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Lessons from Burning Man “Mudpocalypse”

Burning Man’s “MudPocalypse” is instructive…It shows how bad media reporting is. It’s been framed as a big disaster of planning gone wrong. That’s not even remotely accurate. I was in contact with people on-playa the whole time. For anyone with real Burning Man experience, this is laughable. The Burning Man organization and community is a model for resilience (at least over the course of a week-long event. Here’s why:

🔥 Much of what’s reported is par for the course. For example, the 4-7 hour Exodus (exodus is what we call the exit day, it’s not the “people are fleeing a disaster” meaning of exodus) is standard. It had little to do with the rain. I’ve waited up to 11 hours. 70,000 people exiting onto a 2-lane highway safely takes a long time.

🔥 The planning was superb. The planning didn’t go wrong. It went very, very right. The Burning Man organization had wargamed this scenario. They delivered cell phone towers to the playa so people could make plans. They kept port-potties clean and well-stocked. They had a web page with clear communication so everyone knew what was happening and what to expect. (https://burningman.org/event/wetplaya2023/)

Furthermore, the Burning Man Organization actually pays for hyper-local weather reports every year, so they can start ramping up contingency plans the moment it looks like those plans will be needed.

🔥 There were plenty of supplies. The very ethos of the event includes Radical Self-Reliance. Everyone who attends is expected to bring *everything* they need to survive for a week. Including a bucket and pee bottle if necessary. There was never a shortage of supplies, and many camps have even said (on TV) that they still had a huge surplus and were trying like crazy to give the extra away. (This happens every years)

🔥 People helped each other. That’s the point. Other guiding principles are Community Effort and Civic Responsibility. You may never have experienced this in daily life–I know I hadn’t. On-Playa, people simply help each other out all the time. Constantly. If a camp was struggling for some reason (needing to move electrical cords, needing extra supplies, etc.), surrounding camps just pitched in to help.

🔥 People were already diligent. Leave No Trace: Another principle is Leave No Trace. Everyone is expected to carry out everything they bring in. So participants are naturally very careful about the ecology. This did not change during the mud, though the mud definitely made it harder to do a LNT sweep (because things may have been buried by the mud). The “Playa restoration crew” is going to have their work cut out for them in the next few weeks making sure the Playa is in perfect condition.

🔥 People had a good time. Watch the media interviews with actual participants. It’s funny watching news anchors try so hard for a story of tragedy, while almost every participant interviewed says “it was wet and muddy and that was kind of a bummer, so we build mud slides and mud sculptures and walked around instead of riding our bikes and played board games and had a good time.

The lessons

  • Take media reporting skeptically. They’re searching for the disaster story, not the accurate story.
  • Learn to do risk management. The Burning Man Org wargamed wet Playa scenarios, so they knew what to do when it happened.
  • Take responsibility for yourself, while helping others. The combination of “be self-reliant” and “take care of your community” is powerful. If everyone does it, then when you fall short in your own preparations, people can help you out, and vice versa.
AI is Computerized Theft. Today, it’s Zoom

AI is Computerized Theft. Today, it’s Zoom

Zoom, the video conference company, just updated their Terms of Service. Section 10.4 lets them use your meeting content to train machine learning and AI models.

  • They could use this to duplicate your expertise, if you deliver your expertise via Zoom.
  • This could put you in violation of the law if you’re in a privacy-regulated profession.
  • Zoom says they’ll asked for consent first, but they don’t say how. It could be as deceptive as “You must click Accept on our updated terms.”
  • I’m looking for privacy-protecting alternatives to recommend.

The background.

Does Machine Learning really duplicate expertise? Yes.Machine learning is the new hot topic in Silicon Valley. It is a statistical analysis method that uses large data sets to create computer programs that can predict things. For example, medical diagnosis systems would be given a huge number of medical cases. Each would be given the symptoms, the eventual diagnosis, and whether that diagnosis was correct.

With enough data, the system would be able to diagnose as well as (or better than) any of the doctors who provided the training data.

Getting enough high-quality data is the key to building a model that works.

Cloud services are using user data to create and “steal” those users’ product. Adobe has released truly astonishing new capabilities in their image processing program Photoshop. The latest Photoshop can fill in blank spaces in images, as if by magic.

How did the AI get that ability? By training on images that graphic designers had stored in the Adobe Cloud over the last decade.

The Terms of Service did say, buried somewhere in several dozens or hundreds of pages of legalese, that data stored in the Adobe Cloud could be used for the creation of new products and services.

I think it’s highly unlikely that (a) users knew that clause was there, (b) users understood the implications of letting Adobe train an AI on their images (implications that Adobe can now duplicate their work) (c) users thought that a cloud service, which is usually a storage product, would be used to train an AI for delivery in a separate product.

