"This is the one time the tech guys can do something ephemeral." I am seated on the "Burner Express", a bus that will carry me from San Francisco into the dusty heart of the Nevada desert for this year's Burning Man festival.
A nearby passenger is explaining loudly to his fellow pilgrims why the annual bacchanal — where artists and hedonists push the boundaries of their creativity with a brief return to the Sixties ideals of free love and drugs, against a backdrop of thumping electronic music — has become a choice destination for moneyed Silicon Valley executives (alumni include Elon Musk and Larry Page). "For once, they can have an ephemeral experience," he says. "The rest of their life is online."
I can relate. As we speed between the mountains towards Black Rock City, I race to file an article on my laptop, then text close family and friends to explain that they will not be able to contact me — at all — for the next five days.
There will be no internet or phone signal in this 70,000-strong makeshift tent city. It lends new meaning to the term escapism.
If you live in San Francisco, as I have since January, then Burning Man culture is inescapable, whether you plan to attend or not. Year-round, there are events that seek to recreate the aesthetic of the week, with attendees clad in its rave-cum-steampunk fashion of neon, faux-fur coats and leather harnesses.
There are also those, typically engineers at Google and Facebook, who slip cheerful references to "The Burn" into every single conversation, often in the same breath as topics such as "consciousness hacking" or "ecstatic dance classes". Welcome to California, baby!
Attending for the first time, the tension between what Burning Man aspires to be — an egalitarian utopia counting among its principles "radical self-reliance", "radical inclusion" and "decommodification" — and what it currently embodies, is palpable.
Commerce is prohibited on the site, in favour of a "gifting economy" in which each camp must "give back" to the desert "playa", in the form of food, drink or entertainment. Some, such as the "ShamanDome", offer spiritual fixes; others, intellectual rigour (talks on data privacy). You can guess the selling point of the infamous Orgy Dome. (My own camp, loosely themed around the "British pub", has beer on tap and hosts DJs and drag acts in the evening.)
But it is a radical expense — close to $500 per ticket including taxes, plus travel (about $150), camp fees ($300), and hiring a bike to get around the sprawling site ($175).
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The camp system itself also allows for jarring hierarchy. Most attendees work collaboratively, meticulously planning how to erect dome and pyramid tents from scratch, and poring over logistics spreadsheets. As one of the few in my camp with a San Francisco address, I am tasked with receiving some 40-odd packages in the weeks leading up to the event — everything from tent netting to the pots and pans for cooking.
Yet the past few years have seen the emergence of so-called "plug-and-play" camps that promise luxury bed and board without the need to lift a finger; the all-inclusive fees often run into the thousands of dollars. At night-time dance parties, I watch as these blow-ins wiggle atop the "art cars" — mutant vehicles that the richest camps revamp with lights, lasers and mega sound systems — with an entourage in tow snapping pictures.
Another "Burner" who can't resist the photo opportunity: Ray Dalio, the billionaire hedge fund manager, who posts a picture of himself on Twitter in flares and faux fur, applauding the event's "great vibe".
The clash of cultures is apparent everywhere. In my first few weeks in San Francisco, I met a start-up founder at the Battery, the city's Soho House for VCs, who proudly told me that he had helped to crowdfund $5m to turn a Boeing 747 aircraft hangar into "the biggest party bus ever".
His vision came to pass. But during the week, I learn of a plan to storm the plane, which has apparently been rather exclusive in its door policy. "Let's show everyone the true meaning of 'Radical Inclusion'," the organisers threatened in a post on Facebook.
"They burn the man today; but they become the man again tomorrow," one festivalgoer complains. Coming by way of San Francisco, where the tech boom has led to widening income inequality, such resentment is sadly familiar.
On the final day, festivalgoers head out to the playa for the ceremonial burning of "the man", a giant wooden effigy. The crowd jeers each time a section of the structure collapses into the fire. Everyone is exhausted and elated. This is not incidental. "Burning Man is anything but convenient, and therein lies its transformative potential!", its chief executive Marian Goodell wrote recently.
Just back from Burning Man. Reminds me of Woodstock with better art (installations) and less good music. What a great vibe and what amazing creativity!— Ray Dalio (@RayDalio) September 2, 2019
Photo is with my pal and coworker Jeff Taylor at his great music camp Root Society. If you go next year, 1-5am is best. pic.twitter.com/ua5UIbRlxo
She is right. Thanks to the vastness of the site (a friend with a health app said he was clocking 28km daily) and the sheer length of time most people spend here (typically one to two weeks), Burning Man is truly a test of endurance. Simply trying to meet up with a friend in a different camp ends up with a back and forth of notes, postcards and verbal messages carried from person to person.
It also requires unexpected problem-solving. On the way back to camp, a lace from one of my boots gets caught in the chain of my bike, devoured by the teeth of the sprocket.
The wheel ceases to move and I am stuck, stationary and alone, in the dark desert.
Radical self-reliance temporarily on hold, I beckon to a passing group of cyclists. Yet despite their best efforts, four or five pairs of agile fingers cannot liberate the jammed shoestring. Finally one person has a brainwave and whips out a lighter. In my own mini-burn, the lace is lit and the flame licks around the chain. I am free again.
Back in California, I am staying at Lake Tahoe, a stunning freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains, with a group of my fellow millennial campmates. We are undertaking what is known as "decompression" — acclimating back to real life with swimming, rest and good food.
Despite our shared distaste for the influencers' incursions into the festival, we are now busily uploading our snaps of the week to social media. And we are not alone. The hashtag #burningman has more than a million posts on Instagram, with #burnerbabes and #burnerettes not far behind.
"Most of the people at Burning Man want to give rather than take, and live rather than 'gram," one idealistic campmate says when I ask him to sum up the week. As the number of likes on my Burning Man pictures rises to 83 — closing in on a personal best — I smile, and nod.
Hannah Murphy is an FT tech correspondent
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019