I regret to inform you that in the midst of this irredeemable year we will also not be spared the indignities of a virtual Burning Man. In fact, the spectacle is less easy to ignore than ever, given that its 70,000 congregants have wisely not been herded into the Nevada desert but are instead very much among us, camping out in their bedrooms and participating in virtual hugs, possibly in the city or town where you live. The festival kicked off over the weekend and ends Sunday.
The week-long festivity, which began as a bohemian bacchanalia and has since morphed into a tech industry feeding frenzy beloved by Elon Musk and Ivanka Trump, has found a new form in what is being referred to as the “Multiverse,” a digital portal where attendees can click around a virtual campsite. NPR reports that people can participate in the Multiverse using a webcam or a virtual-reality headset. Activities include DJ dance parties, art classes, and a “Zoom Gratitude Circle” where burners can participate in that group hug. The New York Times reports there’s also digital artwork and “an island of spiritual contemplation” known as the Temple. There are chat rooms.
Not everything is happening on screens, though. Ed Cook, who helped create a Burning Man event called Sparkleverse, told NPR that some festival attendees are dressing up in elaborate costumes and erecting tents in their homes. Cook says that “getting up and dancing in front of your screen, bothering to put on a costume, jumping around, these things are extraordinarily powerful in terms of taking you into new realms of experience.” As always the festival will end with the burning of a giant man in effigy, only this year it will be livestreamed. Those playing along at home are encouraged to do similar burns in their backyards or light candles, in what’s being called “a worldwide, around-the-clock, build-and-burn-your-own-man extravaganza!”
The Times asks in its recent op-ed about Burning Man going online, “Can something experienced via computer screen, cell phone or VR headset ever be life-changing?” The answer — for those without any social media accounts or recourse to email — is clearly “yes.” Usually, though, these “experiences” just bum you out.