Why the Blockchain Is Just Like Burning Man

How the ethos of Burning Man compares to the blockchain.

Posted Jun 09, 2018

Source: DepositPhoto

In many ways, blockchains have many similarities to Burning Man, that crazy annual festival in the desert. The founder, Larry Harvey, who recently passed away—blessed be his eternally partying spirit—wrote the festival’s guiding principles in 2004 as guidelines for participants and as a reflection of the community’s ethos and culture. Here is a (humorous) recasting of some of those principles, applied to the blockchain.

Safety Third

One of the core principles of Burning Man is “Safety Third.” It’s usually said in jest, but actually it’s a truism. Burning Man is really fun first, community second, and safety third. If you worry primarily about safety at Burning Man, you will have a lot less fun and engage in a lot less community. Similarly, for blockchain companies, safety in terms of investor protections ranks roughly third after raw innovation and the dream of building the decentralized future. To the blockchain gang, it’s not that big a deal that a few investors lost the shirts, pointing to the fact that all great business revolutions come with bubbles. The railroad, the Internet, they were financed by bubbles, right? So what’s the big deal that a little bubblicious exuberance happens? HODL gang!

Gift Economy vs Token Economy

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional, and does not contemplate an exchange of equal value. The blockchain shifts that a bit and has created the token economy.  It’s a world where a startup, barely out of diapers and armed only with a white paper, can raise $35 million in 30 seconds out of nowhere… without any equity dilution. If you think about it, airdrops are just like gifting, so everybody dance now! However, if you think a bit deeper about tokenization, you’ll realize that it’s really a way to say, “Don’t worry, Mr. Future will be picking up the check.” And in this, lies a vital difference. The gifting economy can only work within the boundaries of a festival. But the token economy intends to change the world as we know it.

Communal Effort

Burning Man is really all about community, cooperation and collaboration. Similarly, the blockchain​ is really about coming together and creating

Pixabay/creative commons
Source: Pixabay/creative commons

something greater than yourself or your company. The use of open source mimics Burning Man’s radical participation ethic, that encourages deeply personal participation. Everyone is invited to contribute code. Everyone is invited to play. Hey, here’s a token for you. A very similar sense of civic responsibility is there too. It’s pretty hard to find a blockchain  that isn’t trying to make a better world.

The Man is not Amused

At Burning Man, the Pershing County Sheriff's Office extensively monitors drug use at the festival. They are often in disguise as burners, and use night vision goggles and utilize underage shills.  Their goal is simple: they have a quota of citations to hand out.  However, honestly, they could care less about what you’re doing, because what they’re after is getting a slice of the money generated at Burning Man, and those citations generate plenty of cash for the local police.  And by the way, neither Nevada nor the Federal Government will recognize your medical marijuana card.

In the blockchain world, the part of the police state is played by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is happily making an example out of anyone considering a token that might hint of securities. The tenor of the SEC’s stance has shifted noticeably, from a hands off approach to ICOs, to outright warnings of an oncoming crackdown. SEC Chair Jay Clayton said on February 6, 2018, before a Senate Committee hearing, “You can call it a coin, but if it functions as a security, it is a security.” At the end of the day, all those subpoenas turn into cash in the pockets of Wall Street lawyers, and frightened blockchain companies will seek shelter at investment banks to guide them through the regulatory gauntlet, for their slice of the ICO pie. At the end of the day, the ICO won’t go anywhere without paying the Wall Street mob its vig.

Playa Names vs Decentralized Identity

A playa name is a way Burners experiment with new identities or ways of being. So burners will leave the normal names behind and suddenly become Sexy Bacon or Amethyst or Bootygirl. Some believe you must be named by someone else; others see no problem in christening themselves. Some stick so religiously to using their playa name that you never find out their real one, while others oscillate between using their real name and their playa name. It’s all part of radical self-expression that illustrates the unique gifts of who you really are, and is offered as a gift to others.

Similarly, in the blockchain world, the Decentralized Identity movement is experimenting with recasting how identity works on the Web… using the blockchain. What we need is true user-centric identity, which is possible only by making the user central to the administration and control of his or her own identity. What this means is that we need to understand the true meaning of digital identity. To accomplish this, we need to create something we call decentralized or self-sovereign identity. Therefore, what we have now is a rare and unique opportunity to fix online identity, in a community powered way, just like Burning Man. 

FutureLab has partnered with GSMIweb conference productions to produce the world’s first virtual conference on decentralized identity. It’s going to be like a summer of love blockchain happening, and featuring many of the leaders of the decentralized identity movement. Because it's free, it's just like gifting at Burning Man. Startup the dubstep and let's party!