Is this theft? Legally, probably not. But morally and ethically, I use a different test: if the users of Adobe Cloud had been told “we will use any image you store with us to train an AI to be able to generate similar images without paying photographers or designers royalties of any sort,” I’m fairly sure most people would have opted out. They probably would have said “You mean you want to steal my images and design style? Hard pass.”

This is playing out right now in Hollywood. The actors’ and writers’ strike shows that when people understand that they’re being asked to give away their creative work for free, they refuse. The actors and writers are simply asking for protection against exactly this sort of AI duplication of their work and likeness.

Does one person’s data really matter? If Zoom is collecting data on billions of meetings, do my meetings really make that much difference in their machine learning models?

No. And Yes. If (as has happened) a bank accidentally charges 100,000 accounts an incorrect $10 fee, does that matter? $10 is unlikely to bankrupt anyone. But the bank just walked away with a million dollars. I think we would all call that theft.

AI companies are doing the same thing now, only with expertise rather than money.

How this affects you.

Legal effects. If you’re a doctor, trainer, consultant, therapist, lawyer, or anyone who delivers your product or service via Zoom, this means that your private conversations may be used to train a machine learning model.

Depending on your profession, there may be legal implications for you if this happens.

Ethical effects. If Zoom then releases that machine learning model in some form (or even just uses it internally), that model might produce output that is similar to the conversations you’ve had. It may use slightly different words, or omit proper names, but it may summarize your conversations or convey the gist of them. Depending on the summary, it might give enough hints that a reader could deduce the actual details.

Competitive effects. If you make your money from your advice giving, the model that Zoom builds might be used, as Adobe’s was, to produce a product that directly competes with you in the marketplace. Why hire an interior decorator when Zoom will let you pay $50 to work with an AI that’s been trained on a few hundred thousand conversations that real interior decorators had with their clients.

What to do next.

If you think there may be legal implications with your conversations being recorded by Zoom, check with your lawyer. Point them to sections 10,2, 10,3, and 10,4 of the Terms of Service. Also, the privacy policy.

If you’re concerned about your conversations being used to put you out of business, stop using Zoom and refuse to deliver your services over anyone else’s Zoom account (they may have given consent for their account to be used for training data).

Be vigilant. These clauses are becoming more and more common with cloud services. When you use any new high tech product, search “Terms of Service” pages for the phrases “Machine Learning” and “AI” and “artificial intelligence” and see what rights you’re giving up to your own work product.

(Cars are now a high-tech product, by the way. Pay particular attention to whether the car company can monitor and record everything you do and say inside your car. Some car companies have you grant that right as a condition of buying the car.)

Stay safe out there. Because now, it’s your very own productivity tools that are trying to take you down.

Fearless Entrepreneurship with Rhonda Britten

Rhonda Britten is an Emmy Award-winner, repeat Oprah guest, and author of four best-sellers. She’ll be helping us understand how fear plays a role in our business and entrepreneurial lives, and will give us tools for identifying and dealing with our fear.

Becoming Indistractible with Nir Eyal

Learn to overcome distraction! Our modern life is built for distraction. Indeed, that’s the basis of many high tech companies’ business models—to take us away from the highest and best use of our time, and “engage” us on their platforms. Sometimes the reasons are benign. There may be a misguided 22-year-old who thinks “engagement” is the goal of their product. Often, the reasons are actively exploitative, as they want to shove ads in our face hoping to distract us even further.

Nir Eyal rose to fame as the author of “Hooked.” He intended engaging products to be used for good. His latest thinking is embodied in “Indistractable,” which tells us how to wrest our lives back from all these engaging products.

You CAN Change Other People with Peter Bregman and Howie Jacobson

Wouldn’t life just be easier if everyone did what we wanted? Of course it would! Peter and Howard will share what they’ve learned over the years working with leaders of organizations on changing culture and changing behavior. Join us for what’s sure to be a lively discussion. If it isn’t lively enough, I’ll challenge them to use their own methods to up their game. Sometimes I’m just a wee bit ruthless.

Personal Branding with William Arruda

Join me for a discussion with William Arruda, a leading authority on using power of branding and social media to succeed in your career.

William started as a brand expert in corporate America, and brought the concepts to personal branding. A pioneer in the personal branding revolution, he has created products that have been used by over 2 million people and has certified over 1,000 coaches in his premier personal branding methodology. He has been credited with turning the concept of personal branding into a global industry.

He is the bestselling author of the definitive books on the topic of personal branding, Digital YOU, Career Distinction and Ditch. Dare. Do! and he’s a sought-after spokesperson on branding, social media and employee motivation. His clients include Google, Adobe, JPMorgan, BMW, Johnson&Johnson, LinkedIn, Gucci, Microsoft, Warner Bros, Disney and American Express. William’s a senior contributor to Forbes where his column has received over 15 million views.

