Just 350 miles from the cubicles and incubators spawning the digital renaissance unfolding in Silicon Valley, Burning Man turns 28 this year -- probably about the same age as many of the high-tech workers who flock to the weeklong homage to communal self-expression.

But with pro-tech and disconnect camps warily eyeing each other at Black Rock City, Burning Man is showing acute symptoms of a digital identity crisis it has long wrestled with. This year, burners, as attendees are known, aren't just trying to find themselves -- they're searching for Burning Man's soul, and figuring out how tech fits in.

The drones overhead may provide a clue.

In this Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 photo, Burning Man participants bike on the playa during the annual Burning Man event on the Black Rock Desert of Gerlach,
In this Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 photo, Burning Man participants bike on the playa during the annual Burning Man event on the Black Rock Desert of Gerlach, Nev. (AP Photo/Reno Gazette-Journal, Andy Barron) ( Andy Barron )

"I saw none in my first year," said festival veteran Jim Parisi, 42, who works in the Bay Area for a large computer maker that he declined to name. "Last year, I saw several. I suspect that the skies will be abuzz with them this year."

As Burning Man glimmers with a sheen of high-tech sensibility, festivalgoers are bringing new accessories -- Wi-Fi hot spots, smartphones, GoPro cameras. This year, there's even a Camp Bitcoin, which calls itself "the first Burning Man camp for crypto-currency industry professionals worldwide."

At the same time, there are plenty of traditionalists who eschew the tools of the digerati and bemoan the influx of rich techies. As one blogger on SFist put it: "Burning Man itself is quickly becoming Coachella on Crack for rich tech folk."


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Yet the tech keeps coming: Videocameras, for example, increasingly document everything, not only in close range to capture the trademark nudity on the open playa but also from atop a nearby mountain for sweeping shots of the annual and oft-debauched festival.

Dreamus.com, a "dream-sharing" group, announced that it will bring its solar-powered video booth, known as the DreamBox, back to Black Rock City.

"This time it will be LIVE, with an Internet connection and a video feed of people's dreams," the group wrote on its website. "We expect to go viral, but we know it's silly to even say that."

Though their population among the 68,000 attendees has swelled in recent years, tech workers were some of the first to embrace Burning Man and its disruptive designs. And now that the valley is cranking out instant 20-something millionaires, entrepreneurs don't have to rough it in the desert, said Brian Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine who wrote the book "This Is Burning Man."

"If you've got a lot of money, maybe you don't want to have your tent knocked down by the wind," said Doherty, 46, who lives in Los Angeles. "Maybe you want to have a nice place to hide away."

Enter plug-and-play camps, a term in burner lexicon for the ritzy shelters that some wealthy attendees enjoy without lifting a finger, thanks to the "Sherpas" who wait on them. The phenomenon has left some burners concerned that the valley has fundamentally disrupted the desert.

"I worry that earlier, simpler spirit of Burning Man is being lost," said Landis Gwynn, a tech writer at Oracle who has been to the festival before but is skipping it this year. "It would be sort of a turnoff to see all these tech millionaires descending on Burning Man."

In this Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 photo, Burning Man participants walk on the playa at the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert of Gerlach, Nev.
In this Monday, Aug. 25, 2014 photo, Burning Man participants walk on the playa at the annual Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert of Gerlach, Nev. (AP Photo/Reno Gazette-Journal, Andy Barron) ( Andy Barron )

Tech celebrities including Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been spotted at Burning Man in recent years. Yet few Silicon Valley firms would publicly cop to having their leaders at the event. Companies including Advanced Micro Devices, Juniper Networks and Oracle said they were not aware of any executives making the trip. A spokeswoman for Tesla declined to comment on the plans of CEO Elon Musk, who has publicly declared his passion for Burning Man.

Burning Man used to be a time when tech workers took refuge from technology. Some camps offer Wi-Fi now, but fiddling on a smartphone is a social faux pas, several burners said.

"It's just kind of an awkward place to be Facebooking," said Bailey Queue, a 43-year-old Web designer from Santa Cruz who is going to Burning Man this year for the fourth time.

But when Black Rock City finally opened itself up to the faithful Tuesday after a deluge of rain, tweets surfaced about the festival's iconic pyre.

"Behold, the man ... It's a massive 150 feet tall this year!" one burner posted on Twitter.

And Burning Man's own Facebook page enjoys more than 688,000 likes and provides running commentary on the event.

Despite the digital rift, it's difficult to discern which camps people fall into in Black Rock City, Doherty said. Three-year veteran Riaz Rahim, a 28-year-old product manager at Groupon, is leading a camp with his friends at Burning Man this year. In his time as a burner, Rahim said he felt somewhat out of place until he gradually realized that many of those carefree dancers in the sand were actually fellow techies, hailing from corporations like Google and Facebook.

Gwynn, the Oracle employee, wishes they weren't in such good company.

"I went to Burning Man," he said, "as a getaway from the valley."

Contact Julia Love at 408-920-5536; follow her at Twitter.com/byJuliaLove.