Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Blind Men And The Elephant Problem (and children at Burning Man)

Or, the Macro Lens Problem. Call it what you will.

When I mention Burning Man to people, usually they either haven't heard of it, or they think it's a big orgy and drugfest. This article in the San Francisco Chronicle had a good quote from the event's founder, Larry Harvey:

Harvey and others say the festival's reputation for sex and drugs has been overblown.

"It's easy to assume someone painted in polka dots and sporting a leopard tail is on drugs," he says. "Chances are it's a perfectly sober stockbroker having the time of his life."

This is kind of like when I got to high school and danced in the quad and people asked me what kind of drugs I was on. No, no drugs... I had just come from being home schooled my whole life and I had none of their silly inhibitions, none of their peer pressure, and fewer (I won't claim none) of their pointless, arbitrary rules.

Besides this, I think another cause for people's perception of Burning Man is the Blind Men Describing The Elephant Problem. You've probably heard this parable - six blind men are asked to describe an elephant. The first walks up, feels the side of the elephant and thinks it's a wall. The second feels the tusk and thinks it's a spear. The third feels the trunk and thinks it's some kind of snake, and so on with the other three, all thinking completely incompatible things because each is only describing the little piece they saw. I also call this the Macro Lens Problem because of pictures like this. There are better examples out there... but can you tell what that picture is of? It's a rosemary flower with ants on it. But it's so out of proportion and out of context that your mind doesn't make the right association for it.

Likewise, people go to Burning Man and think the whole thing is whatever bit they see first, which is usually people acting weird (which, as the beginning of the post goes, leads to assumptions about drugs), nudity, and probably a lot of loud music. I have a lot to say to counter that, but it's late, and the SF Chronical article gives you a good start. I'm not saying those things aren't there, but that's only a small part, much like ants on a rosemary blossom are only a small part of a garden.

The main matter of that article, though, is children, which brings up another issue. On one hand, it's hard to expect any group to perpetuate that well without having children (seen any Quakers lately?). On the other, it got started with people whose parents hadn't been there, and I really appreciate places that don't feel the need to cater to children. Children and their trappings are everywhere. Everybody has to try to be kid-friendly. It gets a little sickening; if you don't like kids, you really don't want to have to deal with this all the time. It's not even necessarily that everything has to be the stuff kids aren't supposed to do, but having to be aware, and go through, the big barriers put up to keep kids out of such things. I want everything to be out and available, and for it to be up to me to decide which parts I want.

That's why, despite the extreme fakeness, wastefulness, and everything else you can say about it, I actually like Vegas. It neither aims nor pretends to be kid-friendly. If you have kids, take them somewhere else. There are plenty of places that cater to you. This place is for those of you who don't want to deal with kids and all the restrictions that come with them. I was in Vegas four months ago and saw a bunch of shows. Some were the kind they'd let kids into; others weren't. But I didn't have to think about it. I didn't have to go to some special, seedy part of town if some interesting show (like the Cirque du Soleil show Zumanity) happened to involve nudity along with their acrobatics or costumes or music or whatever else might be interesting about them. It's all out in the open, it's unashamed, and... you know what? It seems perfectly clean and wholesome this way. Nudity only seems weird when you put it behind closed doors, with big imposing men checking your ID, and talk about it like it's a disease. And that's what people always want to do when you have to cater to children. At least in America.

Likewise, I don't want to see Burning Man pick up a bunch of restrictions due to having kids come. Let's at least have a few places in the world where everybody has to take care of themselves, and everybody can take care of themselves. The event will keep going. It's more important that it not get diluted by getting too big and too... ordinary.



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