PoSR and Burning Man

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Burning Man as PoSR: a Dynamic Cultural Structure
Sally A. Applin and Michael D. Fischer
September 8, 2013

The culture of Burning Man can't easily be generalized because Burning Man is a changing cultural structure. Every year, there are different experiences, different burns,  different dynamics, and different people at Burning Man, and therefore the cultural dynamic of the event changes every year and from year to year. The broad cultural event of Burning Man may have a year-to-year framework, canonical knowledge and rituals for its physical persistence and like any group that large with many members, the only way to ensure some form of cultural continuity is to distill principles and transmit them, which Larry Harvey (Burning Man founder) did when he wrote the Ten Principles of Burning Man in 2004 as a guideline for regional events that is posted on the Burning Man website under the First-Timer's guide. That's just a tiny part of the cultural guidelines that are documented. There are lists of how tickets work, what to wear, take, how to prepare campsites, whether or not you can take video (you can't), what your theme camps should include (and not), and on and on. Burning Man may not have rules but it has strong guidelines that help to preserve its cultural definition while simultaneously keeping people safe.

That said, people do say that the culture changes. That it wasn't how it used to be. That "when they opened up the tickets to others" the dynamics changed. In 2013, people talked a lot about the presence of Silicon Valley's elite, helicoptering in and infusing their culture onto the event. Or even that there is more technology in the form of Internet and computers there than ever was there before and that that somehow is a negative thing.

What people may be missing when they say things like that last bit, is what the technology people are doing at Burning Man. If part of what Burning Man offers, is a blank desert 'canvas backdrop' to create and make art and music and things and experiences, people are going to bring the tools they know to use to make art and music and things and experiences. Coders are going to bring code, tech is going to bring tech, because that is what they do and that is where their creativity and creative tools are.

This is what we mean by a changing cultural structure. It makes sense that the tech people would be starting to show up now with more tools. We've tipped--we're in Forced Compliance now (Applin and Fischer 2011). We need to use the Internet for most things (like it or not) and there are people, whose favored mode of creative expression are through digital tools.

PolySocial Reality (PoSR) is a framework that can be used to describe the multiple layers of networks arising from intercommunications between people, people and machines and machines to machines, and how the structure and layering of those relationships change over time and examine how information flows across these. While PoSR is a framework for describing the network structure and dynamics emerging from these relationships, there are individual separate participant centric viewpoints on PoSR with each communication attempt--and the structure of PoSR overall changes as individuals adapt and adapt to the dynamics changing in the communication from their POV.

This is also true for Burning Man, which has a PoSR-like structure and dynamics. Each year, Burning Man is made up of a collection of people who come together at a particular time in a particular place, interact within existing groups (and networks) and across others. The culture of the event is derived from the composite of culture of these groups for that Burn. To say that each year is the same, after 20+ years of an event, isn't exactly accurate.  Culture is dynamic and changes through processes like this, and thus each instance of Burning Man is an instantiation of Burning Man, as well as an instantiation of PoSR networks within an overall structure of relationships that form and dissolve in that place, only to pop-up in a distributed fashion the rest of the year as the event's participants migrate to other parts of the world and interact with other surfaces of a broader PoSR network.

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