Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

What I found in the desert

A month and a half ago, I took a plane to Reno, a bus out into the desert, and spent a week at Burning Man. This is an attempt to order some of my thoughts about that week.


Surviving (even in relative comfort) wasn't as hard my pre-trip reading billed it as. Of course, it helped that I was camping with engineers who could reliably make a plan, ask themselves what would cause it to go wrong, fix that, repeat -- and then problem-solve when something unanticipated broke. Basic competence, responsibility, and leadership -- together with a well-adhered-to norm of "make sure you have everything you personally need, even things the camp has plans to provide" ('radical self-reliance' is the usual term) -- left us with a lot of slack.

From there, it was mostly just a matter of drinking enough water / electrolytes, noticing when I needed to eat, remembering sunscreen and moisturizer and lip balm, wiping my hands and face and feet for dust, and using earplugs, a face mask, and melatonin to get enough sleep. Easy.

(And I hadn't even been camping since I was a kid.)


And, together, we built some awesome things:

A ~24-foot sphere of metal pipes and cloth triangles with a trampoline installed in the base, with three campmates working on it. p/c Amanda Tay.

...which took, at one point, a lift team of ~forty volunteers to lift the top section of the sphere onto the base:

And now, for a philosophical digression. (Shocked! Shocked to find that philosophical digressions are happening here!)


Zvi Mowshowitz argues that the modern world is out to get you and eat your entire life and that we should literally bring back the Sabbath:

We need restrictions that free us from the world. We need a new four freedoms.

We need freedom from work. Decide what counts as work to you. Don’t do that. Anything done for money is automatically work. During the week, time is money. Today, do what you value.

We need freedom from interruption. Space to think. Cut off the outside world. Especially cut off anything continuously updating and all periodic rewards. There lie Skinner boxes. Much of the world is out to get you. Today it can wait. Friendly visitors are welcome, but ideally arranged in advance.

We need freedom from choice. Full freedom from choice requires a step beyond the traditional rules. In my version, even among permitted activities, only those explicitly selected in advance are available – particular books, radio stations and so forth – plus things you feel intrinsic motivation to do. No lists. No browsing.

We need freedom from stress. Stressful conversations are not allowed. Doing work is not allowed. Making decisions is not allowed. Outside information is not allowed. If something was still going to stress you out and it was fixable, fix it before the Sabbath. Things can’t change on their own, and you can’t make them change. Why stress? (...)

I think he's got a point. I think that point has something to do with what I found at Burning Man.

There, the separation from work, interruption, choice, and stress was not accomplished by self-control, but by literal distancing, driving miles away from the ability to work, or be interrupted, or choose, or stress. (Well, choice and browsing abound -- that's different from Zvi's version of the Sabbath. But living in the desert gives you in many ways fewer choices than you have by default, which is a kindness. Or maybe it's the whole point.)


Zvi quotes Ben Rose Hoffman, who argues that the Sabbath is useful as an alarm that your life has become permanently beholden to forces outside your control:

One more useful attributes of the Jewish Sabbath is the extent to which its rigid rules generate friction in emergency situations. If your community center is not within walking distance, if there is not enough slack in your schedule to prep things a day in advance, or you are too poor to go a day without work, or too locally isolated to last a day without broadcast entertainment, then things are not okay.

In our commercialized society, there will be many opportunities to purchase palliatives, and these palliatives are often worth purchasing. If living close to your place of employment would be ruinously expensive, you drive or take public transit. If you don’t have time to feed yourself, you can buy some fast food. If you’re not up for talking with a friend in person, or don’t have the time, there’s Facebook. But this is palliative care for a chronic problem.

In Jewish law, it is permissible to break the Sabbath in an emergency situation, when lives are at stake. If something like the Orthodox Sabbath seems impossibly hard, or if you try to keep it but end up breaking it every week - as my Reform Jewish family did - then you should consider that perhaps, despite the propaganda of the palliatives, you are in a permanent state of emergency. This is not okay. You are not doing okay.

So, how are you? (...)

Ben's conclusion made me stop and think a lot about socio-emotional palliatives. If I want to interact with a human, I can browse -- or pop into -- my friends' lives on Facebook. If I want to talk to a friend, I can text. If I want to be part of a conversation, there are myriad ongoing debates, drama, and Discourse just waiting to suck me in. If I want to be useful, I can write an answer on Quora.

Zvi warns: "Choices Are Bad. Really Bad." So I'm also thinking about palliatives for having too many choices. If I don't know what I want to eat, I can open Seamless and be nudged by suggestions until I fall for something. If I don't know what I want to do, there's a rhythm to my day and a rhythm to my week, and I just need to wait a short time -- maybe an afternoon -- to get back into it. If I don't know how to use time right now, there are apps on my smartphone for wasting it. And if I avoid that trap, there's about a dozen unread posts in my RSS feed. There's a thing to do next. When I'm done that, I probably won't have the executive agency to have any remaining problem with choices.


The desert is distinctly lacking in the typical palliatives.

