Attending Burning Man made me simultaneously one of the most photographed people on the planet and one of the least surveilled humans in the modern world.
I adjusted my burnoose, covering up my nose and mouth and tucking its edge into place under the lower rim of my big, scratched goggles. The sun was high, the temperature well over a hundred degrees, and breathing through the embroidered cotton scarf made it even more stifling. But the wind had just kicked up, and there was a lot of playa dust—fine gypsum sand, deceptively soft and powdery, but alkali enough to make your eyes burn and your skin crack—and after two days in the desert, I had learned that it was better to be hot than to choke.
Pretty much everyone was holding a camera of some kind—mostly phones, of course, but also big SLRs and even old-fashioned film cameras, including a genuine antique plate camera whose operator hid out from the dust under a huge black cloth that made me hot just to look at it. Everything was ruggedized for the fine, blowing dust, mostly through the simple expedient of sticking it in a ziplock bag, which is what I’d done with my phone. I turned around slowly to get a panorama and saw that the man walking past me was holding the string for a gigantic helium balloon a hundred yards overhead, from which dangled a digital video camera. Also, the man holding the balloon was naked.
Well, not entirely. He was wearing shoes. I understood that: playa dust is hard on your feet. They call it playa-foot, when the alkali dust dries out your skin so much that it starts to crack and peel. Everyone agrees that playa-foot sucks.
Burning Man is a festival held every Labor Day weekend in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Fifty thousand people show up in this incredibly harsh, hot, dusty environment and build a huge city—Black Rock City—and participate. “Spectator” is a vicious insult in Black Rock City. Everyone’s supposed to be doing stuff and, yeah, also admiring everyone else’s stuff (hence all the cameras). At Burning Man, everyone is the show.
I wasn’t naked, but the parts of me that were showing were decorated with elaborate mandalas laid on with colored zinc. A lady as old as my mother, wearing a tie-dyed wedding dress, had offered to paint me that morning, and she’d done a great job. That’s another thing about Burning Man: it runs on a gift economy, which means that you generally go around offering nice things to strangers a lot, which makes for a surprisingly pleasant environment. The designs the painter had laid down made me look amazing, and there were plenty of cameras aiming my way as I ambled across the open desert toward Nine O’Clock.
Black Rock City is a pretty modern city: it has public sanitation (portable chem-toilets decorated with raunchy poems reminding you not to put anything but toilet paper in them), electricity and Internet service (at Six O’Clock, the main plaza in the middle of the ring-shaped city), something like a government (the nonprofit that runs Burning Man), several local newspapers (all of them doing better than the newspapers in the real world!), a dozen radio stations, an all-volunteer police force (the Black Rock Rangers, who patrolled wearing tutus or parts of chicken suits or glitter paint), and many other amenities associated with the modern world.
But BRC has no official surveillance. There are no CCTVs, no checkpoints—at least not after the main gate, where tickets are collected—no ID checks at all, no bag searches, no RFID sniffers, no mobile phone companies logging your movements. There was also no mobile phone service. No one drives—except for the weird art cars registered with the Department of Mutant Vehicles—so there were no license plate cameras and no sniffers for your E-ZPasses. The WiFi was open and unlogged. Attendees at Burning Man agreed not to use their photos commercially without permission, and it was generally considered polite to ask people before taking their portraits.
So there I was, having my picture taken through the blowing dust as I gulped down water from the water jug I kept clipped to my belt at all times, sucking at the stubby built-in straw under cover of the blue-and-silver burnoose, simultaneously observed and observer, simultaneously observed and unsurveilled, and it was glorious.
“Wahoo!” I shouted to the dust and the art cars and the naked people and the enormous wooden splay-armed effigy perched atop a pyramid straight ahead of me in the middle of the desert. This was The Man, and we’d burn him in three nights, and that’s why it was called Burning Man. I couldn’t wait.
“You’re in a good mood,” a jawa said from behind me. Even with the tone-shifter built into its dust mask, the cloaked sand-person had an awfully familiar voice.
“Ange?” I said. We’d been missing each other all that day, ever since I’d woken up an hour before her and snuck out of the tent to catch the sunrise (which was awesome), and we’d been leaving each other notes back at camp all day about where we were heading next. Ange had spent the summer spinning up the jawa robes, working with cooling towels that trapped sweat as it evaporated, channeling it back over her skin for extra evaporative cooling. She’d hand-dyed it a mottled brown, tailored it into the characteristic monkish robe shape, and added crossed bandoliers. These exaggerated her breasts, which made the whole thing entirely and totally warsome. She hadn’t worn it out in public yet, and now, in the dust and the glare, she was undoubtedly the greatest sand-person I’d ever met. I hugged her and she hugged me back so hard it knocked the wind out of me, one of her trademarked wrestling-hold cuddles.
“I smudged your paint,” she said through the voice-shifter after we unclinched.
“I got zinc on your robes,” I said.
She shrugged. “Like it matters! We both look fabulous. Now, what have you seen and what have you done and where have you been, young man?”
“Where to start?” I said. I’d been wandering up and down the radial avenues that cut through the city, lined with big camps sporting odd exhibits—one camp where a line of people were efficiently making snow cones for anyone who wanted them, working with huge blocks of ice and a vicious ice-shaver. Then a camp where someone had set up a tall, linoleum-covered slide that you could toboggan down on a plastic magic carpet, after first dumping a gallon of waste water over the lino to make it plenty slippery. It was a very clever way to get rid of gray water (that’s water that you’ve showered in, or used to wash your dishes or hands—black water being water that’s got poo or pee in it). One of the other Burning Man rules was “leave no trace”—when we left, we’d take every scrap of Black Rock City with us, and that included all the gray water. But the slide made for a great gray water evaporator, and every drop of liquid that the sliders helped turn into vapor was a drop of liquid the camp wouldn’t have to pack all the way back to Reno.
There’d been pervy camps where they were teaching couples to tie each other up; a “junk food glory hole” that you put your mouth over in order to receive a mysterious and unhealthy treat (I’d gotten a mouthful of some kind of super-sugary breakfast cereal studded with coconut “marshmallows” shaped like astrological symbols); a camp where they were offering free service for playa bikes (beater bikes caked with playa dust and decorated with glitter and fun fur