Burning Man can do good for society by challenging more artists to turn their eye on Artificial Intelligence and shape the technology’s future.
By Xische Editorial, August 28, 2018
The Weimar Republic should be a popular topic of discussion for our troubled times. The interwar period in Germany from 1919 to 1933 was a marked by intellectual curiosity, social transformation, and political stagnation. With populism on the rise in Europe and modern technology transforming the fabric of society, artistic output flourished. Artists and writers attempted to make sense of the profound changes taking place around them through their work. Could Burning Man, the annual art and music festival in the Nevada desert, spur similar struggles for contemporary society?
Before addressing this question, we must consider Weimar’s impact on society. Artistic and cultural production thrived and served a vital function in turbulent German society. Artists wrestled with the loss of World War I as writers grappled with the role of technological advancement in European society. From the playwright Bertolt Brecht to Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school of design, creatives used the medium of art to explain change and its effect on society.
It is no wonder the Weimar period has found relevance for the contemporary moment. We find ourselves in a seemingly bleak moment in history: Populism is on the rise from Hungary to the United States, while rapid technological advancement is changing our daily lives, our relationships, and even the way we read. While there is an active intellectual debate unfolding around these issues, there is room for more. Many of us feel listless about the rapid social developments unfolding around the world or struggle to understand the changes afoot, put off by jargon and hyperbolic predictions. Art is the missing piece that translates abstract concepts into mediums that allow us to confront, examine, and discuss our turbulent reality.
This is where Burning Man comes into the picture. What began 32 years ago as a summer solstice ritual by a group of 35 friends from San Francisco, Burning Man has grown into an annual event that draws tens of thousands of people from around the world. The festival was intended to explore radical self-expression in everything from commerce (there is a barter system for the exchange of goods on site) to self-reliance (everything must be brought to the festival - nothing is for sale). Festival organizers have remarked that Burning Man was even an attempt to create a “temporary civilization” in order to better understand and critique how society operates.
The festival's artistic theme this year is “I, Robot”. Based on the pioneering science fiction of Isaac Asimov, “I, Robot” explores how artificial intelligence (AI) permeates our lives and what these technological advancements mean for human ethics. "It is no wonder that AI is starting to look all-powerful and inevitable," Burning Man's press release noted. "So-called creative content is increasingly hackwork; indistinguishable from the output of algorithms programmed to imitate prose, poetry, and pop songs. It’s not so much that robots are getting closer to human as that we are lowering our standards of comparison. Such compromises make us dumber and lazier – putting our trust in algorithms without questioning their assumptions."
This is a welcome direction for Burning Man. The festival’s popularity has transformed the event from a mere spectacle in the desert to an experience that captures genuine international attention. In recent years, Burning Man has even been criticized for the number of Silicon Valley elites who descend on the desert party in private jets with their own private chefs and luxury accommodation. Regardless of the critiques, Burning Man has an indisputable place in contemporary culture and should thus use its platform to grapple with the critical challenges facing society. For many, the primary challenge we face today is the role of technology, specifically, AI.
The AI debate has been shaped by technology companies themselves and writers who – directly or indirectly – depend on social media platforms for their livelihoods. Companies like Facebook have radically transformed how journalism operates and, as such, many leading AI pundits depend on social media exposure for income. What passes for the public discourse on AI today is stuck in a feedback loop. The AI debate needs the voice of the artist to provide fresh perspectives that grapple with the complexities we all face. In Weimar, artists dealt with societal problems because they were too large to avoid and ignore. Today, that voice is not being heard - at least not loudly enough. It is too easy today to leave the AI debate to technologists and futurists while ignoring its societal implications.
Burning Man will not be able to jolt the art world into a new relationship with technology. But, as a major international event focused on how society operates and where it can be improved, it is a good place to start a new conversation. Just as creatives played a critical role in understanding the historic changes of Weimar Germany, so too should contemporary creatives at Burning Man or anywhere else serve a similar function.
Suffice to say, history is a cruel guide for these matters. When the Nazis came to power, one of their first acts was to condemn the art of Weimar as degenerate. Then again, as the internet has proven, once an idea is voiced, it is difficult to silence it. Burning Man could transform into a much more impactful event than perhaps even its organizers fully comprehend. The results will be profound and, frankly, such a shift is overdue.