Why TED and Burning Man Are More Similar Than You Think
It's a week of magic and wonder; a week of little sleep and nonstop conversation; a week of sublimating the ego to explore and understand the brilliance of others; a week to feel small in the face of the human propensity for creativity. It's the week of course of...well, the truth is the description could fit both the TED conference and the annual Burning Man festival.
At first glance, there is little to connect these two happenings other than, perhaps, their general cultural significance. After all, TED is an ideas festival held annually in Long Beach, California, that plays host to some of the world's great thinkers and luminaries, and Burning Man is an entire alternative universe of gift economy, revelry, and dust that is built and then goes away in just a week in the late summer in the middle of Nevada's barren Black Rock Desert populated, right?
The gatherings have much to connect them, not least of which is a common passionate audience in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are not only frequent TEDsters, but well-known burners (as the attendees of Burning Man are known) having joked that they chose Eric Schmidt as CEO in part because he had been to Burning Man. One of last year's TED speakers, Joive de Vivre Hotels founder Chip Conley, is an annual burner. Many of the attendees (including this author) mark both events as must attend.
So what is the connection? Part of it might be the rights of passage (interestingly enough, next year's Burning Man theme) involved in participation. While the boring old arguments about TED's supposed élitism and the equally trivial flowering about Burning Man's open invitation to the world would seem to disagree, the truth, as it often is, is more nuanced. In reality, both events—although in very different ways—place significant barriers to entry in front of their attendees. This is not, as it is too often and too easily argued, about any sort of belief about the unworthiness of those outside, but a mechanism by which they amplify the feeling of participation on the inside and pull more depth of feeling out of people than they would otherwise be able.
Part of it may be simply that big personalities (the type you might find on the average founders) tend to be attracted to big experiences. Although the experiences of TED and Burning Man are different, they are intense, immersive, and unlike almost anything else. TED overwhelms the mind with an onslaught of insight from every discipline and every field. Burning Man overwhelms the eyes and the ears with sensory experiences like nowhere else. Jennifer Stefanotti, a development worker who attended both events, made the observation that in both settings, there is so much to do, so much to experience, and so many fascinating and passionate people that the only option is to surrender control and allow yourself to be led through the experience by fate as much as commission.
All this is absolutely true, but it's one of her other points that gets even closer to the heart of it. She suggests that at each event "people step out of the confines of their everyday routine." No matter how much personal success they've had, most people who experience these two events can't help but be wowed by the spectacle of human potential that surrounds them. At TED, it is in the brilliance of speakers who at their best, transcend their specific field or discipline to glean insights about the human condition. At Burning Man, it is the actual experience of that human condition, in the rawness of the desert surrounded by art that makes your heart ache and parties that unleash the rhythm of life in anyone who comes in their range.
In an appearance on Conan in 2009, comedian Louis CK made the comment that right now, "Everything is amazing and nobody is happy." His point was that in the modern world, it is incredibly easy to take for granted the advancement all around us, and that nothing surprises us anymore. The theme of this year's TED is the Rediscovery of Wonder, and that theme really could be just the catchphrase of the organization in general.
Strip all the production away, leave all the millions of views behind, and the central emotional and intellectual the force of the gathering reveals itself: Our world, and our lives, are fragile; we're here for but a moment and bound in ways we can't even imagine to the people, spaces, and nature that surround us; and true beauty is marveling at the complex majesty of the human experience. This is, ultimately, the same for Burning Man, and in a strange way, the fact that these two events—at once world's away from one another, yet curiously connected—share this central truth is simply more evidence of how right they are.