I knew I'd love the art, and indeed, it was mind-blowing to see (and interact with) it in person rather than just through photographs and videos, as I had in previous years. The general consensus seemed to be that there weren't as many really great art pieces but that there were more art cars this year than previously. But even so, this was my favorite part.
I was surprised (though perhaps I shouldn't have been, given all that I've heard) at the friendliness and openness of some of the people there: I have noticed that the friendliness that I grew up with and used to take for granted in Salt Lake City is often either absent or viewed with suspicion in the Bay Area, and I do miss it (though there are some reasons for it -- such as the cultural and religious homogeneity -- that I'm happy to be away from). I especially enjoyed interacting with camp-mates; even though a few members of the camp said that the group seemed less cohesive than in previous years, I really enjoyed getting to know such a diverse but consistently interesting group.
Finally, throughout my week at Burning Man, I was thinking about the interviews I did last spring on Second Life and on my research interests in the role of fantasy worlds in our lives more generally. Many at Burning Man, like in Second Life, seemed to like that there is some separation between that fantasy world and the "real" world. (Other online spaces, like Facebook, are much more contiguous with everyday life -- "online" is hardly monolithic.) And Burning Man, like Second Life and like the MUDs and MOOs so heavily researched in the 1990s, largely appeals to a fringe community (call them "early adopters" if you will, though the label isn't accurate). However, both also feel the stresses of becoming more mainstream, and there is discussion among "old-timers" about the changes. Both also reflect a certain idealization, and distortion, of societal norms and ideals. The "freedom" to create your own avatar in Second Life means you have the freedom to make her/him conform perfectly to social ideals (and the ostracism for "choosing" not to do so is surprisingly vehement and ubiquitous). The "freedom" at Burning Man to express sexuality or other aspects of one's personality generally not done elsewhere means that, for some, sexual stereotypes can be realized even more fully and publicly. There are other spaces, both online and off, that exhibit some of these characteristics, but I was especially struck with the similarities between these two. I'll be following up on the Second Life interviews soon, so expect more musings in that direction.
Overall, Burning Man felt very familiar. (I had even camped in the area before with parts of my mom's family, who are also known for their "radical self-expression," though not so much in technological terms. They were on my mind throughout the week.)
These last three weeks (the week-long Values in Design research workshop, the week of backpacking, and then Burning Man), though at times socially or emotionally exhausting, ultimately gave me the time, space, and mental quietness to reconsider my current direction in research and in life. I dragged my feet through the end of the OLPC research project because I had lost my sense of purpose in it, and for me, having a strong idea of why I'm doing what I'm doing, and why it's important to the world, is crucial for keeping my motivation. Now that I've finished up a solid first draft of the OLPC work and passed my Major Project, I'm at a good place to step back, consider my path, and make sure that who I am (and who I want to be) is clear in it. That's my goal for the next part of my life. In the last year and a half of my life (maybe even longer), I had lost my sense of who I was an what was important to me, and I had somehow lost faith in myself to be able to figure it out. But that is so far from the person I've always wanted to be, and the person I know I can be -- and I need to make sure to have enough time, space, and mental quietness in my day-to-day life to not lose myself again. Wish me luck.