Young Millionaire Technologists Challenge Constitutional Culture by Building Autonomous Ocean Communities
The complex relation between anthropology and science can be illustrated by the development of alternative methods of governance based on technological advancements proposed by the Seasteading Institute. A non-profit think-tank co-founded in 2008 by Patri Friedman (grandson of economist Milton Friedman) and Peter Thiel (Paypal’s co-founder and Facebook’s angel investor), the institute’s goal is to create permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable innovation with new political and social systems. Central to seasteading is the assumption that a lack of incentives for innovation brought about by constitutional politics is responsible for poor governance. These men, part of a larger, wealthy group based in Silicon Valley, have invested massively in technological and biomedical research in the last decade.
The Men Who Belonged on Earth—and Sea
The goal of the Seasteading Institute, unique in its promotion of ocean city-states to advance humanity through innovative startup governments, is not absolute sovereignty but de facto autonomy. Without initially seeking international recognition, seasteads are places where profit-seeking entrepreneurs or groups of individuals motivated by other concerns could establish permanent settlements with the power to set their own rules. On the grounds that better incentives to innovate than those offered by actual political systems would lead to better rules more than traditional activism and protests, the institute proposes to improve governance performance by making the industry more competitive. A private initiative and part of a broader movement in response to both perceived legal and financial grievances associated with the rise of the modern nation-state, seasteading can also be considered in the context of a renewed theoretical interest in materiality and the growth of the libertarian movement in the United States.
Despite legal and technical challenges, seasteading is more likely to succeed than other offshore experimental communities thanks to the funding and support of a Silicon Valley-based, Stanford-educated group of young libertarian entrepreneurs. With economic, scientific and political power, the feats of these young venture capitalists already contribute to shape current and future scientific advancements and related policies. Institute co-founder and Silicon Valley visionary Peter Thiel is a well-known philanthropist and critic of the higher education bubble. Through the Thiel Foundation, whose motto is “Technology and Liberty,” he is investing in people in their early twenties whose ideas have the potential to radically transform how we integrate technology into our lives.
Thiel is also a partner of Founder’s Fund whose team members include young techno-geniuses and members of the so-called PayPal Mafia. Under the group’s umbrella are the most promising high-tech start-ups and companies such as Space X. Founded in 2002, the privately owned company that recently resupplied the International Space Station is revolutionizing space transportation “with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” Space X’s vice-president served as majority counsel to the Committee on Science and Technology in the US House of Representatives and helped shape the commercial spaceflight legislation, a hint of the extent to which the group can be involved in politics affecting new technologies.
When science is ahead of funding, private investors play an ever more important role in the financing of research and development. Is the rate of change happening so fast that none of our existing governments can handle it? Silicon Valley’s young techno-entrepreneurs think so, and are already in the process of changing the incentives embedded in today’s traditional funding structures. While lack of governmental funding and the involvement of private corporations in research are fueling both public concern about profit-minded corporations turning scientific research into business, and scientists’ concern that scientific advancements are delayed, anthropologists have the potential to contribute to the debate as exemplified in the seasteading experiment.
Technological Activism and Competitive Governance
The only spaces left to create free-experiment zones such as Google’s CEO Larry Page envisioned at a Google event on May 15, 2013 (“[…] some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out: What is the effect on society? What is the effect on people? Without having to deploy it into the normal world”) are sea and space. Considering the difficulties with colonizing space, seasteading presents an obvious solution. Since all land is either claimed, disputed or both, the most eccentric aspect of the project is ingeniously practical. Located in international waters, seasteads aim to improve governance quality through the creation of a space where it will be possible to compete against the government by taking advantage of the low barriers to entry in the governance market offered by the oceans.
Based on the idea that political outcomes depend on the incentives of the political system, and actual governance systems’ lack of incentives to innovate, seasteaders advocate for cultural, geographical and technological activism (summed up as environmental activism) to modify the environment in which governments appear and compete. Seasteaders acknowledge that cultural activism is unlikely to fundamentally transform the political ecosystem. Rather, their strategy is to focus on geographical activism: finding and promoting a location conducive to a more competitive governance industry, in this case the oceans, and technological activism: developing the technology, economics, and legal knowledge required to settle the oceans. Rules are also to be considered as technology. Taking from economist William Baumol (2002), seasteaders describes rules as “a particularly crucial technology because they form the environment in which other technologies develop” (Friedman and Taylor 2011). Although technological development in recent centuries has led to centralization of power, seasteaders believe that future development will push in the opposite direction: by reducing the political problem of how to improve rules to a technological problem to be solved by small, continually-interacting groups, it will be possible to change the incentives to innovate provided by the governance system.
