If you looked hard enough, for years now there have been options for communicating with the outside world at Burning Man via internet or satellite phone. (Not to mention via the exaggeratedly disgruntled Black Rock City Post Office…)
For as long as 802.11 has existed, some geeks have enjoyed the challenge of building a public WiFi network in the desert — it is very literally an expression of their art. I first ran across WiFi on the playa in 2003, and in 2006 I was able to photo-blog the construction progress of the Conexus Cathedral, often using a porta-potty as an office near one of the few open WiFi connections to find shelter from the wind, sun, and dust.
But most Black Rock City citizens remained blissfully unaware of the ever increasing availability of WiFi in the city.
Voice connections have always been even harder to find. A few years ago I ran across confused late-night party people lined up at a phone booth in the open desert. I overheard conversations like this — “wow, this thing actually dialed! Oh, hi mom…. Yeah, I’m at Burning Man…. I didn’t think this phone booth was real…. Oh, it is 4AM?!? Sorry!”
Bizarre world-bending installation art at its finest.
But cell phone service on the playa?!? No way. It has always seemed like Black Rock City would be the last place on earth the get cell coverage. Sure, some burners have been experimenting with developing open source GSM software that is part of a project to bring cheaper mobile phone service to villages in remote parts of the developing world, but their on-playa network in 2008 only accidentally allowed a few dozen outbound calls to go through. That connectivity was a bug, not a feature.
But this year…. AT&T and Verizon (with no cooperation from Burning Man itself) actually set up a temporary wind and solar powered cell tower on some leased land just off the playa. Connectivity, for better or for worse, had come at last to Black Rock City.
Fittingly – this year’s Burning Man theme: “Evolution”
Many were up in arms about how the arrival of cell phone service might change Burning Man. We even received a reply to a tweet telling us to ‘put the phone down!’. There were threats of protests, and some anticipation of people walking down the streets of Black Rock City shouting out ‘Can you hear me now?’. However, by and large, cell phone use was kept close to home, and mostly when away from camp cell phones were not particularly noticeable.
Particularly after the city gates opened and the population swelled, availability of a line out became more scarce. Five bars isn’t very useful when there are 40,000 people trying to share a reported outgoing capacity of just 40 simultaneous calls. We were however able to check e-mail just enough to not feel completely negligent of our clients. As full time traveling technomads, there really isn’t much difference for us between ‘real life’ and ‘vacation’ anyway.
Having some connectivity was also invaluable in organizing a camp of 70 nomads, half of whom were going to camp at a location that we land grabbed just as the gates open, and which we needed to try and get the word out as to where. There were also plenty of last minute logistics and challenges to handle – and while you can just trust in playa magic to work everything out, it’s awfully nice to hear a friendly voice on the line to help figure out the details.
And having some cellular service helped folks in emergency situations, such as a fellow Camp Nomadian receiving word of a family emergency and being able to coordinate an early departure.
A side effect of so much connectivity at Burning Man was much more information flowing out to the world in a streaming fashion. This year, those tracking Burning Man from their computers at home likely saw and heard about more things at Burning Man than those of us actually there. Catching up with my mom yesterday, she was telling us all about the art projects and news she saw posted during the week – she had seen more of the playa art projects than we had!
Watching Burning Man from afar is no where close to actually being there. So much of Burning Man just simply can’t be relayed outside of Black Rock City. It’s about being there. It’s about enduring white outs, wind storms and heat with your community. It’s about the emotional highs and lows. It’s about the amazing connections you make. It’s about actually interacting with the art, not just viewing it. It’s about conversing with an artist late at night about his vision, his challenges and his passion. It’s about being in the crowd at the Temple Burn and really feeling the release of so much emotions.
It’s about the life changing experiences and transformations.
And it’s about watching the most amazing full moon rise on the horizon with burn platforms dancing in the distance and fireworks crackling in the sky, while sipping fantastic home brew with new friends.
More than anywhere else on earth, to understand it, you just have to be there.