Seasteading’s Challenge to the Perennial Salon

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Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians
By Joe Quirk and Patri Friedman

Hardcover
384 pages
Free Press, 21 March 2017
ISBN-10: 1451699263
ISBN-13: 978-1451699265

Saint Andrew’s Day isn’t normally marked within Samsung’s Heavy Industries Geoje shipyard, South Korea. However, on a crisp, clear Saturday early morning in 2013, Scotsmen could be seen mouthing a small prayer of thanks as the Anglo-Dutch oil and gas concern, Shell, tugged Prelude into open harbor. What the hell were Scotsmen doing, anyway, in South Korea, celebrating what amounts to their homeland’s national day!

Prelude is Shell’s international gamble at taking a refinery to natural gas deposits previously imagined out of reach. Longer than the Empire State Building is tall, its hull is among the largest ever built. The enormous project is an inspiring project, stretching four continents and thousands of people, including Scottish engineers known for their seafaring acumen.

Prelude’s anchoring chains hail from Spain. What appear to be giant floating arms from France are themselves a marvel. Malaysian subsea equipment defy proper adjective. South Korean pipe networks rival the most complex parts of the human body. Weathervane turrets from Dubai, UAE, seem to be at unreasonable proportions. The onshore supply base in Australia is state of the art. Even the mooring cable from Texas, USA, dazzles in scale.

When finally deployed for its mission, Prelude is to be at sea a staggering quarter of a century.

Press coverage and financial speculation contend Shell’s near 13 billion Prelude foray is perhaps foolish in light of recent gluts of natural gas making its way to market. Parts of the grandiose undertaking have been shelved with the hope of outlasting bottoming prices.

At least one man monitored Prelude from a completely different perspective. He immediately understood it is Prelude’s engineering, and perhaps not its business application necessarily, that is Prelude’s unrealized value.

STORYTELLER

Journalist and novelist, Joe Quirk, co-author of Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians, is easily the most interesting person at any cocktail party he attends.

It isn’t hard to imagine Mr. Quirk, in between introductions and hor d’oeuvres, capturing party goers’ curiosity when he announces his occupation as “Aquapreneur,” his neologism for business savvy folks looking toward the ocean.

Mr. Quirk’s almost monotone voice oddly resonates with a confidence of having answered thoroughly all objections. This isn’t some passing interest for him. It’s an evangelical undertaking happening right now.

Seasteading, building freer societies upon unincorporated parts of the world’s oceans, is one of those so-crazy-it-just-might-work ideas within liberty/stateless circles. Long discussed, presented, talked about, mulled over, most cranks like myself mentally pocketed the idea years ago. Compelling enough, definitely, but it seemed wishful, immediately impractical.

And it’s such an expansive, vast subject, a gigantic rabbit hole of statistics and science and philosophy, seasteading requires an able storyteller. Such a person must reemerge with this idea firmly pointed at our head, but with verve enough to capture our heart.

A FAMILY INTUITION

The concept of seasteading really begins in earnest with Patri Friedman, grandson of Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman. The third generation Friedman doesn’t shy away from his famous lineage, which also includes anarcho-capitalist philosopher father David Friedman. In fact Mr. Friedman the younger uses all three men as a metaphor for the seasteading idea itself.

Whereas grandfather Milton Friedman hoped to work within the world’s largest capitalist system, urging it toward ever-more free market ends, father David Friedman carried the intellectual ball to its logical conclusion: anything governments do, private, voluntary markets do better. Patri Friedman tired of the endless salon, the debates, and instead preferred direct action. It does seem everything about Mr. Friedman means building rather than debate.

Mr. Friedman describes his family philosophy as an intuition. Summers with his father meant a house filled with science fiction books, conversations about history and current events, trips to participatory Medieval festivals. An environment full of ideas, often well outside the mainstream, including overt atheism (which though chic today, wasn’t), allowed Mr. Friedman room to choose his interests, to develop himself.

The obvious career path, one nearly resisted by his father, was academia, especially economics. But Mr. Friedman fell in love with technology, computers, code. Though he doesn’t describe himself as a maker in the hands-on sense, there is an aspect of digital technology that allows Mr. Friedman to build things with his mind. Seasteading is that very intellectual exercise, combining the ideas of his youth with a chance to impact the real world of things.

Building upon his paternal edifices, Mr. Friedman vowed to take theory into practice. Real world. Right now. He, along with gadfly investor Peter Thiel, founded the Seasteading Institute.

It was a flash immediately.

The Seasteading Institute was a giant middle finger to the state, at least at first. Abandoned ocean oil platforms were commandeered under its name. Cheeky write-ups in any manner of national magazines often commented on the project’s militancy and its stridency. That was fine for the red meat base, segments of the liberty movement still young and daredevil, but it didn’t do much for serious investors (Mr. Thiel notwithstanding).

