Burning Man – a P2P nightmare?

Example of “Burner Art”

Below is a second Guest Blog submitted to me on Dec.8, 2021 by Katarzyna Gajewska, PhD .

For my convenience I call her ‘Kat’. She has been very active in the definition and research about Peer-to-Peer production, as defined by the ‘P2P manifesto’ of the P2P Foundation. See also an earlier guest blog by her in these blog pages, see https://theconnectivist.wordpress.com/2020/05/26/guest-blog-about-p2p-commons-in-practice/.

This time she is critical about the “Burning Man” movement, see Instagram: @burningman and their www page: linktr.ee/burningmanproject/

I respect Kat’s views, but must add that at least BM has launched, instead of normal business value extraction, value creation as their “Turn Your Life into ART” slogan/ invitation sounds positive.

If you look more closely as Kat did, you can see that behind that BM is a Business. With a business model for the SHARKS to make money from the produced art by extracting it from the young creators DOLPHINS. It is the same what happened in Facebook. We do the work and the owners of FB get rich from our personal data.

Sure the dolphin-shark ecology is not illegal but it can be a reason for dolphins in the civil society to start fighting back and take back their P2P created value and own it.

Please address questions and remarks about her paper to Kat on Facebook(?)

jaap van till, TheConnectivist


Burning Man – a P2P nightmare? Questions for the movement

by Katarzyna Gajewska, PhD

Peer production is a concept still searching for the reality. Case studies will enrich the understanding of how to make this model work in all the messy structural, cultural, and psychological context of contemporary capitalism. Negative examples can pave the way towards a desirable future because it is easier to discern by seeing what you do not want. They can serve as a mirror to further initiatives of this kind. The advantage of writing and analyzing the future is that you can help shape it by asking questions to better understand what the visions are behind the actions shaping it. Burning Man (further abbreviated as BM), an annual event gathering up to 70 thousands people in Nevada, helps us to formulate these questions and anticipate some pitfalls.

Burning Man’s relevance to P2P model

Instead of deciding whether Burning Man is an example of peer production, let us depict it as a P2P nightmare. I propose to look at some of its dysfunctions to be more wary about possible dangers in setting up peer production spaces. BM experience helps us to define the details of a production system that corresponds to our moral standards.

Table: Comparison of Burning Man Principles and P2P Model

Burning Man PrinciplesP2P Model
InclusionInclusion by organizing work in modular way
GiftingVoluntary contribution of granular tasks
De-CommodificationUse value and not for profit principle
Self-RelianceLimited hierarchy
Self-ExpressionSpontaneous contribution
Communal EffortFor benefit
Civic ResponsibilityFor benefit
Leaving No Trace (mainly as Leaving No Trash in the venue)For benefit
ParticipationCivic ethics of engagement
ImmediacyNot explicitly addressed but not in contradiction with this principle

Use value versus making a living

P2P literature distinguishes between extractive and commons based peer production (P2P Manifesto) or firm-hosted and community-hosted peer production (Mayo Fuster Morell). While BM is coordinated by a non-profit, it does not automatically mean that it meets standards of commons based or community-hosted peer production. This case raises further questions that the P2P typology may need to elaborate on. In the world that is largely commodified, an example of peer production without paid staff, especially in physical world, is difficult to find. Behind bigger peer production projects, there is a team of salaried coordinators. How to define whether the salaries of coordinators are not exploitative in relation to the free work provided by prosumers?

Problems with defining BM as for benefit production

It is difficult to define what BM produces. The participation is market-dependent. Participants have to pay for the ticket, buy food and equipment outside, so there is not much production happening. While there is gifting, it is a redistribution of bought products. Almost everything is bought so the event is just pooling of bought stuff. BM mainly produces experience. The works of art commissioned for the event are destroyed so there is no long-term contribution to the community. While the core ten principles include “Leaving No Trace,” this rather translates into leaving no trash on the site and deposing it to the neighboring garbage bins and offloading the waste to the local populations. You can read more about illegal trash dumping in 2018 article “Leave No Trace Has Become Hide the Evidence.”

A lot of waste is produced during the event and wood is burnt. Therefore, it is questionable whether there is any benefit of this event to the society at large. For P2P movement, this raises concerns of what means are justified by what ends. How can the benefit be calculated against the potential environmental costs?

The relations to the state and local community

Burners produce pollution and garbage that directly affects tax-payers in the locality. The local authorities have imposed a tax on the festival. BM evokes interesting questions regarding the relations between P2P and the state. For example, benefits produced may be globally dispersed and the negative externalities locally concentrated. How these discrepancy can be mediated by peer production projects?

BM culture and governance regarding sexual violence and consent

Sexual assault is the subject of criminal law and is treated by the state authorities. The limits of state protection, especially in such a setting, are so obvious that abstaining from the intervention is a statement of organization’s values. On one of the stories of sexual violence reported to the media, Cate Edelstein, a nineteen-year-old woman accepted a glass of water in a bar at BM in 2012. She was found unconscious with visible signs of sexual abuse on her body.

