During a Q&A session following his keynote address at the company's I/O developers conference in San Francisco last week, Google CEO Larry Page answered a question about how to increase positivity and collaboration within the tech world by laying out an interesting vision: a Burning Man-style event for tech.
We haven't built mechanisms to allow experimentation. There are many, many exciting and important things you...just can't do because they're illegal or they're not allowed by regulation. That makes sense because we don't want our world to change too fast, but maybe we should set aside a small part of the word [where these things can happen].
I like going to Burning Man for example; I'm sure many of you have been. That's an environment where people can try out different things, but not everybody has to go. I think that's a great thing too. I think, as technologists, we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out what's the effect on society, what's the effect on people, without having to deploy it into the normal world. People who like those kinds of things can go out and experience that. We don't have mechanisms for that.
Using the example of Google's 2004 IPO, Page added that companies like Google often have to contend with half-century old regulations that have become outdated as the rate of technological change rockets into the future.
That Page would use Burning Man, a massive art festival held annually in the Nevada desert (where money is banned, drugs are rampant and attendees have been known to eat 12-course meals while seated on the back of a giant mechanical scorpion), as an exemplar of what he would like to see the tech community embrace isn't surprising--Google and Burning Man have been intertwined virtually since the company's inception.
In fact, one of the first-ever Google doodles actually included the Burning Man logo and was meant as a sly way of letting users know that the company's founders, and large portion of its staff, would be out in the desert for the week.
According to a 2009 academic study on the link between Google and Burning Man published in the journal New Media & Society, author Fred Turner noted that, in recent years, "Google employees have attended company parties in Burning Man, derived costumes, maintained internal email lists devoted to the festival and in 2007, even produced a 37-minute online video on how to cook during the event."
"As once, 100 years ago, churches translated Max Weber’s protestant ethic into a lived experience for congregations of industrial workers," writes Turner, explaining Burning Man's pull for so many of the Bay Area's tech boosters, "Burning Man transforms the ideals and social structures of bohemian art worlds, their very particular ways of being 'creative', into psychological, social and material resources for the workers of a new, supremely fluid world of post-industrial information work."
While Page's idea conjures images of the Island of Dr. Moreau or Bioshock's underwater Randian dystopia, Silicon Valley luminaries looking to create a safe space to experiment away from the government's intrusive eye has long been one of the most ambitious expressions of the region's techo-libratarian impulse.
Recently, people like PayPal founder Peter Thiel have started giving money to groups such as the Seasteading Institute aiming to create an independent offshore colony where government intrusion would be virtually non-existent.