Archives For Non-Fiction by Lydia

A life without love is of no account. Don’t ask yourself what kind of love you should seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern or Western. Divisions only lead to more divisions. Love has no labels, no definitions. It is what it is, pure and simple. Love is the water of life. And a lover is a soul of fire! The universe turns differently when fire loves water.

~ quoted from The Forty Words of Love, by Elif Shafak (a historical novel about the Sufi mystics Rumi and Shams Tabrizi, which I read during Burning Man)


Fire in a Burning Man sculpture
Fire spreads across the roof of a sculpture at Burning Man


This year, I’ve gained a new interest in personal spiritual experience — so my approach to Burning Man 2016 was very different. In the past, I’ve focused on art and dancing and stuff, with triumphant articles like The Best Art At Burning Man 2015. (Note: Anything I say about Burning Man that includes the word “best” is a joke.)

So this year I did less art-hunting, but there’s always plenty to see. On my way to the desert, I was reading Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and I encountered a section with this heading:

No Trace: When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.

One of Burning Man’s Ten Principles is Leaving No Trace. Officially, this is about our environmental impact — we don’t want to leave a mess in the fragile desert. But Suzuki started the San Francisco Zen Center, which became active before Burning Man began in San Francisco, and someone in the original Burning Man crew probably read the book.

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SHHHH sign from the Latitude Society receiving room
The “SHHHH” sign in the Latitude Society receiving room


Today, I published a long article in Vice about the Latitude Society, a now-closed San Francisco art project that was developed by a company called Nonchalance. I loved the Latitude Society; it was one of the most brilliant, boundary-pushing, and genre-defying art pieces I have ever experienced. My article is intended to be both a critique and a celebration of the Latitude, and I poured my heart into it.

I’m proud of that article, but I had some narrative and space constraints while writing it. Here are some responses to questions people have asked me, which I wasn’t able to answer fully in the article. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me on Twitter: @lydialaurenson.


Original Latitude Society invitation - front
The invitation card I received to the San Francisco House of the Latitude


Question #1: Did I talk to Jeff Hull in person after the Society closed?

I knew Jeff while the Society was running, and I worked on a couple of projects for Nonchalance (nothing big, so don’t give me too much credit!). As I explain in the article, I reached out to Jeff after he ended the project. I really think Jeff is brilliant, although I didn’t agree with all the decisions he made; I wanted to talk to him and get a better understanding of his perspective.

Jeff agreed to an email interview, and I sent him a whole bunch of questions. He answered three of the questions I asked. Here is his email to me, in full:

Hi Lydia,

I think most of your questions were covered in either the Long Read piece or my epilogue on the Latitude site. [Note from Lydia: he’s referring to this article written by Rick Paulas for Longreads. Jeff also posted an epilogue on the Latitude website, which isn’t loading right now, so there’s a screenshot here.]

The only thing that wasn’t really covered was the future of the content (IP).

> – Are you thinking of using the IP for anything else?

Yes, the Storyworld of the Latitude will emerge in other mediums. The book will be released, and there’s talk of developing a fiction film, and potentially a VR interactive series. It’s a rich universe that people really connect with, so there is no limit to the applications of it.

> – Do you feel that anything about the Society should remain secret?

I don’t think any of the released material needs to be a secret. It’s out there already. But there was so much unreleased content, concepts, teachings, and experiences. People really only glimpsed a small fraction of what the world was. These elements remain hidden.

> – Are there any specific pictures or recordings that you would like to get out into the world?

I’m fond of The Walk of the Guardians. [Note from Lydia: The Walk of the Guardians is an audio recording, and a Society member named The Mister was kind enough to send me a copy. There is about a minute of audio instructions here, while the longer Walk of the Guardians can be accessed here. You can listen from anywhere.]

Otherwise, I do not have much to add that hasn’t already been covered. Hope it goes well, and let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.


I sent Jeff some followup questions, and he never got back to me. It’s clear that the Latitude Society experience was ultimately painful for Jeff, so I understand why he wouldn’t want to talk about it anymore.

Still, I’m truly sad that I wasn’t able to include more of his perspective in my article.

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Here’s why Burning Man is worth a week without showers, and also maybe hypothermia.

Love by Alexandr Milov, Burning Man 2015
“Love,” a sculpture by Alexandr Milov. View on Instagram


I have this friend who always says, “I could never go to Burning Man. I like showering.” He rolls his eyes at the dust-covered mayhem; he disdains the desert’s lack of amenities.

And if you’re getting your info from the terribly lazy Burning Man slideshows produced by mainstream media outlets, then it’s reasonable to conclude that Burning Man isn’t worth a week without showers.

Besides, it’s just so easy to hate Burning Man. The dust is toxic, the trip is a giant expensive hassle, there are class issues, and other issues too.

But there’s also nothing else like Burning Man. The festival is a remarkable expression of serendipity, connection, innovation, and openness.


