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Free phone booth at Burning Man

Free phone booth at Burning Man

Click here for instructions and rules on using the phone

Burning Man deliberately takes place in a harsh, remote location. Each year, 30,000+ people gather and build a city of art on the flat playa of the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, then dismantle it a week later -- to the point that after cleanup, you can't even tell it was there. It's an environment devoted to being appreciated, commerce-free -- about art and technology and shared experience.

The Black Rock Desert is where the rocket cars broke the sound barrier. It's a perfectly flat dry lakebed, the location miles from the nearest village of Gerlach, and about 90 miles from Reno, the nearest significant city.

In other words, it's about the last place you would expect to find a phone booth, which is why I had to build one. Ideally I wanted a traditional "superman" style booth, and those can be found, but cost a fortune to ship, so we went with a more modern pedestal style phone. The goal was to have the phone just sitting there, mounted on the desert floor, connected to nothing, yet working, just where it shouldn't.

We did it, and the results were amazing and surprisingly emotional. People refused to believe it, then cried out with joy when it became real. In spite of problems, about 1600 calls were made all over the world.

From here you can read:

A phone booth is highly familiar technology -- though especially with the younger crowd, you will find many people who have almost never used them since they grew up with cell phones. Placing it in a setting where it shouldn't be made people look at it like it was new. The exclamations of surprise and joy that people made hearing the voices of distant loved ones they had been out of touch with for only a week were perhaps a tiny taste of how people reacted to the phone when it was novel.

The form factor made a big difference, too. I had a cell-phone like 802.11 phone which did not raise nearly so many eyebrows. The form factor generated certain impressions and expectations.

Updates

The phone returned in 2005 and 2006. In 2005 we switched to a new microwave link again financed by John Gilmore, but the local wireless net was very poor, so the phone only worked well when we moved it to center camp, near the microwave hub. We did this because Katrina was creating an urgent need for people to reach loved ones.

In 2006 thanks to Paul Traina and others, we had our most reliable net after Wednesday. The phone made over 2,000 calls and got lines of up to an hour at times, creating many moving experiences.

Since then the phone has return more as a service than an art piece. It usually develops a line, connecting people with urgent needs and loved ones off the playa.

Other Burning Man Stuff

The folks behind the phone include myself (EFF Chair, ClariNet founder, rec.humor.funny), Brent Chapman (Majordomo creator and Firewall expert), JC Dill, John Gilmore (EFF and Cygnus founder, provider of satellite dish) and tireless Wireless Network builders Clif Cox, Ralf Muehlen, and Harvie Branscomb. Broadvoice provided the VOIP services and free long distance in 2004-05. Sellvoip.net provided it in 2006. 2007-2008 I paid. In 2009, service was provided by icall.com.