We do not know how many other acts of violence have happened there. Official data gathered by the organizers may not be representative seeing that sexual violence is under-reported in the society, there are probably much more violations happening there.

Limited cultural work to prevent sexual assault

Culture of gifting may incite potential victims to be less cautious and prone to the intake of hidden drugs. There are no preventive measures that address this fragility. Recent initiative to promote awareness around sexual consent has attracted 350 attendees to workshops by 2018. They were organized by Bureau of Erotic Discourse – a group of activists at BM. However, for the population of about seventy thousand, this is a drop in the sea.

Silencing victims of sexual assault

In 2019 report “Exclusive: Burning Man calls itself a safe space. Assault survivors say it’s got a sex crime problem” Karlis points to the lack of appropriate response to sexual misconduct: “An inadequate self-policing system has the effect, intended or otherwise, of silencing and dismissing victims of sexual assault and other forms of abuse before they have an opportunity to report the crime to law enforcement.” The article cites testimony of two victims who have been ignored by BM organization and a former volunteer of several years at the festival. The latter pointed out how safety team skewed the process of reporting sexual misconduct. After having raised these concerns to the organization, she ended up being uninvited in 2018. Another person has been uninvited after reporting a sexual assault they have witnessed.

BM’s ambiguity about employment and labor protection

High rate of suicide among seasonal workers working on the site raises questions about labor conditions there. A seasonal worker who raised issues of labor treatment and the lack of transparency about pay was uninvited in 2017. An accident involving lasers has caused blindness. The affected woman has not received 250,000 dollars, which are usually due in case of such a disability being inflicted at a workplace. CEO’s salary for 2018 was 268,000 dollars.

Spencer mentions that wealthy participants hire labor to set up their camps and sherpas to assist them in their comfort during the festival. A venture capitalist paid 180 dollars for fifteen- to twenty-hour days during the festival.

The blurred definition of what is work and what is not serves exploitation because potential contributors may not be able to distinguish for themselves whether they are exploited or being part of fun and community. What a better way to have people contribute labor than by using this touchy-feely discourse?

People enchanted with the atmosphere may forget that there is profit making behind the work that they contribute. By definition, it goes not to the participants that are bound by the principle of gifting but to the core BM management, whose comfortable annual salaries. CEO Marian Goodell earned 268,000 dollars of annual salary in 2018.

This business model resembles Facebook. While BM talks about de-commodification and gifting, Facebook is free and makes money out of “selling” us an illusion of online community in exchange for our clicks. BM sets a stage to produce and consume a lofty “community infatuation” and other experiences, which are actually commodities working for core management’s salaries.

Authority and responsibility

BM core team exercises authority. Does the power they have accorded to themselves imply taking responsibility? The principle of self-reliance may be an excuse to avoid taking responsibility or seeing the need for measures that will help prevention.

BM raises important questions for P2P movement, namely how responsibility and prevention can be best assured in a decentralized spontaneous organization. What if there is not enough centralized capacity to deal with safety issues and there is not enough spontaneous contribution? Safety requires specific skills and is difficult to assure in a decentralized way. Who takes responsibility and how to enforce it in such settings beyond the state regulation?

The perils of transiency

BM illustrates very well the tyranny of short-term perspective and atomization among participants, which is the constitutive part of the festival. The atmosphere of living-in-the-moment is generated, which may lead to suppressing any confrontational behavior. The perspective of being with certain people only for a short period of time may lead to two types of pitfalls in inter-personal relations: 1) refraining from addressing when boundaries have been crossed; and 2) being more “adventurous” or intrusive because of the lack of the usual social control.

Another consequence of transiency is non-commitment to collective processes – the lack of real community – and the unusual proximity of participants, which may be confused with being part of a community. The result is a co-existence of two opposites: an extreme atomization and an extreme proximity. Such a mix is potentially dangerous: at best it produces confusion, at worst it may lead to an abuse of the situation.

The dangers of cultural void and fun doctrine

A superficial consideration of what work is delivered in the context of such an event would foreground building installations and mechanics of the site but all this does not matter if the culture is lacking. Coincidently, the structures are built in the desert. Both building physical structures in the desert and creating a culture in a void is a humanly challenging and heroic work. The difficulty of the latter is that you do not know what has been achieved as the cultural poverty is often more visible in cases where there is a failure.

Stating principles does not automatically translate into a culture. Especially in a situation of following them (or not) in an atomized way without a collective deliberation process, they are meaningless.

