Dust, costumes, weirdness – and science: Burning Man is back

The annual Burning Man bacchanal in the Nevada desert returns Sunday after a two-year COVID-19 hiatus — this time with a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers conducting a science experiment with implications for online social networks.

Why it matters: The arrival of some 80,000 outlandishly costumed revelers at a makeshift camp called Black Rock City marks some a sort of reassuring but ironic return to normality.

  • And the addition of a hard science project with real-world relevance underscores the event’s role as a meaningful cultural phenomenon.

News Direction: As the Burners arrive in Black Rock City (near Reno), MIT Media Lab researchers will distribute 600 tiny ships that look like Altoids cans.

  • Their purpose is for people to go through them and use the pen and paper inside to record where and when they got the item, as well as where they are camping.
  • “The idea is to map out networks of cooperation and tranquility at Burning Man,” said Ziv Epstein, a Ph.D. student conducting the experiment.
  • Using whatever boxes are returned to the MIT team after the week-long event, they will “map the Burning Man gift economy,” where people operate on the barter system (and pay $575 a ticket for the privilege).

“What do networks do? and Burning Man ecosystems look like?” asks Epstein, who is attending with six colleagues. “They’re not set up for efficiency, are they? It’s not like the optimal path from A to B that probably happens more in the default world.”

One of the rectangular boxes that a team of MIT scientists will distribute at Burning Man. Photo courtesy of Ziv G. Epstein

Epstein’s Media Lab Research Group — called Human Dynamics — is “all about understanding human behavior through the lens of big data,” he tells Axios.

  • This includes “decision-making and mobility” as studied “through computational methods such as machine learning.”
  • “As these gifts are moving through Black Rock City, we’re collecting this data on how they’ve moved,” he said. “The ultimate goal here is to map the flow of information and gifts through Burning Man.”
  • Findings from the experiment — called the Black Rock Atlas Project — “could actually inform the design of social networks and other kinds of things,” he said.

Epstein and his fellow “Burning Nerds” will spend the week at a science-themed camp where they will give TED-style talks about their research in a massive geodesic dome.

  • “People will just stumble out of the desert and stumble completely randomly into this conversation, this conversation, about — I don’t know, geometry or DNA or space plants,” Epstein said.
  • Like the event itself, the talks are a juxtaposition of grit and survival: “It’s a very harsh environment and staying alive and hydrated is a big part of that.”

The big picture: The 36-year-old festival – where people create fantastic artwork and ride bikes decked out in LED lights – is a sociologist’s delight.

  • Burning Man organizers have long supported academia and maintain a list of scientific papers produced by the event.
  • The most notable was a study published in Nature Communications in May that sought to assess the “overcoming” of the experience.

    • The researchers calibrated the ability of mass gatherings to generate feelings of “collective spirits,” a term coined by French sociologist Emile Durkheim.
    • They found that “63.2% of participants reported being at least ‘somewhat’ transformed and 19.5% said they were ‘absolutely’ transformed.”

Back story: Epstein and his colleagues first attended Burning Man in 2018, when they brought 15 poster tube-sized “containers” — each with someone’s name and photo inside — to see if the community could pass the tube on to the owner. his.

  • That didn’t work, so this time they started over.
  • “You want to do something that is scientific and rigorous and gives you good data to draw conclusions from,” Epstein said. “On the other hand, especially at Burning Man, if it’s boring and not a lot of fun, people won’t participate.”

Between the lines: They’re not the only ones trying to blend art and science—and escape everyday realities—at Burning Man.

  • Ryan Sobel, a financial advisor from Denver who is attending for the first time, is part of a group of 27 people who received approval for a new camp called Consensual Kidnapping.
  • They’ll build a fire pit, a “wormhole” where guests can slide down, and a dance floor to rave all night long.
  • For the event, Sobel, the group’s bartender, learned how to make fluorescent cocktails using vitamin B2. “We’re going to have sparkling drinks and flashlights,” he said. “This is going to be fun.”

Ultimately: The pent-up demand for brotherhood, camaraderie and debauchery will likely make this year’s Burning Man particularly creative and memorable.

  • “It’s going to be a very interesting time,” Epstein said. “As with everything in a pandemic, cultural traditions dry up and then start over again.”

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