The Burning Mind Project seeks:
To operationalize the gift economy in higher education through the systematic application of the Ten Principles of Burning Man
This section of the site will describe each of the principles and what it means in the context of higher education. Early on in the project, we categorized and ranked the principles into two groups of five which we refer to as foundational principles and operational principles. The foundational principles, act as antecedents (or conditions that give rise to) the effective demonstration of shared values in practice. The operational principles are expressed when community members gather together to learn and to produce art, artifacts, knowledge, and experiences.
Ranking the Principles
How did we rank the principles? We asked ourselves the question: are some of the principles more important than others? We quickly identified scenarios when the principles may be in conflict. For example, it is conceivable that an act of radical self-expression would violate the principle of radical inclusion, or leaving no trace. Self-expression should clearly not include expressions of racism, nor actions that cause permanent harm to the environment. In short, yes, some principles are more important.
Having established that some principles must indeed supersede others, we began a pairwise comparison of the principles asking: is principle X more important than principle Y? For example, we asked whether decommodification was more important than civic responsibility. Since commodification involves using currency to incentivize behavior, it seemed reasonable to rephrase this question (and all questions involving decommodification) as: would it ever be okay to pay someone to adhere to the principle of civic responsibility? In this case, the answer was a resounding NO! A member of our community should never need to be paid to be a good citizen, and as such, we determined that civic responsibility should take precedence over decommodification. On the flip side, we agreed that there are indeed times when we may want to pay someone to participate, particularly if they are very new to the community and don’t quite understand the nature and spirit of a burner community. There is evidence  to suggest that small incentives can be an effective way to help someone transition from a market economy mentality to a gift economy mentality.
Our pairwise comparisons were immediately fruitful, but then we ran into a new problem: the “is X more important than Y?” question is not always meaningful. In some cases there is no clear answer to this question. For example, is participation more important than radical inclusion? Well, in one sense, if a person does not participate in the community then it hardly matters whether they are inclusive or not. On the surface, participation would seem to take precedence, but if you flip it around, would we really welcome the participation of a non-inclusive person? Of course not, so perhaps having an inclusive attitude is more important than participating. Similarly, when comparing participation to radical self-expression, by definition a person engaged in self-expression is participating in the community, but that doesn’t really speak to an order of precedence. There are plenty of people who attend Burning Man who do not engage in radical self-expression, but participate and are valued all the same. It was then that we realized that the principles must be stratified into two levels, and only then did we feel that they entirely hang together.
Foundational vs. Operational
The next question we considered was the most difficult: should failure to adhere to some principles disqualify a person from membership in a community? In some cases the answer is “no.” As mentioned above, plenty of people participate in communities without engaging in radical self-expression. Indeed, discovering the part of one’s self that needs to be expressed is often a big part of the experience. In other words, manifesting all 10 principles is not a requirement for membership in the community.
On the other hand, someone who set up a hot dog stand, or a portable toilet and charged people to use it would be in violation of the principles of gifting and decommodification and would not be welcome in the community. A group of people for whom sharing their gifts in support of the community is not a priority would quickly erode the fabric of that community. As such, there are indeed core principles, violation of which is incompatible with membership in the community. We began referring to these core principles as foundational. We began to see the non-foundational principles as values or behaviors that emerge as a result of one’s belief in, and adherence to the foundational principles, and so we began to call those operational principles.
Having described our process for ranking and stratifying the Ten Principles, it is now possible to summarize the result of that process. The reason for the ranking and classification is briefly described here, but one should follow the links below to get a fuller sense of the meaning of each of the principles to us.
The Foundational Principles
(Note: Most of the text in the following sections has been taken from Radziwill, N. M. & Benton, M. C. (2013). Burning Man: Quality and Innovation in the Spirit of Deming, Journal for Quality and Participation, April 2013.)
These principles represent individual values that presuppose productive and engaged activities in support of creating shared experiences within the learning community:
- Civic Responsibility
Public welfare is of paramount importance. Participants must honor the sanctity of the social fabric and take personal responsibility for ensuring positive individual experiences that contribute to the greater good of the local community, as well as society at large. The community cannot endure if all of its members are not committed to acting to ensure its survival.
