The Black Rock City lecture circuit

September 06, 2022

If you can make it past Burning Man’s whiteouts, baking heat, throngs of veering bicyclists, dudes with megaphones advertising a good time (usually involving food or drinks), eerily synchronized drone swarms in the sky, and the sheer diversity of distractions of every imaginable variety, then you will find a thriving intellectual space populated by people who will sincerely tell you that they are trying to build a better future—and it won’t sound like someone’s trying to sell you something.

Black Rock City tends to attract people who are very interested in personal freedoms in a particularly communalistic setting. It’s inspiring to talk to people on, say, Temple build crew, who left their comfortable lives behind for a month doing hard labor in the hot desert because they believed in the project. You’ll keep running into highly competent people who want to work on something they believe in (and party hard afterwards).

There are a bunch of threads that I followed throughout the week that I’ll be decompressing on here, and in future posts.

I think it’s fair to say Black Rock City is, while it exists, the world’s capital city of psychedelics. There’s an old adage that when the Rangers were formed in the ’90s, the unofficial measure of a good Ranger was their ability to fix an engine in a dust storm while tripping on acid. Arguably, the city is also the world capital of drug reform. Across town, there were talks from people who have been working for decades to medicalize MDMA (which is very likely to happen in 2024, and has already been classified as a breakthrough therapy by the FDA) and talks by the people who are responsible for Oregon building the US’ first regulatory framework for psilocybin.

Unsurprisingly, there are a large contingent of people at Burning Man who are interested in being able to do what they want with the technology they own (and plenty also interested in doing what they want with technology they do not own). There are people here working to defang the DMCA, hardware hackers building provably secure devices, and people thinking about how to demonopolize Big Tech.

I also went to a bunch of talks and met lots of people working on biosciences research, safety in artificial intelligence, climate change mitigation, off-grid living, how to live a better life, and other, more difficult-to-classify talks.

Maybe Black Rock City is like a fashion runway version of our future, where we can take our ideas about what we want it to be and crank them up to 11. Maybe it’s somewhere the old anarchist vision of doing something as an end in itself, and only getting others to join you by showing them why it is good, can thrive; somewhere the shallow veneer of professionalism can disappear. Because why would you go to Burning Man and not be exactly the person who you’d like to be?

a blog by Rowan Copley about fantasy data systems, unhelpful simulations, echoes from the future, and the strange ways that the digital world manifests in the real