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David's Takes: The Burning Man Network State

"We're here because we're not all there."
David Hoffman David Hoffman Sep 7, 202317 min read
David's Takes: The Burning Man Network State

Dear Bankless Nation,

I just got back from the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, where, for one week of the year, tens of thousands of people congregate for the annual Burning Man festival.

After being in Crypto for 6+ years, I've picked up on the association between Crypto-people and Burning Man's burners. Being one increases the likelihood of being the other. Through these relationships, I've been told that the parallels between Crypto and Burning Man are strong, but I've never concretely grasped why.

So, after a decade of even my own Burner Father saying to me, "Dave, you have to go to Burning Man," and then forming numerous relationships with crypto citizens who told me this same – this year, I decided to go see what all of the excitement was about.

Bankless Nation… like Crypto, Burning Man is a rabbit hole. 

Like Crypto, when you enter the world of Burning Man, you are simultaneously leaving the old world behind. You don a new persona… You choose a new character. You explore a new frontier. These things are connected! The ties between Burning Man and Crypto are not just metaphors. Burning Man and Crypto are parallel movements with shared goals and shared values.

So, to all of the crypto people reading this, please open your mind the way that you ask others to be open to Crypto. And to any Burners just now stumbling on Bankless for the first time, welcome! I don't expect us to become the same group of people, but I want us to understand each other because if one of our movements succeeds, it will be easier for the other to do the same.

This article is a long one – there's so much to say! To set up the powerful punchlines I want to land here, we'll progress from Burning Man 101 to introducing themes and concepts often used in the Bankless universe. Towards the end, you'll notice the focus shifts to the common ground...

Bankless Nation, we know that Crypto is a taste of the future. You're here to front-run the opportunity – to be prepared for the weird, wacky future we all know is inevitable. Burning Man is the same. Its culture and values will one day collide with your life, which it probably already has in many ways. If you read on, you'll be prepared. You'll know how to identify it and hopefully accept it for what it is: an optimistic social movement that wants to change the world.

❤️‍🔥 Burning Man 101

First, some groundwork.

Burning Man is a yearly event held in the middle of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA. It is the largest event held on public US land, and every year it gets larger. What started as a gathering of a few hundred people in 1987 has gradually expanded to the roughly 75,000 people who attended the event last year.

"Black Rock City" is the legally recognized city (*complete with a Post-Office!) that emerges in the middle of the Black Rock Desert just one week out of the year and is just as quickly removed. To be clear, Black Rock City is not close to the towns that surround the Black Rock Desert. The nearest international airport is in Reno, a 3-hour drive away.

The city of Black Rock is organized in a radial shape, with The Man at the absolute center of the circle. The diameter of street A, the innermost street, is about 2 miles, leaving a massive open area of perfectly flat dusty desert for the citizens of Black Rock City to do stuff on. The streets are coordinated like a Clock, running every 30 minutes, every 15 degrees, outwards from the center. You communicate your position to fellow Black Rock citizens with "I'm at 8:30 and C". The architecture of this organization is highly conducive to the emergent properties of Burning Man, which I will discuss later.

A 100-foot-tall wooden sculpture of The Man stands at the center of the clock in the middle of the playa. As you may have guessed, the end of each year's Burning Man is marked by the burning of The Man.

'Why do you burn the man?' 'So we can build him again!'

The central planning of Black Rock City should also inform the reader that Burning Man is not an anarchy. While TradSociety may look at Burning Man and think of rule-free anarchy, this could not be further from the truth. Burning Man is a highly coordinated phenomenon, facilitated by over 200 year-round staff, thousands of volunteers, and a minimum viable set of rules that enshrines the culture and keeps the peace.

During the event, the workers of Burning Man play a subtle but essential role in shuffling the locations of Burning Man's 'camps' in a way that helps maintain and scale the power of Burning Man in preparation for growing larger next year. I will describe this further.

⛺️ Camps aka DAOs

Burning Man 'camps' are established, recurring groups of people that come to Burning Man every year. With over 1,500 established camps, the consistency of this committed base of Burners is what allows for foundation and stability to emerge as the Burning Man movement grows.

Each camp is unique, with its origin story, camp members, and things it brings to the playa. While camp members and camp leaders can come and go, the camp itself lives on. Like all living things, camps adapt over time. They grow, shrink, change, and respond to their environment. Camps can range in size and can have significant, sophisticated living and entertainment structures or be a circle of RVs.

As camps grow to a certain size, centralized resource sharing becomes essential and economically rational. Larger camps have physical property they maintain throughout the year, waiting for the next burn – power generators, refrigerators, freezers, stoves, ovens, showers, and shade are all physical items frequently owned and operated by medium and large camps, enabling individual camp members to trade challenging logistics for yearly camp dues.

