Sorry for the lack of new content lately, I’m still recovering from my injury. To make sure you don’t forget about us, check out Seasteading: engineering the long tail of nations, an Ars Technica piece on us from earlier this week. While I think Tim is overly pessimistic about our chances, he has an excellent grasp of the main challenges, and is definitely worried about the right things.
The piece begins:
Until the 1960s, Europe had few commercial radio stations. Broadcasting was a government monopoly in many European countries, and listening options were limited to a few staid government stations such as the BBC. But as Erwin Strauss tells it, that changed when enterprising "pirate radio" ships began dropping anchor off the shores of European countries and blasting the latest pop music in violation of those countries’ laws. The governments were not amused, but because the ships were in international waters, there was little they could do. Most European governments began refusing the pirate radio ships access to their harbors, but the ships were able to find harbor elsewhere.
European governments finally succeeded in shutting down the pirate radio stations in the late 1960s by passing laws prohibiting their subjects from doing business with the broadcasters—including purchasing advertising from them. But the episode created a political constituency for private radio stations and the broadcast of more pop music. In the UK, for example, private, commercial radio broadcasting was finally legalized in the early 1970s.
History has many examples of hierarchical institutions being disrupted by technological advances. The invention of the printing press helped undermine the authority of the Catholic Church. Today, the Internet is undermining traditional copyright industries.
An audacious new project aims to achieve a similar result by creating new competition for the world’s sovereign nations. The Seasteading Institute, the brainchild of two Silicon Valley software developers, aims to develop self-sufficient deep-sea platforms that would empower individuals to break free of the cozy cartel of 190-odd world governments and start their own autonomous societies. They envision a future in which any group of people dissatisfied with its current government would be able to start a new one by purchasing some floating platforms—called seasteads—and build a new community in the open ocean.
History is littered with utopian schemes that petered out after an initial burst of enthusiasm, something the Seasteading Institute’s founders readily acknowledge. Indeed, they chronicle these failures in depressing detail on their website. With names like the Freedom Ship, the Aquarius Project, and Laissez-Faire City, most of these projects accomplished little more than receiving a burst of publicity (and in some cases, raising funds that were squandered) before collapsing under the weight of their inflated expectations.
There are many reasons to doubt that the Seasteading Institute will realize its vision of floating cities in the sea; but there are at least two reasons to think that seasteading may prove to be more successful than past efforts to escape the grasp of the world’s governments. First, the project’s planners are pragmatic—at least by the standards of their predecessors—pursuing an incrementalist strategy and focusing primarily on solving short-term engineering problems. Second, they recently announced a half-million dollar pledge from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, giving them the resources to begin serious engineering and design work. While there are many obstacles to be overcome before they will have even a functioning prototype—to say nothing of a floating metropolis—their project doesn’t seem as obviously hopeless as most of the efforts that have preceded it.
Ars talked to Seasteading Institute co-founder Patri Friedman about the seasteading project and the engineering and political problems it will face.