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Burning Man’s flame may have burnt out

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The annual Burning Man held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert has inspired other festivals around the world – like this one in Israel – but Silicon Valley may be taking over. (Oded Balilty/2014 AP)

By now the dust is doing anything but settling in Black Rock City. Minds and other flammable things are exploding while a sense of all out revelry, exploration and wonder descends on some 70,000-plus people.

In a way, the same can be said for San Francisco. With such a large amount of festival-goers hailing from the Bay Area, those who love to hate Burning Man are pleasantly and smugly repeating the same refrain: “This is the best time to be in The City.” It’s true lines are shorter, commutes are easier, and for once, you might actually be able to get reservations at State Bird Provisions. But still every August since the last time I went to Burning Man 11 years ago, a large part of me really wishes I was out there. Although this year, things have changed.

From an outsider’s perspective and judging by the media hype and hyperbole surrounding it, this year feels like Burning Man may have finally let the flame burn out. What was once a bacchanal dedicated to radical self expression has become a place many folks think of as a radical weeklong tech mixer. Elon Musk was even quoted saying “Burning Man is Silicon Valley.”

Just the other day I read an article called “Prospecting on the Playa: 19 Tips to Network and Generate Leads at Burning Man” on a site called LeadGenius. It was filled with lines like “Branding giveaway items with your company logo and ‘Burning Man 2015’ will be bar-none the best investment you make this year.” and “Called ‘the next frontier of marketing,” the lead generation potential of Burning Man cannot be overestimated or ignored.” It took me till I was three-quarters through the article before I realized the article was satire. The idea of it kinda almost made me puke in my mouth.

You may not personally like Burning Man culture for whatever reason, but it has had a strong and important impact on the Bay Area over the past 20 years. In a way, Burning Man is a distillation of Bay Area freakiness. For a little while afterwards each year it’s like some of the magic is dragged back home from the desert along with the dust. It’s like goosebumps slowly settling down. And year after year of this has left it’s fingerprints on San Francisco. You see this with hula-hoopers in the park or bizarrely costumed people walking through town or purple fuzzy bicycles being ridden down our streets. It’s added a sense of wonder and playfulness that has helped San Francisco stay strange.
And that’s why the idea of Burning Man being Silicon Valley is so revolting and also so believable. In a time where nearly everything is being “disrupted” even the place where people have gone to learn how to disrupt themselves isn’t free from the tentacles of tech “culture.”

Don’t get me wrong, the relationship between tech and Burning Man goes back decades and many of the festival’s early evangelists also worked in the industry. But that was always an example of people saying, “Let’s leave business at home and use tech to make Black Rock City as weird and brilliant as possible.” The realization that people right now might actually be spending their time at Burning Man trying to “generate leads” makes me wonder how much longer until nothing is sacred and even Big Sur or the Russian River are also “Silicon Valley.”

Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in The San Francisco Examiner.

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