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


Last night I (@anthropunk) had a discussion with @interdome on Twitter. I'll post it at the end of this piece when I've gathered it, but what I think he was pondering was that non-academic press have a hard time with capturing the Burning Man culture and write that they have captured the culture when they have only partially done so, or captured one aspect of it. He expressed frustration that only single aspects of the culture were captured and written about--even by scholars.

In offering that scholars look at things through their particular lenses, the reply was also that it was a single view and not an integrated perspective. Discussion continued about why that might be so.

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 last year "when they opened up the tickets to others" the dynamics changed. This year people talked a lot about the presence of Silicon Valley's elite, helicoptering in and infusing their culture onto the event.

This is what I mean by a changing cultural structure.

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.