With the ocean as a “blank canvas for sociopolitical experiments,” seasteading offers citizens the possibility of multiple choices of governance providers without the need for a visa. In this dynamic geography, mobile citizens (customers) can vote with their houses and leave the platform should they be unsatisfied with its governance industry. Such systems pertaining almost exclusively to technological and financial ventures are most likely to create new political identities relating essentially to transnational entrepreneurship in those fields. Seasteading citizenship is also of political significance in that it is completely detached from the territory and anchored in networks; seasteaders will not be spatially bounded, historically unselfconscious or culturally homogenous. Deterritorialization, as pointed out by Appadurai (1991), affects the transnational manipulation of currencies and other forms of wealth and investment and the strategies of states. This loosening of the ties between people, wealth and territories, he writes, fundamentally alters the basis of cultural reproduction, but at the same time creates new markets by marketing the homeland—quite literally in the case of seasteading.
As a particular example of a globalized technoscape encompassing activism, science and transnationalism (Appadurai 1991), seasteading provides a controlled environment for multi-sited ethnography. Partly inspired by petropolises created around offshore drilling platforms, cruise ships and Greek city-states and partly by the social organization of sea gypsies of Southeast Asia, seasteading creates a setting where anthropologists can study the creation and the dissolution of experimental political systems in relation to technology. How ocean settlers will develop and adapt modern technologies to traditional practices such as nomadic life and aquaculture is also of interest. To face these challenges, the institute has been recruiting volunteers to do research on platform design and engineering, oceanography, alternative energy, law, politics data transmission.
Anything Is Possible—Offshore
A spin-off project founded by two ex-employees of the Seasteading Institute, Blueseed, is set to launch in 2014. A floating startup incubator located off the coast of San Francisco, it will allow entrepreneurs from “anywhere in the world to start or grow their company near Silicon Valley, without the need for a US work visa.” Companies scheduled to board the ship include software design, IT services and a significant number which operate in biomedical technology. Patri Friedman and Peter Thiel are both advocates of transhumanism, and the latter also finances life-extension research. Medical tourism and biomedical research are industries which the Seasteading Institute’s co-founders believe will quickly find a market. The seastead movement should interest anthropologists concerned by the debate on transhumanism and artificial intelligence, a debate whose participants come in equal numbers from academic and business milieux and of which Silicon Valley is the epicenter.
Promoters are confident that a first successful seastead could encourage the construction of multiple platforms and foster the development of oceanic real estate. Benefiting from the low cost of moving large structures, multiple seasteads could join to take advantage of economies of scale but retain individual or small group mobility. The most successful innovations would be imitated and political systems bound to fail would not have to be experienced by populations on land. Yet whether a successful small-scale offshore political system can be equally successful when applied to a larger continental nation and how it can be done is not self-evident. There might be limits to the scale of experimentation on political systems. Although seasteading aims to innovate, it is essentially based on the premise of romantic American ideals of self-sufficiency and personal agency. The economic survival of the platforms will depend on their entrepreneurial citizens’ ability to develop new business models that challenge the status quo in science, finance and politics. Even without the need for visas, seasteads will not be accessible to everyone.
Many have denounced seasteading as a floating utopia for the wealthy, drawing similarities with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, the famous 1957 libertarian novel which was an inspirational source for the project, but there are many supporters of seasteading and they enjoy a broad spectrum of influence. A complex social endeavor, seasteading presents an opportunity for the pluralist approach of anthropology to help in better understanding the links between technology, modern society and the distribution of resources.
Isabelle Simpson has an honors degree in Western society and social thought and a major in anthropology from Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec. Her research interests include anthropology and philosophy of science, geopolitics and current responses to neoliberal economics.