BURNING MEN

It was clear Mr. Friedman needed a spokesperson to sell seasteading to a slightly wider audience, to get taken seriously. Mr. Quirk, as it happened, was just six weeks off an ocean cruise and attending his tenth Burning Man festival on Nevada’s Black Rock Playa, one of the largest, flattest surfaces on the planet. Besides being a super-ironic place for the iconic seasteading duo to have met, Burning Man too is often poo-poo’d as a bit of a sham, a hipster get down, a fanciful but ultimately unworkable idea in the long run.

Each year, nearly one hundred thousand visitors from all over the globe settle on that dusty patch to reinvent society for a week. Nudity and drugs abound, but it’s also a great deal deeper. Visionaries and storytellers are attracted to its anarchic spirit.

Mr. Quirk describes the serendipity of his meeting Patri Friedman:

“A decade of watching Burning Man develop had taught me that rules for society evolve in unpredictable ways given their initial parameters. My week on a cruise ship showed me that de-facto self-governing cities floating on the sea can be run better than the coastal cities of rich nations. When I learned about seasteading, I instantly understood that permanently floating cities on the high seas was technologically possible, and that start-up nano-nations were legally possible. If we could have thousands of seasteads, we’d unleash an evolutionary market process among governance providers, and unpredictable marvels of governance would emerge if only people could choose among them. I realized seasteads would not be properly characterized as nation-states, because they would be founded not on government force but on voluntary choice. We have almost half the world’s surface to experiment with new societies and unleash innovation and freedom. I decided this approaching technology was too important to be an obscure debate topic among Silicon Valley bloggers. We needed to make it happen soon. It had to be a mainstream topic of conversation in popular media. I offered to write a popular book about seasteading so everybody could bring their creativity to it.”

[interview with author]

Indeed, their fateful meeting even crept eventually into The Seasteading Institute’s logo as an homage to The Man of Burning Man. The pair set about building a legitimate non-profit institute of science and discovery. Both men travelled the world, meeting with movers and shakers, delivering lectures to nearly anyone who’d listen, and doing regular amounts of press. The idea moved along so well, the institute commissioned an X-Prize-like design competition to both spur interest and to engage the best engineering minds. The mock-ups alone are worth a visit to the website. They’re nothing short of spectacular.

NO LONGER JUST A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT

Shell’s Prelude is proof enough, as are cruise ships and various ocean liners, that the engineering is more than there to begin serious exploration of floating cities, micro-nations. The idea has moved beyond the salon.

Quirk and Friedman’s Seasteading is not an obvious mandatory read for those concerned with the future of freer societies. Close to 200 governments rest on terra firma, tending to the hopes and desires of seven billion people. That ratio begs for change. And if personages desire change, they’re effectively locked in the tax farm of their birthplace. Fewer countries permit anything like free migration, fewer still encourage it.

Gallup polled adult residents in 135 countries, and sixteen percent of their populations wish to leave their places of birth permanently. That translates to seven hundred million people. That’s literally two United States.

What is the United States, really, other than a kind of oasis of government experimentalism? Hardly perfect, the US can be thought of an almost island nation during the late 18th century, a respite for visionaries and storytellers of yore. Outcasts. Criminals. Tax avoiders. Revolutionaries. That it was able to come into existence at all at least put pressure upon other nations, surely contributing to the hastening of monarchical decline (for example) and renewed interest in individual rights (at least rhetorically).

British historian Donald Cardwell described a version of the above tension. Since governments over time feel they have to compete less, a kind of stagnation takes hold. Other areas of life seem to improve, innovate. Governments appear less inclined, and, as interests grab the machinery of the state, even less inclined the further such governments exist. Reason suggests there are more than 200 ways to organize humans, and that perhaps, very probably, the best ideas are being held back, retarded by Cardwell’s Law.

Seasteading lays out in four compelling parts how, right now, researchers and scientists are working on the logistical problems with an eye to much larger solutions concerning the environment, poverty, and medical advancement. Each section profiles the important players, making Seasteading a brisk, easy read that leaves readers filled with possibilities. Every gummed up problem, every stinking barrier to advancement is presented at the feet of current political structures (medical potential being stifled made me boil with anger).

The good news, however, is The Seasteading Institute has inked a deal just this year with French Polynesia for a trial city off their shores, a testimonial to Patri Friedman’s exhortation to debate less and build more. It’s happening.

SPREAD TO THE UNIVERSITIES

Regular FEE readers include Political Science professors at the university level. I can think of literally no other book that would spark the imagination of undergrad students. Along with learning about the ins and outs of comparative governments, why not assign Quirk and Friedman’s fantastic new book, Seasteading, and have groups of students set about creating their own White Papers. The logistics alone will celebrate interdisciplinary study, from basic biology to philosophy to law to international relations, just to name a few.

For sure the concept of seasteading is a bit of an ideological Rorschach test, and that is at least a considerable part of its charm. Quirk and Friedman have their own ideas but never presume to know what is best for everyone. Instead they’re leaving humanity with the intellectual scaffolding to challenge existing orders. With seven hundred million people dreaming of life somewhere else, crying in the darkness of what amounts to a grand DNA lottery (most of us just happened to land on this side of the gated community), the time to take Quirk and Friedman seriously is right now.

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