TV Free Burning Man

Next week as many as 50,000 people will inhabit Black Rock City, a temporary metropole constructed by volunteers for a week of personal expression and community celebration on the barren alkaline plains of a Nevada desert a half-days drive from Silicon Valley. This is Burning Man, a radically participatory event where a lot of people who labor in the digital creative industries work out collaborative utopias that make their way–the theory goes–into the social networking software and platforms they make and ask us to populate with our creative surplus, communal energy, and visually expressive humanity. The techno-culture historian Fred Turner states that Burning Man is a ‘sociotechnical commons’—the cultural infrastructure for the digital media industries of California. This is an attempt to document how and why Burning Man is a “proof of concept,” “beta test,” and practical experiment for the engineering of networked publics.

Here is the example. Burning Man influenced three projects to democratize media production initiated by Al Gore’s user-generated and citizen journalism cable network Current TV. Examples include Current’s Viewer Created Content (VC2) program, their social media website current.com, and TV Free Burning Man. Much like Burning Man, each project is an attempt to draw knowledge from the crowd and transform spectators into active producers. My observation is that Burning Man and Current’s emphasis on user-production business models is hemmed in by the looming pressures of capitalism.
Current is an example of what I call digital social entrepreneurship. It is a new media start-up and TV network deeply guided by both a mission and the market. At origin, so these firms go, the mission takes precedent over the market. As time goes by the market supersedes the mission. Current launched in 2005 with the mission to democratize media production and to provide a platform for others to discuss the future of democracy as well as view the cornucopia of voices that make democracy a dynamic guide for governance. Considering the tenuous state of democracies around the world, the consolidation of media systems by multinationals, the broadbanding of sectors of the globe, and the usability of graphic interfaces and professional grade video recorders the attempt to democratize media in 2005 was timely and prescient.

Current’s first idea about content producers was not to crowdsource content through the VC2 program. They didn’t intend to mine the producing audience for TV-caliber video submissions. Current originally planned to hire 20-30 digital correspondents to travel the world making content. A Current employee related to me how the programming executives, fresh from recent excursions to Burning Man in the early 2000s, used the open participatory model of Burning Man to argue against the exclusivity of the digital correspondent model by asking, “like Burning Man, why wouldn’t we let everybody in who wants to participate?” That spirit carried into the creation the VC2, a project to empower any amateur documentary producer to make content for television. This was the impetus behind the first user-generated television network.

From 2005-2008 Current’s website was www.current.tv. It was a space dedicated to VC2 producers to upload and critique short documentaries. In 2008, upper management decided that this was too elitist and they wanted more traffic so they put together a group of marketers, engineers, and creative executives to envision the new website, current.com. One of those creative executives, Justin Gunn, went into the first meeting to brainstorm current.com and

…hung up a map of Burning Man and I took an astronomy magazine and cut out pictures of stars and star clusters, and galaxies and galaxy clusters, and superclusters really beautiful Hubble imagery and positioned it around the  Burning Man map and I looked at [my colleagues] and said, ‘that is what we are going to make.’ And they said,’ what is that?’ And I said, ‘OK, work with me here. We are going to start with the organizational principle of Burning Man, it is a very light, lean organization. I could be wrong here but there is something like 12 full-time employees around the year everything else is all volunteer labor. But they build the structure, they set the rules, they define the parameters and then they invite anyone, anyone to come and do whatever they want as long as they stay within the confines, abide by the rules, and follow the predetermined parameters—they can do whatever they want.’…You start with an organization principle, a framework, here is how this thing works, here is the lattice, but it is empty, we will do a few key things, and we will invite anybody in as long as they abide by the rules and play within the framework, they can build whatever they want. So the constellations and star clusters were meant to represent constellations of information.

Using celestially graphic metaphors for the digitally engaged public they hoped to network together Gunn sought to inspire his co-workers to make a system as open and empty–and as charged with possibility–as the desert of Black Rock before the gates of Burning Man swing wide.

Using their shared interests in participatory community, self expression, and technology as a platform for dialogue–as well as their proximal offices mere blocks from each other in the Silicon Valley outpost of SoMa in San Francisco– producers at Current and organizers of Burning Man began to scheme about a more dynamic relationship. TV Free Burning Man was a result. Combining professional and amateur field production with a televisual aesthetic of first person documentaries and tone poems, the for profit mass media television firm Current produced content live from the playa for four years, 2005-2008. Considering Burning Man’s imperative to avoid all forms of commercialization and the strict media permitting process to even use a still camera at Burning Man, TV Free Burning Man is a testament to the shared ideals and aesthetics of Current and Burning Man.

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I’ve attempted to link an outrageous event to important technological and economic digital systems used by billions of humans. The goal is to see how internet practices in virtual spaces are coconstituted by actual world practices in material spaces. Savage Mind writer Rex coolly said CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s goal with Facebook is to “scaffold” sociality–strap supportive beams to the human-to-human communication network that presently exists or might not exist without the structured arena. Rex has it right. Social media and social events, like the virtual and the actual, are coconstructed. And yet, something still trumps this transcendence of body-mind duality.

The commercial imperative looms over the users of corporately-made social media just as the end of the week at Black Rock City haunts the freedom-accustomed Burner. In a series of moves, Current has increasingly pulled back from their mission to democratize media production. In a tense economy and with venture capitalist money running thin, Current has moved to capitalize on its major asset, its cable license, through abandoning the VC2 program and relying on traditional professional programming.

Burning Man, on the other hand, remains a valiant, excessive, and privileged materialization of the ideal sociality coded into and by internet culture. Last year around this time I wrote about the emerging tourism industry in Black Rock City, But for now, the Black Rock Foundation does a tremendous job with a skeleton staff, grants art funds to hundreds of artists, and facilitates a relatively commercial free environment. As a non-profit with a seasonal ecstatic event, Burning Man has an easier job than Current of retaining its mission, a for-profit firm in a fiercely competitive TV market responsible for 24 hours of programming 365 days a year.

Openness, liberation, transparency, relativity, democracy, trust, non-privacy, and collaboration are the shared origin myths of the activists and planners of the internet and Burning Man. These ideals are coded into digital architecture in Silicon Valley and other areas around the Black Rock Desert and distributed for free use throughout the world. These digital social systems and event organizations are molded by their missions and driven by the necessity to optimize the growth of their organizations. Every ideal has a shelf life cut short usually by the profit necessity. The compromises to the mission that commercialization requires are the instances to monitor when adjudicating the sustainability of the social entrepreneurship model.

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

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