The next frontier: 'Seasteading' the oceans

A visionary collection of Silicon Valley engineers and financiers has created the Seasteading Institute, which opened its doors in Palo Alto two weeks ago. The goal: to colonize the world's oceans.

Patri Friedman, executive director of the Seasteading Institute, previously worked in Google's Mountain View headquarters as a software engineer. Declan McCullagh/CNET News

PALO ALTO, Calif.--This chic, tree-lined California town might seem an unlikely place to begin the colonization of Earth's oceans. Palo Alto is known for expensive modernism, Stanford University, al fresco dining, and land prices so high a modest cottage still sells for well over $1 million.

If Patri Friedman gets his way, the area will also be remembered for birthing a political movement called seasteading. The concept is as simple to explain as it will be difficult to achieve: erecting permanent dwellings on the high seas outside the territorial waters claimed by the world's governments.

"Innovation in society and serving marginalized groups has always happened on the frontier," Friedman said in an interview last week. "We don't have a frontier anymore. The reason our political system doesn't innovate anymore is that there's no place to try out new things. We want to provide that place."

Designing an offshore place to live is one of the first tasks of the Seasteading Institute, which Friedman, 32, founded last year and moved into shared office space near the Palo Alto Caltrain station two weeks ago. Another task is attempting to legitimize living on the seas as practical--and perhaps, given possibilities for offshore businesses, even profitable.

Friedman previously worked in Google's Mountain View headquarters as a software engineer, identifies himself as a Burning Man aficionado, and counts himself as an unabashed libertarian. (His father, David Friedman, is a well-known libertarian law professor, and his grandfather, the late Milton Friedman, won the Nobel Prize in economics.)

Given the large number of like-minded souls in Silicon Valley circles, including at the Googleplex, it should be no surprise that a few dozen have coalesced to form a core group of would-be seasteaders, some of whom met last week for a social gathering inside downtown San Francisco's Metreon entertainment complex.

An artist's conception of a permanent ocean platform. Wendy Sitler

"I'd say that libertarian geeks are our most common audience so far. But in order to succeed, we'll have to branch out beyond that," Friedman said. "I think people are a lot better at inventing technology than changing human nature or changing social organizations. This is a technological solution to the problems of politics...I'm a libertarian, but I'm not a libertarian who believes that everyone should want to live in the same kind of society as me."

The Seasteading Institute plans to gather a kind of ad-hoc flotilla, called "ephemerisle," in the San Francisco Bay near Redwood City over the Fourth of July weekend. The plan for July 2010: find a way to hold the gathering off the coast in the Pacific Ocean.

Other supporters of the project include PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who runs a hedge fund called Clarium Capital Management and donated $500,000 to the Seasteading Institute. Former Sun Microsystems engineer Wayne Gramlich is the group's director of engineering; former Paypal manager James Hogan is its director of operations; Liz Lacy of now-defunct Excite@Home heads its development efforts.

While their affection for seasteading has varying origins, the broadest theme is to allow people to escape overreaching governments and replace conventional political systems with something of their own creation. (A section of their Web site is titled: "Land = Crappy Government" and says that terrestrial governments do a "terrible and sometimes horrific job" at serving the taxpayers that are their customers.)

Yet the Seasteading Institute's official position is, to put it in terms that Washington politicians might employ, thoroughly nonpartisan. Once the engineering work is complete and groups can purchase, outfit, and launch their own platforms, Friedman and his colleagues predict that some of the first 'steaders will not be nudists, recreational drug users, pacifists, environmentalists, or religious groups hoping to create an enclave far away from secular influences.

A history of failure
One way to look at the prospect of colonizing the oceans is that it represents the continuation of a westward trend that began with Greece and continued through Rome, Gaul, Britain, and the North American continent.

"When people got to California that was as far west as they could go," said David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C. "Maybe this will turn out to be an opportunity to revive that search for a frontier."

Boaz questions whether the United States is sufficiently repressive to prompt enough people to move offshore. "In a prosperous, comfortable society, it might be hard to get people to take those kinds of risk," he said, referring to "the risk aversion of a wealthy society."