A person with a nickname Caveat Magister, who is part of BM team, published a comment on Spencer’s article entitled “Why the Rich Love Burning Man.” This blog post on BM website reveals organization’s attitude is to a deeper reflection. Certainly, one person does not speak for the entire group. They (the gender of the author is not revealed) defined BM as people having fun and “an experience of life outside of politics.” Ideology is a collection of ideas regarding goals and methods. You want it or not, BM is implementing an ideology.

They suggest that BM transcends politics, which misses the point that everything has political impact and that practices and behaviors allowed in the space carry values and doctrines (whether the actors are aware of them or not). Dismissing a deeper reflection on what this event is producing prevents an analysis of the consequences and setting moral standards. By not making the ideology and precepts explicit and knocking democratic process back, the life energy put into the event is delivered to the hegemonic agenda. The lack of intentionality generates a fertile ground for letting the dominant culture overtake the space.

Unaware people are potentially dangerous. Pursuing an implicit ideology – that underpins actions without being spelled out – they may be deprived of the possibility and wherewithal to evaluate their actions. History has shown us on many occasions the cruelty brought about by people who refuse to think. In the spirit of BM mentality, “having fun” dogma may silence critical voices and reinforce self-censorship against “heavy” topics and moral considerations because of stigma of being uncool. A Japanese proverb says that vision/dream without action is daydreaming, and action without vision is a nightmare. BM has had many victims.

How much intervention is morally enough?

The principle of self-reliance echoes P2P principles of self-selection, spontaneity, or limited hierarchy. Therefore, the example of BM can be relevant in detecting possible consequences of such an ideology.

Self-organized spaces face a dilemma of how much regulation is appropriate. Too much of it may lead to rigidity and deter some people from participation. Hence a space becomes exclusive to some. However, not enough rules may lead to disruptive behaviors, which may cause a real damage to vulnerable individuals. The psychological and physical repercussions may stay with victims for their whole lives. The BM illustrates the dangers of the principle of self-reliance, which seems to go hand-in-hand with refraining from responsibility.

Making self-reliance a norm may lead to self-blaming instead of seeing inequality in the capacity to defend self-interests. The principle may motivate neglecting the fact that we differ in our vulnerability and capacity to be in charge. For example, a person that has not been exposed to the knowledge about rape drugs or the consequences of taking drugs in general cannot make informed decisions. Also there are discrepancies in the probability to fall prey to an assault. For example, past trauma may affect the ability to prevent and react to any kind of abuse. Furthermore, the culture and socialization may inhibit some people in expressing their boundaries. The literature on problematic or dubious consent documents the complexity of consent. A first person account by Lux Alptraum bears out such dynamics in sexual encounters.

P2P movement would benefit from reflecting on these inequalities and the problems of consent. What measures can be undertaken to limit oppression in these spaces and raise awareness about our conditionings that may play out in different forms of interactions? The issues of potential domination dynamics within the P2P movement are raised in the interview with Elena Martinez and Silvia Diaz. I have carried out research in two projects resembling P2P model, although they do not call themselves this way. In People’s Potato, the anti-oppression awareness is seen as a requirement for the coordinator job. In Park Slope Food Coop, which self-organizes 17,000 members, there are committees dealing with discrimination and educating about it.

Forking and dealing with mismanagement

On the surface, the organization pretends to be very open with seemingly non-existent hierarchy but control and top-down approach to power shows up when management’s comfort is challenged. BM’s ways of dealing with conflict situation shows that there is no space for feedback and processing concerns. The organization applies top down thinking and simply uninvites a person that has raised difficult issues. This is benevolent dictatorship at its worst.

Forking is part of peer production system of governance. There is a lot of evidence that BM organization is not only unable to induce cultural change organically but also does not behave in a way that would model democratic process at the top. In the logic of peer production governance, forking is a way to deal with a benevolent dictator.

There have been many initiatives around the world to set regional festivals drawing upon BM principles. Some participants in these events are critical of the festival happening in Nevada and boycott it. Several public announcements of personal boycott – such as Daniel Pinchbeck’s in 2015 – are examples of voting with feet.


BM is not just some people having fun. Dressed with a “feel-good” ideology and a promise of transformation, the organization raises hopes. It is a venue where people may have had their first experience of what they were sold as a community. For some, it may turn out to be a bad experience, which may bring them on the path of cynicism and resignation. It is important to take responsibility for what you are selling and how you are appropriating the words and concepts that may be debased by your actions. For the P2P movement, the lesson offered by BM experience is a mirror to see potential shadows that may come alive on the way. It is important to be aware of the hegemonic culture and its temptations.

Conflict of interest disclaimer

The author has never been to a Burning Man festival. She is not planning to participate in the event in Black Rock City for moral and environmental reasons. This may speak both in favor and against her objectivity.

About the author

Katarzyna Gajewska, PhD, is in health activism, currently focusing on clean water and pesticide-free farming. You can read her book “A School from a Saner Future” (free of charge) here.


About broodjejaap

See ABOUT on TheConnectivist.wordpress.com
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