Rather than waiting to make contributions, each individual commits to being fully present in all activities, delivering value to create rich shared experiences. Working to create a healthy community has to happen now. It is not something that one can get around to later.
If the goal is a healthy community, and the time to act is right now, sharing ones gifts is the primary means of participating in the community. A cornerstone of this culture is the notion that each person identifies and gives gifts to other members of the community, as well as the collective, with no expectation of exchange or return. These gifts can be in the form of materials, labor, intellectual contributions, or emotional and moral support. A consequence of gifting is that everyone is encouraged to focus on the value they can provide to others, rather than what they can get from participation. A corollary belief is that everyone possesses gifts that they can share.
In a painfully ironic turn of phrase, gifting and decommodification are like two sides of a coin. To aggressively support the spirit of gifting, the community rejects the concept of commercial exchange and monetary transactions. This forces each person to relate to others on the basis of what value they can deliver personally, which contributes to an atmosphere of trust and loyalty and the continued development of social capital. “Money” refers to any currency, including any of the resources that one might offer as gifts. In the context of higher education, grades and credit hours are two of the chief forms of currency, use of which must be minimized or avoided altogether.
The text of the Ten Principles states that “we believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation.” As a result, the notions of purpose, meaning, and individual contributions are unified through active engagement. In the words of those who sell lottery tickets, you can’t win if you don’t play, and in many ways participating in the community is an act of hope and faith akin to buying a ticket. The “jackpot,” however, is not an individual fortune but a strong, thriving community.
To summarize, in order to be a member of a burner community, one must make the health of the community one’s top priority. Expression of this value requires everyone to participate by actively sharing their gifts with no expectation or requirement of reciprocation. One must reject the temptation to make trades or to engage in exchange that will erode the fabric of trust and mutual support. The only time this last rule can be relaxed is when bringing new members into the community. Since joining the community requires a considerable leap of faith, small incentives might be necessary to ease people into the culture of sharing.
The Operational Principles
Once a community forms, practices emerge as a consequence of personally adopting and internalizing the foundational principles. Following these operational principles helps to ensure the continued flourishing of the community as a whole:
- Radical Inclusion
Everyone is welcome to participate, given that they are committed to the foundational principles.
- Radical Self-Expression
Perhaps the most extreme of the Ten Principles, the community values the unique contributions and participative styles of its members, so long as personal expression respects the rights and liberties of the others (i.e. expression cannot violate the principle of radical inclusion). As a defining factor for how members of the community relate to one another, this principle specifically aims to drive out fear, ensuring that all ideas and contributions are given the psychological space to be expressed and flourish. This principle creates a safe space for people to take risks and be creative, and is the primary catalyst for innovation and progress within the community.
- Communal Effort
Cooperation, collaboration, and the protection of “the commons” are highly valued. Although individual gifts are honored, the community recognizes that its greatest achievements arise when people come together with shared values and purpose. Frequently communal effort arises to bring to fruition the creative endeavors of members engaged in radical self-expression. Indeed, such cases are perhaps the highest expression of the synergistic energy a burner community brings into being.
- Leave No Trace
As a community, participants agree to leave the environment in a better state than they found it, with no trace of waste. This is an explicit acknowledgement of the “silent partner” in our communities, the world in which we live.
- Radical Self-Reliance
This principle means that each person must be prepared to attend to their own needs, even as they are supported by the other members of the community. Each person takes responsibility for their personal development, as well as identifying and developing the gifts and the value they will contribute. In higher education, this means that nobody can do the learning for you. Every person is responsible for seeking out their own path to developing their own talents which in turn become gifts that they can share with the community.
Everyone is welcome, and things work better when we all pull together to create safe spaces for people to be creative and express themselves. We should leave the world at least no worse, and if possible better, than when we found it. Underlying all of this is a sense of personal responsibility for oneself–although we strive as a community to care for one another, there will always be times when you have to take care of yourself.
Set in Stone?
Of course not. We fully expect that others will have a different take on how the Ten Principles relate to one another and even what their deeper underlying meanings are. We propose this ranking and categorization as a way for people to understand how we think and as an invitation to further discuss and tease out the nuances of how the Ten Principles can be integrated into higher education to bring about gift economies and encourage everyone to share their gifts with the world.