My recent Wind Waker shitposting on the timeline aside, I must admit that seasteading is a project that really interests me.
In light of all the recent chatter about patchwork, I wanted to give a post over to seasteading in particular.
(Doesn’t the sea seem like the appropriate location for a U/ACC chaos patch…? It’s certainly an environment analogous with the #CaveTwitter worldview. Sea caves sound even better…)
However, there is much to be wary of with regards to the way the project is being steered by political and financial interest groups.
The basic idea behind seasteading, according to the Seasteading Institute’s ‘about‘ page, is one that fits very well with the overall interests of this blog:
Obsolete political systems conceived in previous centuries are ill-equipped to unleash the enormous opportunities in twenty-first century innovation […] All land on Earth is already claimed, making the oceans humanity’s next frontier.
Another short introductory video, elsewhere on the site, makes the project sound very attractive. It is neutral, for all intents and purposes. It says just enough about the basic idea of the project to sell its potentials for social innovation alongside a vibe of environmentalist and cultural conscientiousness.
However, what I find particularly intriguing (and disheartening) is that, underneath all the modular patchwork talk, mixed within the oceanic wonder and environmental activism, there is a persistent undertone of financial activity that, once you’ve scratched away the surface, gives way to a strong odour of Randian seaworthiness, so much so that there can be no prizes for any Bioshock comparisons.
One of the most successful videogame franchises of recent years, Bioshock is largely based on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged — the story of what might happen if private corporations headed for the exit.
The book’s protagonists, elite business owners and executives, discover a secret club of business leaders who have been convinced by the mysterious John Galt to leave a society that does not appreciate them and move instead to a secret city called Galt’s Gulch where the values of capitalism, reason and freedom have given rise to a veritable utopia, out of sight of the crumbling and ungrateful socialist USA.
Bioshock takes this premise and jettisons it 20,000 leagues beneath the sea, going further by turning the story on its head and revealing how the city of Rapture, a former libertarian utopia, has become a Randian R’yleh. (Spoiler: because of gene-hacking transhumanism, unregulated on a free market, which functions as both its downfall and saving grace in the right — i.e., the player’s — hands).
On its calm surface, the Seasteading Institute avoids any such utopian or dystopian overtones. It seems solely interested in social innovation that may, in future, benefit any or all of us. And yet, the more you read, the stranger the Institute’s personal brand of oceanic capitalism becomes. (Shout out to “Aquapreneurs”, a wonderfully awful neologism.)
Joe Quirk, who literally wrote the book on seasteading (with Patri Friedman), introduces an undeniably Randian view of the project on the Seasteading Institute’s YouTube channel.
In a lecture video recanting the “inside story” of seasteading, he begins:
I’m from San Francisco — a city with so much innovation and so much wealth, and so many tech geniuses migrate here to create the future, naturally its the most well-governed city in the best governed state in the most excellently governed country in the world…
When I get off that floating city [he shows a picture of a cruise ship going under the Golden Gate Bridge…] and get on that land-city, my cost of living goes up. My chances of being mugged, panhandled, ticketed and taxed all go up by orders of magnitude.
Why is the floating city better? That prestead has a special governing framework that borrows best practices from around the world.
Of all the videos on the Seasteading Institute YouTube channel, Quirk’s is by far the weakest and perhaps this is because it is the most in-depth. He gives an account of how seasteading sees itself as extending a historical precedence in the West for patchwork political archipelagos.
Of Ancient Greece, he says: “Each [island] established their own political system, each competed to attract residents, which produced a glorious civilisation that the West has been emulating for two-and-a-half thousand years.” Then, echoing this, he moves on to Venice: “A start-up society founded on the water which was among the king-less, self-governing city-states that kicked off the Italian Renaissance, and produced so many innovations in finance and art, Western civilisation has been imitating them ever since.”
Unfortunately, in highlighting where the Seasteading Institute is seeking to build its first cities, Quirk goes on to explain how they have purposefully sought out Special Economic Zones in order to then create “Extra Special Economic Zones”. Quickly, the attraction of politically experimental island-states fades as the reality of Randian artificial island tax havens comes into view.
A far better introduction to seasteading’s broader potentials is perhaps Patri Friedman’s essay ‘Beyond Folk Activism‘ on Cato Unbound. Again, Friedman is not shy about his desires for an experimental libertarian state but at least he explores how generally beneficial the model is to those wishing to set up other kinds of seastead.
Seasteading is my proposal to open the oceans as a new frontier, where we can build new city-states to experiment with new institutions. This dramatically lowers the barrier to entry for forming a new government, because expensive though ocean platforms are, they are still cheap compared to winning a war, an election, or a revolution. A lower barrier to entry means more small-scale experimentation. Also, the unique nature of the fluid ocean surface means that cities can be built in a modular fashion where entire buildings can be detached and floated away. This unprecedented physical mobility will give us the ability to leave a country without leaving our home, increasing competition between governments.
