United Sea-Nations II

Following the announcement last week that someone recently pitched seasteading to the UN, an article has appeared over on CityLab which goes into more detail over the project’s reception. It also ends on an oddly moot note:

Floating infrastructure and neighborhoods may work well in some parts of the world, like the Netherlands. But in many other places, “it’s not clear at all that retreating to these pod cities of 10,000 people each is going to solve anything,” Goh said. In Jakarta, for instance, if the city keeps sinking at the same rate it is now, 4 to 5 million people might be displaced. A dozen Oceanix Cities would barely make a dent in that crisis.

The flaw in the Oceanix vision is not its utopianism: Utopian thinking is essential, now more than ever. But this is a narrow, escapist, apolitical utopia, rather than a truly bold and capacious one. In Goh’s words, “We do need utopian visions” for sustainable cities in the era of climate change. “But the utopian visions have been wrong so far.”

The cynicism and realism is welcomed and to be expected. It certainly is a sort of utopian thinking, but I think the suggestion that seasteading’s new rebrand is an apolitical utopianism is very interesting. Precisely because to call it that previously would have been utterly bizarre. What has arguably held the project back so far has been its affiliation with an explicitly libertarian utopianism; an oceanic Randianism. To others, it’s BioShock overtones have made it politically dystopian. At no point in its development, until now, could it have ever been considered to be apolitical.

So, perhaps understandably, if you’re a seasteading PR person, you argue that they should remove the politics and try to sell it to a largely “centrist” world organisation in the UN, with its primary focus being on common issues and big pots of cash, pitching it in a way that might be more intriguing to its diverse member-states. It is obviously going to appear somewhat apolitical.

Apparently, that’s no good either. So what is the solution?

One solution is, of course, to just pack it up and go home, but to play devil’s advocate for seasteading, I think the real problem here is the paradox of “utopian thinking” in general.

We do need utopian visions … but the utopian visions have been wrong so far

This is the persistent catch-22 of all utopian thinking, isn’t it? There is never going to be a utopia that is utopian for all. So to still parrot that response to an engineering project which was largely built on the secessionist sympathies of Silicon Valley makes me wonder where the real issues are here. It is, by design, scalable and modular. Is the problem really the new lack of politics and that they’re just not going to be big enough? Or is it instead to do with the underlying and prospective issue of sovereign grey areas making nations unsteady?

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