Burning Man’s bug infestation is the perfect metaphor for Silicon Valley

Burning Man’s bug infestation is the perfect metaphor for Silicon Valley

The Burning Man festival site is infested with biting bugs. I don’t believe in god – hence no capitalization – but I do believe that the universe offers up the perfect metaphor every now and then.

Burning Man is beloved by a certain class of Silicon Valley extrovert. They glory in telling the world they are ‘burners‘ and in the semi-chaotic ‘other space’ the festival offers them.

Burners are evangelists. They blanket social media with kōans on the wonder of the event in the run up to it and the glistening hangover that follows. Burning Man began as counterculture, it has now been co-opted by the increasingly dominant cult of disruption.

Of course, the burners are confused about how the biting bugs got there and what motivates them. It’s too perfect an analogy for the culture war raging in San Francisco and replicated wherever the pernicious startup philosophy of disruption at all costs finds safe harbor.

I don’t wish a sad event on the burners – there are many lovely people there – but I can’t help but laugh when I picture the moneyed elite dealing with the inconvenience.

The tech aristocracy being bewildered by a presence they deem unwelcome and the bites that gets them, is nothing new. Look at Google’s half-hearted social responsibility efforts in San Francisco or go back and read the Soylent founder’s eye rolling at the lives of normal people.

The dominant Silicon Valley philosophy does tend to treat regulators and normal people like bugs.

The ‘thought leaders’, VCs and rockstar founders who have bought in entirely into the idea that the old world must be swept away by the app-powered future can barely conceal their disdain for the ‘speed bumps’ that get in their way.

Of course those who are left behind by this brave new world, those at the bottom rung of the future feudalism will start to bite back. The ‘one percent’ has become a clichéd phrase but it is a reality – wealth gloms to a tiny number of people, some of them have earned it, many of them have not.

Consider the response by VCs, angels and other tech industry luminaries to the New York Times’ Amazon exposé. They rushed as quickly as possible to discount the reporting, to reject the testimony of former workers as rarities, outliers, the anger of those who couldn’t cut it.


The ‘problems’ flagged up in the NYT piece include women pressured about work after they suffered miscarriages and employees trying to care for chronically sick family members being told they needed to fix up or ship out.

Does the fact that Jeff Bezos doesn’t ‘recognise’ the picture the story painted mean we should just believe him? Not in my book.

The rhetoric of many tech commentators and players is one of ‘hard workers’ versus ‘those that just can’t hack it.’

It’s a worldview that ignores the poor, the sick, the non-neurotypical. It’s a conception of the world where gender, race and sexuality are never things that block your way, where inequality is something that happens to other people.

When you treat people like bugs, don’t be surprised when they bite back. Hard.

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Feature image credit: Shutterstock

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