Flaming manticore from Mazu, Burning Man 2015
This manticore was part of Mazu, Goddess of the Empty Sea, a temple that was built by The Department of Public Arts from New Xishi City, Taiwan. View on Instagram


Last year, I felt so good afterwards that I came right home and wrote The Best Art of Burning Man 2014. So, here you go: The Best Art Of Burning Man 2015.

Before I get started, though, I gotta admit. 2015 would have been a great year to miss Burning Man.

First there was the plague of horrifying bugs, which was celebrated with glee among the schadenfreuding press. Luckily for me, by the time I got to the desert, the bugs had been swept away by 55-mph winds… which destroyed a huge part of our camp before the festival started. Throughout the week, there were uncountable whiteout dust storms, including one that lasted literally all day Friday. (I spent the time in my tent reading a heretofore undiscovered CJ Cherryh book, so that was all right.)

Then Saturday, the night of the Man Burn, was 28° Fahrenheit. The cold was unprecedented in my experience. It was so cold that by 4am, when we all walked back to camp, the city was nearly deserted. The only people we saw were huddled around firepits and burn barrels in a post-apocalyptic fashion. I was honestly concerned that there’d be hypothermia deaths that night.

Why does anyone go to this stupid festival, anyway?


Another giant cat art car, Burning Man 2015
This giant cat art car is named Xuza. View on Instagram

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Every year — once, and all over again — Burning Man re-teaches me how not to be cynical.

Filigree balls, Burning Man 2014
Click here to see this picture full-screen

It’s easy to hate Burning Man. The dust is poisonous, the trip is a giant expensive hassle, and we Burners can be remarkably irritating (especially when evangelical). There are class issues, and other issues too.

I considered giving you a “How To Write About Burning Man” article, which would explain how to get people to click on your website using headlines like:

• “How Does Burning Man Reflect [Insert Inflammatory San Francisco Stereotype]?”

• “Are Burners [Stereotype A] or [Stereotype B]?”

• “Are Burners Techies or Survivalists?”

• “Are Burners Libertarians or Communists?”

• “Are Burners Visionary Artists or Useless, Dissolute Addicts?”

• “Burning Man: Inside The Desert Debauchery That Is A Clear Sign of America’s Moral Downfall”

These questions are crucial to our time. They must be important, because every time I log into Facebook, I cannot escape similar articles posted by 300 of my friends — and that’s how you know a topic is important, right?

But after attending the Burn this year for my fourth time, I realized that all I want to do is tell you about my favorite art piece.

I found it in the middle of the night on Saturday. My companion and I were wandering across the desert on foot. We had seen many wonders:

• We were coming from three exquisite, delicate, light-filled geometric sculptures that threw filigree shadows across the sand.

• Before that, we visited a vast and extraordinary steel pigeon skeleton that held a riding seat and bicycle pedals in its ribcage. People could sit in the seat and control the metallic wings.

• Later that night, we would discover a wooden outpost from “two years in the future” — a fanciful monument to the apocalypse, built and then abandoned by desperate survivors in 2016.

But none of these things, in the end, were my favorite piece of art.

Metal riding pigeon, Burning Man 2014
Click here to see this picture full-screen

We were not tired, but we were hungry, and we didn’t want to make the half-hour journey back to camp just to eat. Fortunately, we had prepared for our art trek by packing several meals; now we hoped to find a place to sit down.

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Aug 10

My new piece in The Atlantic about Internet pseudonyms and anonymity

I have a new piece in The Atlantic about pseudonyms and anonymity on the Internet. This is an issue that matters to me for personal reasons, and I also believe that it matters on a broader social level.

Note: The original article mistakenly said that I used to fight with my mother about the Internet 15 years ago. In fact, it was more like 20 years ago. ;) Thanks to Mom for calling out the mistake, and to my editor at The Atlantic for being willing to update the piece.

Feb 23

My new piece in The Guardian about high tech and social issues

Yesterday I published a piece in The Guardian about high tech, gentrification, community engagement, and all that good stuff. I have some follow-up thoughts and reactions today….

I took a lot of time writing that piece, because I wanted to make it impactful within a limited word count. I worked very hard to make it as gentle as possible, because these are highly charged issues. I often find it harder to write something short-and-blunt-yet-kind than to write a very long piece that covers all the angles.

Social justice problems are culturally entrenched, and they take advantage of deep flaws in human psychology. What I was trying to say with my Guardian piece is this: The people most likely to move the needle on those problems are people with very strong social skills and cultural understanding. Anyone who wants to contribute would be well-served to start by developing those skills.

None of this is easy for anyone involved. I have never felt like I was working harder than I did when I spent most of my time in the social justice world. Sometimes there’s not a great place to start — and sometimes you have to take a step back. Since I broke my neck a few years ago, I myself haven’t done as much of this work as I used to — I’ve had a lot on my mind. ;)

So I just wanted to acknowledge that this work is very hard, and also to acknowledge that my piece only scratched the surface.

Thanks to everyone who read my piece and sent feedback, both positive and negative. I know it was simple and didn’t cover all the bases. But maybe if we start from that simple place, we will eventually get somewhere more effective and complex.