If you want to interact with a human, you have to move yourself around and find a flesh-and-blood human to interact with -- it's easy, but needs to be done. If you want to have a conversation, you probably have to start one -- it's easy, but needs to be done. If you want to be useful, you have to find something broken to fix -- there's definitely things around camp that could be improved, but one needs to be found.

If you don't know what to eat, you have to figure out nutrients what your body needs more of right now -- there probably is something, but you need to find it. If you don't know what to do, you don't need a plan, but you do have to at least start walking in a direction on the lookout for something pretty or interesting or fun.

These were mostly things that I could do! (And doing them was satisfying!) Withdrawal from my standard palliatives was interesting but not painful. And doing without made me aware of how much I was used to doing with -- often, not so much out of necessity as out of laziness.

What's more, substituting the Real Things for the usual palliatives was a useful reminder that the Real Things are Actually Good. Living with friends is better than Facebook. Conversation is better than Discourse. Eating what you want is better than eating what made your willpower crumble. Doing things is better than wasting time. Doing what you want is better than browsing lists.

These things are amazingly easy to forget.


A related take, filtered through a different blog post: Kaj Sotala writes that nobody does the thing that they are supposedly doing and poses experiential pica as one possible model:

“Experiental pica” is a misdirected craving for something that doesn’t actually fulfill the need behind the craving. The term originally comes from a condition where people with a mineral deficiency start eating things like ice, which don’t actually help with the deficiency.

Recently I’ve been shifting towards the perspective that, to a first approximation, roughly everything that people do is pica for some deeper desire, with that deeper desire being something like social connection, feeling safe and accepted, or having a feeling of autonomy or competence. That is, most of the things that people will give as reasons for why they are doing something will actually miss the mark, and also that many people are engaging in things that are actually relatively inefficient ways of achieving their true desires, such as pursuing career success when the real goal is social connection. (...)

I'm sympathetic to the idea that "roughly everything that people do is pica for some deeper desire", and think that this goes deeper than the idea of 'palliatives' above.

It's one thing when a palliative actually palliates (in which case you're merely in a state of emergency, but perhaps one that can be temporarily stabilized); it's another when the thing doesn't fulfill the need that drove you to it. And sometimes, the offered 'palliatives' are actively anti-helpful, sending one's experiential pica into a positive-feedback loop. (Of course, this is often even by design -- cf. Facebook, where the profit motive for anti-satisfyingness is patently obvious.)

One way out is to get to a state where you actually have an experiential diet of social connection, safety, acceptance, autonomy, and competence (to take Kaj's list above). With a concrete sense of what achieving those desires looks like, it's easier to see that your experiential pica isn't. The road from there isn't easy, but at least it's a chance to break the loop from the inside.

The first step to recovering from having been gotten for a non-compact cost is to begin looking at the habits you had been looking through. Breaking the part of experiential pica where your brain convinces itself at some base instinctual level that unsatisfying thing [Y] is actually what it wants, right now, is a good first step to actually looking at [Y]. And then it's much easier to ask if you actually want it.

So: glutting on social connection, building a camp-sized community predicated on safeness and acceptance, and being forced to demonstrate autonomy and competence by the brute fact of the environment around you -- potentially quite the therapeutic experience, if you can get it!


And then there were all the crazy/glowy/epic trappings -- Googling "burning man 2017" art installation gives you some frame of reference, though some of the pieces really aren't done justice by static photography:

The chance to be an active part of that -- to use my own muscle power to build a glowing trampoline sphere that passers-by could use for aerial gymnastics performances (or just to bounce); to carry kerosene lamps in a ceremonial procession lighting boulevards across the deep playa to guide the lost in a shifting nightscape of neon-lit art cars; to give my small offerings to be burned with the Temple; to sit with tens of thousands as the Man burned, and in near-silence as the Temple did -- felt powerful, cohesive, and rich.

In some way, these experiences were part of my revelations about the inadequacy of default modern life, palliatives, and breaking cycles of experiential pica. In some way, all of these things just happened and the narrative that unites them is a trick of perspective. At the end of it all, I didn't find a life-changing Deep Truth or Grand Revelation in the desert -- certainly not one that was built into it all on purpose. I didn't come back Enlightened. I experienced some things, and some were fun and some were meaningful and some I took lessons from.

Not everything has a Grand Plan (is an important lesson to learn), and Burning Man certainly didn't. I took some things away from it anyway -- though I mostly still feel like I'm sorting them out.


An excerpt from a poem that I kept coming back to during that week:

All I have is a voice
to undo the folded lie,
the romantic lie in the brain
of the sensual man-in-the-street
and the lie of Authority
whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
and no one exists alone;
hunger allows no choice
to the citizen or the police;
we must love one another or die.
Defenceless under the night
our world in stupor lies;
yet, dotted everywhere,
ironic points of light
flash out wherever the Just
exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
of Eros and of dust,
beleaguered by the same
negation and despair,
show an affirming flame.

It was good to be reminded, in the face of the world's cynicism, that humans can come together to build amazing things, to share them without asking anything in return, and to be kind. And it was good to be reminded of the ways that the shape of my life is broken -- and could be fixed.

I'm not certain that I'm going back next year, but I do know that I want to. Maybe you want to too? (If so, let me know!)