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Six Degrees of Separation at Burning Man

Ziv Epstein, Micah Epstein, Christian Almenar, and Manuel Cebrian: Today the alkaline desert is quiet. The roar of techno music and flamethrowers has been replaced with the soft clink of rakes and trash cans. Thousands of people put aside their hangovers to methodically clean the desert. After a dedicated communal cleaning, Burning Man, one of the largest arts events in the world, spanning seven days and involving over 70,000 participants, leaves not a single wrapper on the desert. Among the swarm of salt-crusted denizens of this ephemeral city (known as Burners) is us: a scientist who studies cooperation, an industrial designer, and a Silicon Valley security CEO. Among the dismantled rigs, lifeless pyrotechnics, and bowed heads of Burners absorbed in cleaning, we are here trying to answer a simple question: How, after so many years, could Burning Man throw an event of such chaos, and yet leave the desert without a trace? What leads thousands of people in such an extreme environment to consistently engage in cooperative behavior at a scale seldom seen in society?

 

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