Plus, colonizing land even at the wilderness' edge is trivial compared with the technical and engineering challenges of colonizing the ocean. Can a floating platform weather typhoons and so-called rogue waves that can swell to more than eight stories tall? Should it be stationary or mobile? Will food be grown, harvested, or imported? And what about more prosaic matters, such as communications and waste disposal?

History is littered with examples of similar projects that failed. There was Marshall Savage's Aquarius Project, which wanted to start by colonizing the ocean's surface and then move to the stars.

Artist's conception of a seasteading platform. Wendy Sitler

A Las Vegas real estate tycoon behind the Republic of Minerva wanted to form a no-tax utopian society by reclaiming land on a Pacific atoll; alas, the colonists were given the boot by a few troops from the island nation of Tonga. The free-marketeers behind Laissez-Faire City who wanted to found the next Hong Kong were never able to find a sympathetic government to lease them land.

An engineer named Norman Nixon has been trying for years to find investors for a so-called Freedom Ship, which would be a colossal project three times longer than any existing ship, with 25 stories above the waterline and a fully functioning airport. Nixon acknowledged last July that the project was on indefinite hold because his business partner "turned over our entire bank account to a man who promised him a 'Peruvian Gold certificate' worth a billion dollars."

The current crop of seasteaders is acutely aware of their predecessors' failings and has gone so far as to draft a critical history of the movement as part of a larger Internet-published book.

"I'd like to see lots of different things tried in lots of different places and we'll see what works," Friedman said. "We want to create a turnkey system by which any committed organized group can go out and make their own country and try out some new system."

Jason Sorens, an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, SUNY, specializes in the study of secessionist movements. His dissertation was titled "The Political Economy of Secessionism," and he was the founder of the Free State Project, an effort to convince freedom-loving Americans to move to New Hampshire. (Some 700 have taken the leap so far.)

Sorens said the seasteading concept reminds him of microstates like Monaco and Tuvalu. "They sustain their government budgets and their economies on niche economies that are based on commercialized sovereignty," he said. "Many of them sell top-level Internet domains, and that's a source of their revenue, or they're financial or data havens, or they raise money through philately (selling stamps). They use all these trappings of sovereignty to bring revenue into their coffers."

That raises the obvious question: assuming the engineering questions can be answered, and assuming that adequate capital can be raised, what about the legal and diplomatic challenges?

Friedman's answer is that in the short term, seasteads can pay money to purchase a vessel registration from Panama, Liberia, or the Bahamas, in the same way that most merchant ships do. Eventually, seasteads could assert their own sovereignty--something that likely will be met with something less than enthusiasm on the part of terrestrial governments. (Floating pseudo-cities could choose to remain within a nation's 200-mile exclusive economic zone, or sail deeper waters further offshore.)

"They may need to establish some sort of sovereignty of their own, and that's where the secessionist aspect comes in, to protect themselves from legal or military maneuvers," Sorens said. "Those are really uncharted waters. We don't have any other examples in international law of man-made structures becoming sovereign."

One case study can be found in HavenCo, an Internet hosting business created nine years ago atop a windswept gun emplacement six miles off the coast of England. The rusting, basketball-court-size fortress was abandoned by the British military after using it during World War II to shoot down Nazi aircraft, and was claimed in 1967 by Roy Bates, the self-described "crown prince of Sealand."

A HavenCo executive said in 2003 that the business was failing, and the hosting service went offline last year. Meanwhile, no member of the United Nations appears to have recognized Sealand as a sovereign state, and it lies within the territorial boundary of 10 miles claimed by England.

The Seasteading Institute candidly admits floating platforms will be outgunned by a modern navy, concluding the wiser option is to "avoid angering terrestrial nations enough to provoke an attack."

That means that, ironically, seafaring communities created by liberty-loving libertarians may ban businesses from their platforms that dabble in controversial practices such as offshore banking with complete privacy. (Medical tourism--think hip replacement surgery at 80 percent discounts--coupled with gambling, on-platform use of recreational drugs, adult prostitution, and genetic engineering may prove sufficiently profitable.)

"As long as what happens on seasteads stays on seasteads, then terrestrial governments hopefully will not feel too threatened," Friedman said. "The whole nature of seasteading is that it's a very experimentalist, very diverse world we're trying to create. People are welcome to create seasteads that violate any of my recommendations. I could be wrong: if they want to take that risk, we'll see what happens and we'll learn from it."

 

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