Brain-based DOs and DON’TS for the New Work Reality with Dr Brynn

Join us for Dr. Brynn to discuss Top Brain-Based Do’s and Don’ts as we return to offices and engage in new hybrid work models. Learn tips and tricks from applied neuroscience for how you stay sustainably motivated and productive at work, no matter what post-pandemic work realities are in store for you!

The Widest Net – Unlocking Untapped Markets with Pam Slim

Want a great work career? Pamela Slim rose to fame writing Escape from Cubicle Nation. With her help, hundreds of people have successfully escaped from soul-sucking work situations into self-employment. Pam will be joining me to discuss her latest book, The Widest Net, in which she shows how we all have untapped markets for our businesses that we can reach with a moment’s notice.

Setting Good Boundaries – Just Between Coaches, with Melinda Cohan

In this replay of an interview I did on Just Between Coaches with Melinda Cohan, we explore boundaries. In a world where our home and work lives are increasingly merged, we need good boundaries. Boundaries tell us, and other people, what’s acceptable and where. Melinda and I discuss how coaches—or any professional service provider—should manage their boundaries for the most satisfying relationships with their clients.

How to Live Your Values (no, you don’t really care)

How to Live Your Values (no, you don’t really care)

“Hello, valued customer, your call is very important to us. Now please wait 15 minutes because we don’t want to spend the money to staff our phone lines.”

There was an actual human being who decided to record that message. That actual human being may really have believed that they valued customers. I fervently hope I’m not that person.

Your are your values

Values are an interesting thing. We all have them. They drive our behavior. They determine who we hang out with. They determine our decisions. And when we’re giving our TED talk, we even talk about our values. We list them. We point to their worldly goodness. “Family is what matters most.” Everyone nods. We think we live our values.


The values we proclaim—the ones in our TED talk—may have no relationship to the values we live by. Most of us assume that our lived values correspond to our proclaimed values. Most of us are wrong.

This matters because our lived values are the ones people will judge us by. They’re the values that will determine our reputation and “personal brand.” Those, in turn, will determine who wants to do business with us, who wants to hang out with us, and much of the quality of our emotional lives. The continual neglect of our teenagers’ science fair competitions are what they remember, not the world “family matters most.”

This also matters because presumably we actually want to be living our espoused values! What if we talk about integrity, and really want to be surrounded by people with integrity? What if we talk about respect, and really want to respect people and be respected by them? How can we make this happen?

Know What You Value (and thus, Who You Really Are)

First, list your proclaimed values. This will be easy, because they’re the ones you proclaim. Simply answer the question “what do you value?” off the top of your head. You’ll get the list. Watch your TED talk. You did a great job of listing them there. “I value truth, constructive disagreement, and following through on promises.”

Next, identify where those values drive your behavior. For each of your values, think about the kinds of decisions and tradeoffs where those values would show up. If you value truth, where would that manifest? Perhaps in giving feedback when someone asks if they’ve done a good job. Or when they ask if their current outfit is flattering.

If you value constructive disagreement, that would manifest in conversations with your spouse where you have differing opinions about something important. When it comes to following through on promises, you would look at things you’ve promised, and when (or if) you delivered on those promises.

Lastly, take a hard look at your lived values. Go through the scenarios you identified and notice what you actually did in those situations. Did you give honest feedback, or did you say the easy thing that wouldn’t rock the boat? Did you cave in to your spouse, because it was easier than asserting your own opinion. Do you have excuses at the ready, to show why it was actually reasonable to break all those promises?

This is very hard, because you will find that your lived values don’t match up perfectly to your proclaimed values. Indeed, some people may find that their lived values are the opposite of their proclaimed values. It is far more comforting to live in ignorance, than face the reality that the person who most betrays your values is you.

Now Change: Start Living Your Values

Once you know where the gaps are, you know where to change your behavior. Next time you’re in the situations you identified, consciously behave according to your proclaimed values, instead of your lived values.

This will feel wrong and unnatural! You’ve spent your lifetime deciding to reduce staffing in a call center so you boost profits. Now, you’re making a decision to spend more money to provide better customer service. If that decision felt natural, you would already behave that way. Expect yourself to resist, push back, and generally try to maintain the status quo.

It’s helpful to enlist trusted friends and colleagues in helping me change. You can ask your teenagers, “I want to do a better job of putting family Please tell me when I’m falling down.” They’re teenagers. They’ll tell you. You can ask your work colleagues, “I want to do a better job of living our values of customers-first. Please help me make decisions that reflect that.” You’ll be surprised. If you are sincere in your request, and you act on their feedback, people will be happy to help.

Values are the core of our identity. Our proclaimed values represent the ideal we wish to be. Our lived values represent the person we are. By bringing the two together, you’ll be taking control of both who you genuinely develop to be, and others will come to see you as that same (hopefully awesome) person.