August 28, 2010

Answers to some basic seasteading questions about strategy

On the [floating-festival mailing-list]( – now turned mostly to a marine hackerspace / bay area seasteading community list – Matt Bell asks some basic questions. Really, all these questions should be answered in a book, or a “How To Seastead” guide, but [our versions of those]( are about 8 years old and badly in need of update. Which will be my major project for the rest of the year – it’s really quite unfortunate that while we have communicated our core vision widely and well, the strategic details have mainly been restricted to internal discussions. Which is why it’s now a top priority to create that “missing manual”.

> I understand TSI’s desire to push for efforts toward seasteading and
> permanent ocean communities in particular. However, it would be useful for
> the group to understand some of the specifics of how TSI wants to create a
> permanent ocean community.
> For example:
> Is physical modularity important? I’ve heard the vision of people being
> able to sail off with their homes to a different seastead if they don’t like
> the government. That means your home has to be sea-worthy. Could the bar
> be lower? What if your home is a shipping container on a decommisioned
> aircraft carrier, and you can hire movers to pluck you and take you
> somewhere else?

Physical modularity is important but not primary. Roughly speaking, there are 2 main political benefits: lowering the barrier to entry (being able to start new countries, which you basically can’t do now), and making those countries more physically dynamic through modularity. The former is more important because the latter is limited – physical modularity only gets you increased competition in a limited way because a) people can already move themselves and their stuff without moving buildings, b) people are tied by social networks much more than they are by their buildings being locked into place. There are still many advantages to physical modularity, though.

I imagine there will be a minority of nomadic seasteaders who travel frequently. For the majority, it should be like moving your house – something that happens every few years, maybe less, in which case requiring a moving service (ie a crane to pick up your shipping container house) is just fine. The unit itself doesn’t have to be seaworthy. This is important because engineering considerations will likely make the module size for seasteads large – hundreds of thousands of square feet or more – just because of considerations of dealing with the waves and being safe and comfortable. Given this large module size, we’d love to have smaller modules on top so we still get home-level modularity even when the base modules are big. And a number of those interested in seasteading (like Brazilian architect Anthony Ling, one of the design contest winners) are really interested in modular housing.

Damn, need to give shorter answers 🙂

> What’s the smallest/cheapest truly all-weather ocean-worthy vessel? If
> seasteads are truly going to be modular, the minimum “atomic” size for a
> boat will have to be that size. The culture will be very different if it’s
> an 1000 person vessel vs a 10 person vessel.

You can have a small, cheap, safe tiny vessel. Small structures do the best in large waves because they track them perfectly – imagine a leaf floating in the ocean. Very safe. Bad things happen when waves cause stresses across a large structure, or break over a large structure. Unfortunately, tied to that safety for small structures is lack of comfort – they are save because they track the waves, but tracking the waves, in anything but small waves, is pretty uncomfortable and makes it hard to get any work done. Professional sailors manage, but they are a selected group, have time to acclimatize, and are only trying to do a limited range of things during bad weather.

The comfort of a larger vessel or an oil rig is based on not tracking the waves – on moving less than the waves move. And that takes size in various dimensions depending on your scheme and what motions you want to reduce. Depth (hundreds of feet) helps protect against heave motions by getting below the waves (wave motion continues well below the trough of the wave, to a depth proportional to wavelength, not wave height!). Length, when facing into the waves, makes you like a moving average, which smooths the wave – but requires a strong hull to handle the stresses. Width helps smooth the waves if they happen to be coming from the sides (“beam seas”), which may be unavoidable if you have a particular direction to go, or if waves are coming from multiple directions at once (which they can do – what with being waves, they can have an arbitrary composition of phases, frequences, and directions – they are far from uniform).

So we really don’t know the answer – professional ocean engineers tell us you have to be big to be comfortable, but people like Vince & Wayne think you may be able to design a clever new type of small structure which sacrifices something (like mobility) and meets the requirements. This is, obviously, one of our core engineering questions for our new DirEng to research.

> Is engineering important? A seastead could just consist of a bunch of
> people buying rooms on a cruise ship floating in deep water. That’s known
> technology. Is there a reason to innovate? Maybe there’s a modular design
> or an artificial deep-water harbor that would reduce the minimum vessel
> size.

Engineering is definitely important in the long-run, ships are optimized for speed, not for being modularly assemblable into a city. However, it is not important for the short-run, except for PR & marketing reasons. We have talked extensively about starting by just buying a used cruise ship so that we could innovate on the business and legal side while engineering research progresses. I find that route very attractive, but our new DirEng is concerned about the PR implications and would rather design something new and start there. I told him it depends on how much extra time & money the newness costs :). I have always thought that an artificial deep water harbor is what big seastead cities will look like, but with no engineering behind the idea it must be considered speculative for now.

> How important is it to have a small group of dedicated proto-seasteaders
> vs a broad cultural awareness of seasteading in general? (Update: It will
> likely be a while before a DIY community puts an agglomerated seastead in
> international waters. This is a high hurdle, so what do you feel is an
> exciting shorter-term goal?)

I have always felt strongly that we need a small group of dedicated people far more than broad awareness, but it is fuzzy because broad awareness is often what gets you the attention of those few committed individuals. But I would take 1 person ready to seastead, with a business that will work there, over 1000 people who have heard of seasteading and think it is cool, any day. It is inherent in the nature of our incremental, “Just Do It”, “Be the solution” approach that what we need most is to get out there and seastead.

An exciting short-term goal would be to solve any single challenge of real seasteading, even as a one-shot. For example, to connect two structures together in the waves outside the Golden Gate (doesn’t need to be international waters) and have their link survive in a storm without damaging either vessel. Or to take one structure into international waters and do, as a PR stunt, something illegal in the US but legal on a liberian-flagged vessel (which would require your vessel to be liberian-flagged, and a careful examination of how to comply with all relevant laws so that your stunt is truly legal according to the laws of everywhere but Liberia). Or to start a business that uses international waters, even on a temporary basis, as it’s competitive advantage (breaking some bad law the US doesn’t enforce outside its territory). Any of those would represent a substantial milestone along engineering, legal, and business, which I currently consider the key axes.

> In general I’d be interested in a clearer picture of TSI’s community vision
> in the short and long term. Maybe it’s on the website somewhere and you
> could just point us to it.

Well, a seastead will be a giant intentional community, so we want to form a community. The question of what that community should do is much trickier :). I don’t think we have a clear vision beyond: a bunch of people who like seasteading, are learning about it, bonding with each other, developing relevant skills, advising TSI, spreading the word, and (for the most committed) preparing their lives for seasteading (telecommutable jobs, etc.).

Something related is that TSI is currently doing a marketing/branding/communications revamp (our first, and badly needed), and the question of “What do you need from your audience” came up. Our current answer is:

1. Money
2. Seasteaders
1. Volunteers & job candidates w/ specialized skills (oceanography, fundraising, engineering, maritime law, Drupal coding…)
3. Anyone who can connect us with 1,2,3.

There are other things we need, and that list will change in the future, but I think we need those things way more than anything else. I see developing a local community of people interested in seasteading as a way to potentially get all of these – for example, we’ve received $10K donations from two different people who came to our Bay Area socials, and we just saw someone post on the floating festival list that she’d love a timeshare on a cruise ship – which is our current proposed business model – so obviously the local community is developing some people ready to seastead.