Camps often start centralized, usually after a motivated leader rallies their friends and family to "just come to Burning Man one time," and as Camps evolve and grow, so does their leadership crew. Frequently, camp leaders move on, and the camp extends a life of its own. Even as camp leadership comes and goes, the camp property is maintained by the ever-changing members of the camps. 

Anyone in a DAO should be familiar with the fact that a tiny subset of DAO workers hold the entire organization together, and camp dues are frequently charged to all attending members to help maintain the integrity and resources of the camp. 

This bottom-up organization of the Nation of Burning Man is one of its biggest strengths. Each camp is an autonomous governance zone. Every camp has free reign over its own internal operations, social contracts, codes of conduct, and members. Camps can elect to pay salaries or not. They can eject disrespectful members or not. Camps can do whatever they want, and this freedom is what allows camps to grow, improve, and adapt over time. Every year, when Burning Man comes, the individual improvements that every camp makes contribute to the net aggregate energy of the Burning Man festival and is one of the core drivers of the logarithmic growth of the Burning Man movement.

Camps Provide Services and Entertainment

Not every camp, but most camps provide some reason for the Burners of Black Rock City to visit. What incentive each camp brings is entirely open-ended. This is one of the more salient and fun parts of Burning Man – walking around from camp to camp, discovering what they offer, who you can meet, and what you can do. It's a core component of the Burning Man experience.

The typical camp provides a bar, where any burner can walk up to and acquire a drink, but it only gets more eccentric from there.

  1. I attended a wine-tasting camp, where my friends and I were walked through 3 different types of Greek wine by a sommelier.
  2. There was a grilled cheese camp where you could sit at a table and be offered 3 different kinds of grilled cheese.
  3. There was the "Cereal-Thrillers" camp, which was a saloon you could sit at that offered ~20 different kinds of breakfast cereals that you could eat while listening to Michael Jackson's Thriller and related tunes playing in the background.
  4. Tacos, pickles and pickle juice, oil wrestling, clubs, music venues, mini-putt, yoga, educational talks, trampolines, bike repair… a camp could provide anything.

Camps at Burning Man offer experiences served to you in the middle of the Black Rock Desert. There are too many camps at Burning Man to experience them all – again, there are over 1,500!

The Reshuffling of the Camps

Here's where things get interesting. Each year, while Burning Man is in progress, Burning Man workers walk around and visit the camps to witness what each camp has to offer and evaluate the camp's positioning within Black Rock City.

Like all cities, Black Rock Desert has good and bad real estate. Aspiring camps want the most foot traffic. Who doesn't want to have the best party?? The innermost street and the center of the radial are the busiest thoroughfares of Burning Man, while further out streets are lonelier suburbs. 

Based on the quality of the camp, the value and nature of services provided, and the overall vibe, the central Burning Man organization will 'upvote' or 'downvote' your camp's positioning. 

Did you commit to a menu of camp-coordinated social events throughout the week, but you only followed through on half of them? Expect to be moved further back next year. Did you host popular events or provide valuable services every day of the week? You'll be moved up! Did you not provide any services at all, or you're not even a camp? That's fine! You'll live out on the margins and let the established camps move towards the center.

In addition to some common-sense balancing (putting the music venues on the outskirts, spacing out bike-repair camps, etc.), the yearly reshuffling of camps allows for the continual optimization of Burning Man, making the event an adaptive, flexible organism that can respond to its conditions. This simple protocol, along with the organically growing sophistication of each individual camp, allows a natural chaordic organization to emerge and strengthen over time.

An Antifragile DAO of DAOs

Camp development is how Burning Man grows 5-10% each year. This property enables a natural resiliency in Burning Man's structure. 

Camps can die off and be replaced. Camps that grow too large can split into smaller, more harmonious social groups. Camps with strong leadership, coordination, and sophistication can grow as large as they like. The largest camps can scale camp dues out the furthest and provide more infrastructure for its residents while also improving the services it provides to the general population of Black Rock.

Workers harness this emergent property of Burning Man by rewarding stronger camps with better Burning Man real estate, thanking them for their services by providing them with more exposure.

But let's ask: Why does a camp want exposure? What's the motivation for providing services? Is more foot traffic really an incentive?

A critically important rule and principle of Burning Man is no money and no commercialization. The only thing that money is good for at Burning Man is ice. You can buy ice to stay cool and to keep food from spoiling. Other than that, if you want something, you have to barter for it. But also, if you want something, people will probably just give it to you. Within reason, of course.

Maybe the option to have your food, alcohol, and offerings consumed by the public isn't a rational incentive in TradSociety, but Burning Man isn't TradSociety. Burning Man runs on principles** of giving and service. Sure, not everyone wants to expend their resources on behalf of others, but the fact that Burning Man has scaled to over 70,000 people shows that enough people are willing to provide enough value and services to support a population of 70,000 people for 7 days, even when it is economically irrational to do so.

