BORG) to hold a lottery for tickets to the increasingly popular countercultural community/ festival/happening in the Nevada desert, predicted that scalpers would flood the lottery system, overwhelming legitimate buyers. The BORG dismissed our concerns with vague assurances that vague (and in fact never defined) anti-scalping mechanisms had been put into place. Trust us, they said.

Well, as folks interested in this particular alternative universe know, whatever trust we had was misplaced. Veteran burners, people who've gone for 15 years or more (I've gone for 11) were left ticketless as the lottery system was swamped. At first the BORG said it was swamped by newbies, perhaps turned on by a viral youtube video. But now that tickets have started appearing on scalper websites like stubhub.com for up to $5,000 apiece, we know that this, too, was incorrect. These aren't newbies; they're scammers.

As an aside, I do not understand why scalping is even legal. To me, it's fraud. You purchase an item stating your intention to go, but that statement is knowingly false. Selling a ticket for more than face value, for anything, should simply be illegal.

Legal or not, it's obviously against the ethos of Burning Man, which is meant to be a cooperative community based around principles other than commercial exploitation. This, by the way, is why Burning Man is not a "festival" and why I, for one, find most festivals nauseating. Because underneath whatever they're supposed to be about -- music, art, whatever -- they're really about making money. The bands make money, the producers make even more money, the vendors make money (by price-gouging attendees) -- the stink of money-grubbing corrupts whatever art is being produced.

Burning Man is different. I've seen A-list DJs and musicians play on the playa (as the Burning Man site is called) for free, sometimes semi-anonymously. Sure, I suppose a cynic would say it's for PR purposes, but there are better ways to promote yourself than paying your own way to play out in the middle of the desert. When I've seen these acts perform, I've sensed their joy at co-creating moments of transcendence with thousands of eager and giving participants. It's as close to purity as I know of.

Now here's the weird part. Precisely the grassroots, participatory, Web 2.0, DIY spirit that created Burning Man -- and Google, Facebook and Apple -- is the same as that of the scalpers, albeit good instead of evil. Scalpers, too, are independent, industrious, and clever. They will outwit whatever "mechanisms" a centralized organization puts into place, just like Anonymous will outwit any bank's security systems. This is what hives of highly motivated smart people do: they take down organizations.

Why didn't the BORG see this?

Clearly, they didn't think the independent hacker spirit could be turned to dark purposes. But that spirit is value-neutral, and some people possessed of it are bad. Scalpers, for example, are malevolent parasites who contribute nothing to society while taking something away. But they're also scrappy, smart, independent -- they're cut from the same cloth as Burning Man itself, only much darker and meaner.

Or maybe the BORG was just naïve, really believing that because so many good, honest people entered the lottery system, nasty, dishonest ones wouldn't. Well, they did and they won, because they gamed the system.

Whatever the precise reason, it's fascinating how all of us have the capacity to be so ignorant of the misuse of that which we value. Religion, money, community membership, ethos, intelligence, status -- all of these can be used for good or ill. But it's all too human to exempt oneself from this harsh reality. E.g.: all religions can be used for ill, but not mine...

Now, it's obvious -- as many of us said before this debacle unfolded -- that what Burning Man needs is an identity-based ticket system. Buy tickets under your name, and show your ID at the gate. This is how other communities have done it for years -- those around the Grateful Dead and Pearl Jam, to cite two different examples. Sure, some highly enterprising jerks will forge IDs as well and sneak their way in. But there are way fewer of such people than there are rich douchebags who will pay $5,000 to be a douchebag at Burning Man.

(Oh and yes, there will be a wait to get in. But there already is a wait to get into Burning Man, sometimes many hours long. The reason isn't the line at Will-Call; it's because each vehicle has to be inspected for stowaways. Adding an ID check will require more volunteers, and a little bit of software development, but it won't add any time to the queue.)

We now know that Burning Man's ethos of radical self-reliance has a dark side too. We all have our shadows. And they do us the most harm when we fail even to see them.

 
 
 

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