This plan is one of immediate action, not hope or debate. It makes use of the people we have now rather than trying to convert the masses, and avoids entrenched interests by moving to the frontier. Most importantly, it increases jurisdictional competition. It will not just create one new country, but rather an entire ecosystem of countries competing and innovating to attract citizens. Like any market, the process of trial and error will generate solutions we can’t even imagine — but that we know will be better for customers.
Seasteading is far from certain to succeed, but this is a hard problem, and there will be no easy answer. Two of the greatest risks are the expense and danger of the marine environment, and the chance that states will interfere. The latter is a systemic risk for any reform (if they’ll interfere with a new city in the ocean, then no place is safe), but the former is an idiosyncratic risk that could be diversified away if seasteading was part of a portfolio of freedom projects.
To take a step back, before tainting seasteading somewhat in his summary, Quirk draws on a lecture by Rutger de Graaf (PDF available here), a ecological researcher from the Netherlands who seems to have influenced the SI greatly.
However, De Graaf’s lecture comes from a notably different political perspective. He writes:
How could a floating city be governed? Over the last decades there has been a shift from top-down, hierarchical steering (government) towards more network-driven, decentralised forms of policy making with multiple actors (governance). Floating cities offer an opportunity to take this development a step further by using the opportunities that decentralised technologies offer. Floating cities on the ocean would constitute their own state and become members of international organisations such as the United Nations.
I’m not sure how much more attractive an alternative a UN-governed city-state is, and this is would surely be antithetical to a larger patchwork model… If Quirk says: “let’s do Randian Objectivism on the sea where it can’t be curtailed”, does Rutger want to do pursue some kind of Universalism on the sea instead?
Perhaps Rutger’s suggestion would work well, though, at least at first: a UN patch that is somewhat “neutral”, an initially collective endeavour from which others can later “exit” from, may allow for seasteading to function as Friedman and others profess to intend. (This seems to be the potential inherent to the International Space Station too, for example, although — with this post being about our oceans rather than outer space — I can’t say I’ve looked into this at all. A future post, perhaps.)
Scott Alexander explores this problem on his post “Archipelago and Atomic Communitarianism”:
Imagine a new frontier suddenly opening. Maybe a wizard appears and gives us a map to a new archipelago that geographers had missed for the past few centuries. He doesn’t want to rule the archipelago himself, though he will reluctantly help kickstart the government. He just wants to give directions and a free galleon to anybody who wants one and can muster a group of likeminded friends large enough to start a self-sustaining colony.
And so the equivalent of our paleoconservatives go out and found communities based on virtue, where all sexual deviancy is banned and only wholesome films can be shown and people who burn the flag are thrown out to be eaten by wolves.
And the equivalent of our social justiciars go out and found communities where all movies have to have lots of strong minority characters in them, and all slurs are way beyond the pale, and nobody misgenders anybody.
And the equivalent of our Objectivists go out and found communities based totally on the Strict Principle of Harm where everyone is allowed to do whatever they want and there are no regulations on business and everything is super-capitalist all the time.
And some people who just really want to lose weight go out and found communities where you’re not allowed to place open boxes of donuts in the doctors’ lounge.
Usually the communities are based on a charter, which expresses some founding ideals and asks only the people who agree with those ideals to enter. The charter also specifies a system of government. It could be an absolute monarch, charged with enforcing those ideals upon a population too stupid to know what’s good for them. Or it could be a direct democracy of people who all agree on some basic principles but want to work out for themselves what direction the principles take them.
After a while the wizard decides to formalize and strengthen his system, not to mention work out some of the ethical dilemmas.
As Alexander’s thought experiment unfolds, the end result, for him, is nonetheless positive:
In my fantasy, UniGov isn’t an enemy, where the Christians view it as this evil atheist conglomerate trying to steal their kids away from them and the capitalists view it as this evil socialist conglomerate trying to enforce high taxes. The Christians, the capitalists, and everyone else are extraordinarily patriotic about being part of the Archipelago, for its full name is the Archipelago of Civilized Communities, it is the standard-bearer of civilization against the barbaric outside world, and it is precisely the institution that allows them to maintain their distinctiveness in the face of what would otherwise be irresistable pressure to conform. Atheistopia is the enemy of Christiantopia, but only in the same way the Democratic Party is the enemy of the Republican Party – two groups within the same community who may have different ideas but who consider themselves part of the same broader whole, fundamentally allies under a banner of which both are proud.
There are still issues to explore — his post is certainly worth reading in full: it is thorough in addressing many of the problem’s predicted twists and turns — Alexander’s more cultural rather than purely ideological vision seems much better prepared for allowing a truly experimental politics to flourish as intended.
I think a better candidate for how to build a more Archipelagian world is to encourage the fracture of society into subcultures.
I agree, and I likewise look forward to finding out…
But, at present, Randian start-ups holding the monopoly seems like a really shaky start…
Their reasons for this are not clear. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe Quirk’s shouting about their true intentions finally caught up with them.