This element of Burning Man is what gives it so much power. Economically and capitalistically, Burning Man doesn't make sense. Everyone leaves Burning Man with less money and resources than they went in. Burning Man isn't sustainable. But it does work. More people come back every year. More and better services are provided each time. The city is growing!

So if Burning Man isn't built on top of economic rationality, but it is a growing, functioning city, what is it supported by? What is the foundation Burning Man standing on? The energy of Burning Man is growing, but why? What is the foundation of Burning Man if it's not capitalism?

I can't answer this question for you. This answer comes in the form of the experience that one receives while at the event. I have mine, but you need to get yours. And that's why everyone you know who's attended Burning Man has probably said to you, "You need to go at least once."

🎆 Burning Man at Night

51 weeks of the year, the Black Rock Desert is a dark landscape where stars are the brightest sources of light. But for one week of the year, the playa comes alive with millions of LED lights attached to people's bodies, bicycles, camps, and art-cars.

After dinner is done and the sun goes down, Burning Man residents grab their LED-laden bicycles, turn on their art cars, and descend upon the central playa - the arena of Burning Man.

While these players are all present during daylight hours as well, nighttime is when the whole playa emerges as greater than the sum of its parts.

Burning Man art cars are mobile installations of art built around the chassis of a car. They are drivable, ridable, glowing pieces of art, and each one is just as unique as the last. Some can only fit a single driver, like the roaming Roomba art go-cart I saw this year, and others can fit an entire stage of people dancing behind a DJ, performing for the surrounding environment.

Artists come to Burning Man and erect stationary art structures for all Burners to enjoy. If these art installations don't have lights and LEDs incorporated into them, then they have external flood lights pointing at them to make sure no one runs into them in the dark of night.

Every sculpture is lit up, one way or another.

Some artists elect to burn their creations at Burning Man, spending months and months creating the art, then deconstructing it, transporting it to the playa, rebuilding it for Burning Man, and then lighting it on fire.

I don't really get why, but I guess it's easier than carrying it home.

Everyone has a bicycle at Burning Man. Everyone. The playa is just too large to experience on foot!

Everyone adorns their bicycle with LED lights! It's actually pretty dangerous not to. While this is primarily for safety, it's not the only reason why this social protocol has emerged. When tens of thousands of people are wearing LED-laden outfits on their LED-donned bicycles, cruising around the Black Rock playa dodging LED-decorated art cars, stopping to look at shining LED art installations, something amazing happens.

There are just so many LEDs. One of the principles of Burning Man is to participate, and the act of wearing some LEDs and bopping around the playa at night is one of the most basic and simple forms of participation at Burning Man. Just by attending the festival in your LED-donned outfit, you are contributing to the festival of light that is occurring on the playa.

Greater than the Sum of its Parts

When 10,000+ agents are running around an open desert playa with LEDs, live music, and interesting art alongside other friendly and open humans, a certain kind of magic emerges.

Time is forgotten. The here and now is elevated. Friendships are fostered, even if they're as short as a few hours or a few minutes. Nowhere else in the world are you able to navigate a never-ending forest of LEDs while being so far removed from TradSociety that the concept of doing any work or chores or errands ever enters your brain. You are given permission to be present and are equipped with the perfect context to do so.

This context emerges, both at nighttime and during the day, because everything at Burning Man is a Schelling point.

There is no coercion at Burning Man. You are not compelled to do anything. While one of the principles of Burning Man is 'participation,' as in, you're expected to do something, what that something is is entirely up to you. Whether you're biking around the playa at night, looking for an art installation to capture your gaze, or you're walking around the city in Daytime, looking for a camp to do something in, everything at Burning Man is in competition to capture your attention.

Everyone at Burning Man is both a moth and a flame.

Where and how the moths of Burning Man choose to congregate together is up to the fate of the universe and is ultimately how the experience of Burning Man itself manifests.

Since you are not compelled to do anything, the activities and behaviors that do emerge at Burning Man happen of their own accord and volition. Who and what is valued at Burning Man is determined by how much attraction each thing pulls in. With the slight yearly readjustments of the centrality of Burning Man's strongest Schelling points, the aggregate brightness of Burning Man increases in power every single year, and the meaning and purpose of the Burning Man movement organically find its rudder.

Festival Of the Commons

In my first experience of the LEDs on the playa, I was reminded of Andreas Antonopolous' concept of the "Festival of the Commons," an idea that stands in opposition to the Tragedy of the Commons.

