Dust, costumes, weirdness and science: Burning Man is back

The annual Burning Man bacchanal in the Nevada desert returns on Sunday after a two-year COVID-19 hiatus — this time with a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducting a science experiment with implications for online social media.

Why is it important: The arrival of around 80,000 fancifully costumed revelers at a makeshift encampment called Black Rock City marks some kind of a reassuring but ironic return to normal.

  • And the addition of a hard science project with real-world relevance underscores the event’s role as a significant cultural phenomenon.

Driving the news: As the “Burners” arrive in Black Rock City (near Reno), MIT Media Lab researchers will distribute 600 small containers that look like Altoids boxes.

  • Their goal is for people to pass them around and use the pen and paper inside to note where and when they received the item, as well as where they are camping.
  • “The idea is to map the networks of cooperation and serendipity in Burning Man,” said Ziv Epstein, who holds a Ph.D. student conducting the experiment.
  • Using the number of boxes that return to the MIT team after the week-long event, they will “map the Burning Man gift economy”, where people operate on a donation system (and pay $575 the ticket for the privilege).

“What do networks do? and ecosystems of Burning Man look like?” asks Epstein, who is present with six colleagues. “They’re not set up to be efficient, are they? It’s not like optimal routing from A to B that maybe happens more in the default world.”

One of the rectangular boxes that a team of scientists from MIT will distribute at Burning Man. Photo courtesy of Ziv G. Epstein

Epstein’s Media Lab Research Group – called Human Dynamics – is “about understanding human behavior through the lens of big data,” he told Axios.

  • This includes “decision making and mobility” as studied “by computational methods such as machine learning”.
  • “As these presents move through Black Rock City, we collect this data on how they moved,” he said. “The end goal here is a map of the flow of information and gifts through Burning Man.”
  • The results of the experiment – called the Black Rock Atlas Project – “could actually inform the design of social media and other kinds of things,” he said.

Epstein and his fellow “Burning Nerds” will spend the week at a science-themed camp, where they will give TED-style talks about their research inside a huge geodesic dome.

  • “People will come by chance from the desert and completely randomly stumble upon this conversation, this conversation, about – I don’t know, geometry or DNA or space plants,” Epstein said.
  • Like the event itself, the talks are a juxtaposition of high spirits and survivalism: “It’s a very tough environment, and staying alive and hydrated is a big part of that.”

The big picture: The 36-year-old festival – where people create fantastic works of art and ride bikes adorned with LED lights – is a sociologist’s delight.

  • Burning Man organizers have a long history of supporting academia and maintaining a listing scientific articles drawn from the event.
  • The most important was a published study in Nature Communication in May which sought to gauge the “transcendence” of the experience.

    • The researchers calibrated the ability of mass gatherings to generate feelings of “collective effervescence”, a term coined by French sociologist Emile Durkheim.
    • They found that “63.2% of participants said they were at least ‘somewhat’ transformed, and 19.5% said they were ‘absolutely’ transformed”.

The backstory: Epstein and his colleagues first attended Burning Man in 2018, when they brought 15 poster-tube-sized ‘ships’, each with someone’s name and photo inside. inside – to see if the community could pass the tube on to its owner.

  • It didn’t quite work out, so this time they started from scratch.
  • “You want to do something scientific and rigorous and that gives you good data to make inferences,” Epstein said. “On the other hand, especially at Burning Man, if it’s boring and not very fun, people won’t participate.”

Between the lines: They’re not the only ones trying to blend art and science – and escape everyday realities – at Burning Man.

  • Ryan Sobel, a Denver financial advisor attending for the first time, is among a group of 27 people who got approval for a new camp called “Consensual Abduction.”
  • They’ll build a fire pit, a “wormhole” for guests, and a dance floor for late-night raves.
  • For the event, Sobel, the group’s bartender, learned how to make fluorescent cocktails based on Vitamin B2. “We’re going to have glow drinks and flashlights,” he said. “It’s gonna be fun.”

The bottom line: The pent-up demand for brotherhood, sisterhood, and debauchery should make this year’s Burning Man particularly creative and memorable.

  • “It will be a very interesting time,” Epstein said. “As with everything in the pandemic, cultural traditions kind of dry out and then start up again.”

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