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08.09.2015

11:55 Uhr

Valley Voice

Sex, drugs and Hölderlin

VonBritta Weddeling

You have to go to Burning Man to understand Silicon Valley. During the crazy happening in the desert you can experience so much more than music, art and getting high – like an unexpected German angle.

Every Tuesday, Handelsblatt technology reporter Britta Weddeling writes about the trends and oddities of Silicon Valley from a German perspective.

The Voice of the Valley

Every Tuesday, Handelsblatt technology reporter Britta Weddeling writes about the trends and oddities of Silicon Valley from a German perspective.

Exodus from Black Rock City. Roughly 70.000 citizens of Burning Man are heading back now to the “default world”. They look dusty and torn, but very much awake with their eyes lit by a wild power that only the true adventurer knows by heart.
The only thing worse than going to Burning Man is not going to Burning Man. That applies not only because of the life-changing moments people experience in this temporary city, a marvelous space where everything seems possible. In fact, you have to set a foot on this largest playground on planet earth, to understand what Silicon Valley is about.

Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin have been coming to Burning Man for a decade. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jeff Bezos, Chief executive of Amazon, or Tesla’s Elon Musk kissed the dust as did Drew Houston, founder of Dropbox and representative of Silicon Valley’s next generation billionaires.

The first Google doodle was an homage to “The Man”, the huge wooden sculpture in the center that has to burn in the end. According to legend, engineers developed Google Maps’ first prototype at Burning Man between costumes and consume and they also turned an early Tesla car to scrap metal.

Burning Man, this massive, exorbitant excess in the desert, questions society’s certainties and breaks rules permanently, like Silicon Valley with its disrupting business models. Even organized and sharply focused people have to let go for a while. All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Cell phones are useless in the middle of nowhere, internet reception only limited, money is banned. “Burners” have to be creative to survive. They share food, car, bike and home. Airbnb, Uber and Lyft took these ideas to start billion dollar businesses.

Burning Man, that’s the largest social experiment ever. The second day in the dirt of porta-potties, without running water, nobody really cares about norms and class barriers. Since everybody wears a costume it’s hard to tell who somebody is or what brand his pants are from – if there are pants at all.

Black Rock City, that’s a place of outrageous parties and sexual self-expression. It’s an atmosphere that’s arty and indestructible, even now that rich tech-kids flood the event. It might be one last areal of freedom, a grotesque alternative counter-world against political correctness and the American terror of virtue and hygiene.

And if you want you can also find a German angle. Burners spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to build “The Man”, a 18 meter high sculpture of wood, just to burn it in the end. Nothing lasts forever, they are convinced, every moment has value. There might be something else, coming out of the ashes.

You might say that’s just the crazy hippie talking. But long time before Larry Harvey founded Burning Man on Baker Beach in San Francisco, another guy had similar thoughts. It was Friedrich Hölderlin, a major German poet during the time of Romanticism. He writes in one of essay’s “Becoming in Dissolution”, that an idea has to crash and to die to start something new.

His friend the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel took the concept as a leading principle for his book “The Phenomenology of Spirit”, the begin of modern dialectics. Hegel would have liked Burning Man. He was also known for his alcoholic excess.

So when people ask you why the hell you go to Burning Man and you don’t want to say that it is just for the crazy sexy cool time, you can now say: I go camping. There might be one or two German poets around.

Es gibt auch eine deutsche Version dieser Kolumne.

Britta Weddeling is a technology journalist with Handelsblatt, Germany's #1 business daily, and Wired, based in San Francisco. She is author of a weekly English tech column called "Valley Voice" and contributes every week to a podcast at a major German radio station (Deutschlandradio,"Was mit Medien").

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