SOMEWHERE NEAR BLACK ROCK CITY, NEVADA, 1998 – Liz Bowman and I walking in the Nevada desert, not far from the Burning Man site.
THE HAGUE, 2012 – I was 29 in 1998, yes, for the “first” time. I had finally finished my MFA a couple months earlier, and Mark’s startup was going well and it was time for him to make his pilgrimage / rite of passage to Burning Man. It’s about 600km and 8 hours from Palo Alto to Black Rock City. It’s far, but it’s not as far as you think. And it’s not really that different than a Silicon Valley beer Friday. Just with more heat. And way more dust. And more naked people. And a little bit more fire. I think you’d see more fire in Palo Alto, but it doesn’t always go that well with urban space. Honestly, I think the greatest thing about Burning Man, it’s not the naked hippies, and the “off the grid” thing is largely BS to me, I think the greatest thing about Burning Man is that you can’t burn down the desert.
Mark and Mike rented this gnarly huge van. Mike brought his girlfriend Liz, who I’d never met before. She was just 19 that summer. She was ridiculously young, but I liked her. She was from a small town in Washington state and she had a sort of small town sweetness to her. When you go to school for too many years or live in big cities or do too much structural analysis everything becomes very self-referential and very meta. Sometimes I felt like Liz didn’t have a clue what we were talking about. Then other times I felt like I was the most self-absorbed full-of-shit person on earth. But she never really worried about any of that. Liz was just Liz.
Eleven years later, in April 2009 we were BS’ing on AIM and she told me she’d been playing this virtual world “Second Life” for a few months that she thought I might like it. She said it was kind of like an “online Burning Man.” By then I’d actually heard about it many times, and even talked about it in my lectures, but for some reason I’d never actually tried it. Probably I’d just never landed on their home page, otherwise I would have signed up for it. I mean it’s not like there’s any Web2.0 platform that I haven’t signed up for!
Liz had joined this cool group Metanomics that had meetings on VR education and other topics. She introduced me to Lothar who introduced me to Espy who wound up inviting me to create a piece for a show her graduate students at Kansas State were curating, which wound up becoming VB01 – Girl Next Door. Oh, and speaking of “next door,” Lothar and Espy had offices next door to each other on Angel Learning Isle. Angel was a Learning Management System (LMS) that got bought by Blackboard a few years ago. Blackboard’s let Angel Learning Isle linger on this whole time, but I heard late last year that it would be closing down in January. Although I’m actually standing there now as I type this, so I guess Angel has had a temporary reprieve, but perhaps its days are still numbered.
Anyway, I guess this photo of the lanky 29-year-old and the small-town 19-year-old stomping thru the Nevada desert in matching knarly boots is, as much as anything else, why we’ve been doin all this work these past 3 years.