Philip E. Auerswald


On his book The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History

Cover Interview of October 01, 2017

A close-up

I’d be delighted if a “just browsing” reader were to gravitate toward the last third of the book, because that’s really where I explore the implications of the story for humanity’s present and near future.

One section that’s key to the narrative but that may—at first—seem incongruous in a book titled The Code Economy is the one about Burning Man in chapter 14, which is titled “Purpose: The Promised Sand.”

Burning Man is an annual gathering that draws about 70,000 people to the Nevada desert to create, and then live within, a temporary city—Black Rock City. Rather than a “festival” in any standard sense of the word, Burning Man is an ongoing social experiment in which a petri dish the size of downtown San Francisco is treated with a microbial growth medium that comes in the form of 10 principles and a semicircular urban plan. An image of Black Rock City from space, September, 2011. (Image taken from the TerraSAR-X satellite and published under a Creative Commons license.)

The Promised Sand is, obviously, a play on words, juxtaposing the arid emptiness in which Burning Man occurs every year with the Biblical notion of “The Promised Land” as a place of glorious abundance. And, to be clear, the setting for Burning Man—the Black Rock Desert where Burning occurs every year—is indeed a vast emptiness.

What brings Black Rock City to life is not material abundance but rather an all-pervasive culture of participation. If Burning Man has a rule, it is “no spectators.” As Larry Harvey, the founder of Burning Man, says of the resources participants transport, at great cost and difficulty, to the Nevada desert: “The crucial question is what happens when they cross the city boundaries and decide what to do with those resources. The meaning isn’t stamped into the goods at the factory or something. The meaning derives from what they do with those goods and how they use those goods to connect with everybody here. That’s the curious nature of the economy at Burning Man.” The Temple, Black Rock City, 2014. (Photo by author.)

Yet—even while properly accounting for the singular nature of Black Rock City’s participatory culture—this aspect of the city generalizes. All cities are fed with resources from the outside, and meaning derives from what citizens do with those goods they draw from the outside— including how they use those goods to connect with others around them.

“I’ve always been very interested in scenes, particularly avant-garde scenes,” said Harvey when we spoke at Black Rock City in September 2015. Avant-garde scenes, he said, act as “a crossroads for people doing radical things seeming unrelated to one another. People start to meet one another, and bounce off one another, and share ideas with one another. That could be the Beats in America. That could be the Bloomsbury Group in London. It could be older scenes even before that, around folks going back since forever. We are that.” Harvey then paused, not for effect but for reflection. “Except we’re the first organization, I believe, that turned a Bohemian scene into a city,” he continued. “Usually scenes don’t do that.”