Burning Man is a commons, and like all commons, it needs to be attended to and cared for. But since the foundation of Burning Man is not capitalism, the nature of its commons is expressed differently. While public commons in TradSociety need government protection from exploitation, the Burning Man commons naturally finds itself growing each year without any military enforcing its protection. The principles and social protocols that have emerged to guide Burning Man society are conducive to Andreas Antonopoulos's 'Festival of the Commons,' where the quality and supply of the commons naturally grow and improve the more people participate in it.

When day turns to night, by simply visiting the playa in your LEDs, your existence contributes to the massive festival of light that goes on towards the center of the city. Seeing tens of thousands of LED objects randomly move around the desert is a sight to behold, and just by being there, you contribute to it.

By evolving your camp from a collection of tents to a structure with a bar or activity, you increase the aggregate value of the services provided at Burning Man.

In my opinion, this is the most salient overlap between Crypto and Burning Man. A minimum-viable ruleset that enables the emergence of unpredictable behaviors and activities that naturally and organically point in the same direction of scaling both the quantity and quality of the foundation that supports the movement.

🧬 New Social Structures

Burning Man is what society isn't.

Burning Man is a portal. You step into it and emerge out on the other side. You enter into a new plane of existence in which economics are irrational, organization is emergent, and expressivity is limitless. The constraints that modern society places on the average individual are not found in Burning Man. 

Much like Crypto, Burning Man is the Wild West.

When entering Crypto, you choose a new life. You pick a new character. You settle on a new landscape. When entering Black Rock City, you do the same.

Burning Man is an alternative society with a new culture based on specific principles that help scale the values it was founded on. Who will you be when the constraints and pressures of society are lifted? How will you choose to act? What will you do?

There is more to do at Burning Man than one can experience in a lifetime, which is probably why so many Burners return every single year like clockwork and why many chose to still live with, by, and around other Burners for the remainder of the year. 

An Unstoppable Movement

Burning Man is, by far, the world's largest Network State. I'm using the definition of a Network State very expansively here, but since it's not formally defined anyway, I think I'm well within the rules here.

Burning Man has its main hub, the 70,000-person last-week-of-August event on the Black Rock desert. But with hundreds of regional spinoffs hosted all around the world, the Burning Man movement manifests whenever and wherever its citizens choose. Knowing no bounds and disregarding all borders, the nation of Burning Man is one of the fastest-growing emerging markets in existence… 

Individuals come together to create camps. Camps compose together to create streets, and the streets of Black Rock City coalesce together to create Burning Man. But now, individual Burning Man spinoffs are part of an even greater, decentralized social movement based on scaling the culture and values of Burning Man.

The geometric growth of Burning Man should not be underestimated. In Crypto, we are blessed with only having to be concerned about moving bits. Crypto exists on the internet, and Crypto's success is not concerned with the state of atoms. It's one of the most bullish things about Crypto: bits are easier to manipulate than atoms.

Burning Man is a movement of atoms. It's a movement on hard mode, and it's winning all the same. The Burning Man movement convinces hundreds of thousands of people every single year to expend resources, move their bodies, cars, and lives, to participate in an alternative ruleset for society, and it works.

It's unknown how far the Burning Man movement can scale, but after 36 years of at least 10% YoY growth, the scale of Burning Man has not found its limits. Eventually, Burning Man will likely find a way into your life, whether you know it or not. In many ways, it probably already has.

In Crypto, we say, "There's something here for everyone," and at Burning Man, it's the same. Like Crypto, the early years of Burning Man were defined by social radicals that didn't fit into TradSociety. Like Crypto, Burning Man is becoming more mainstream. Crypto and Burning Man are adapting to be more tame, while society is also growing… a little wilder?

Like Crypto, Burning Man is a taste of the future. A future in which neurodivergence is normalized and aged institutions are disregarded. Burning Man and Crypto both say, "Let's rebuild society from the ground up and see what happens." We are both organic, antifragile, decentralized experiments in social structures and coordination. Burning Man and Crypto are unstoppable movements that transcend nation-states. We are both ideas. We are both genies out of the bottle. We are societies with values we believe in and are composed of motivated doers who will die trying to scale the principles we stand on.

🎬 Conclusion

I don't know if I am going to be a lifelong Burner. While attending Burning Man this year in 2023 was an eye-opening, life-changing event, I'm not sure if it's for me every single year. But I do now understand why everyone says, "You need to go at least once," especially my own father, who finally convinced me to come with him this year.

But I do know that I wrote this article with the intent of sending it to my friends, to incept them with the idea of the magic that Burning Man has. Instead of saying, "Guys, trust me… we need to go," I wrote this article instead as a way to help convince them that they need to go to Burning Man… at least once.

And for the friends that say yes, I'll volunteer to coordinate our camp as a camp leader. And maybe this is how it all starts.

See you at Burning Man in 2024 😉

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David Hoffman

Written by David Hoffman

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Co-owner at Bankless. Optimistic storyteller of frontier technology.

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