Seasteading Institute Interview w/ Patri Friedman

Some of you may have heard of the Seasteading Institute, which announced its existence with a press release a month ago. Basically, Peter Thiel is giving them $500,000 to get started on building an awesome seastead right here in the Bay Area. Sounds like a great idea, I’d love to visit, but it could take a decade or so until we have hundreds of people living on these things. (Even so, it’s a worthy cause!)

I caught up with the Executive Director, Patri Friedman, an acquaintance of mine, and asked him a few questions about this new org.

Michael Anissimov: Will $500,000 be enough to build a “safe, cost-effective, gorgeous” seastead? If not, how much will it cost?

Patri Friedman: Nope. But it should be enough to do the design and engineering work for a small (bay/coast-sized) seastead, and get our research program started. We think it will cost another $500K – $1.5M to build a nice Baystead. We’ll know a lot more about the costs after we’ve hired an engineer and done some initial design work.

MA: How many people will live on the first seastead?

PF: It depends on what the best initial application turns out to be. If it looks viable to build small seasteads as replacement yachts (much roomier, safer, and slower), then it could be as small as one family. If the initial business is aquaculture, perhaps a crew of a dozen. If it’s a resort, then more like hundreds.

MA: How many people will need to be there before it’s economically self-sustaining?

PF: This is tough to answer because seasteads are a form of real estate, so it really depends how they are used. We don’t expect our houses to be economically self-sustaining, after all.

I’m also not sure that it’s a good way to evaluate success. If one person lives on a seastead and makes a living telecommuting, that’s technically economically self-sustaining. If 100 people live there as a retirement community, and pay for it with investment income, then it’s technically not economically self-sustaining. Yet the latter would look much more like success to me.

I’d rather evaluate success by average population and the number of people who are able to make a living onboard.

MA: You say the notion of seasteading will be useful as a testing ground for various political systems, and that’s true, but historically, the concept is associated with libertarianism. Will the first seastead have a libertarian form of government?

PF: It seems likely, at this point, since the initial group is mainly libertarians. However, I think it will be quite awhile before seasteads are large enough to be truly thought of as countries with forms of government. For example, the single-family seastead mentioned earlier doesn’t really have a “government” per se, nor does an aquaculture farm with a dozen crew.

Even a resort with hundreds of people will most likely be owned and operated by a single corporate entity. That entity will want to have a system for administering justice and resolving disputes, and that system is likely to be pretty libertarian, but I’m not sure I’d call it a government. It’s more like Neal Stephenson’s Franchise-Owned Quasi-National Entities from Snow Crash.

I’d say the first place you are likely to get something like a government is when you have the first residential/multi-use seastead (or gathering of seasteads). And that’s far enough off in the future that it could be a different group of people.

MA: In 1971, a group of people calling themselves the Republic of Minerva brought sand from Australia and dumped it on a reef until it rose above the water level, creating new land. Why is this not the Seasteading Institute’s approach?

PF: Well, they did fail, after all :).

But more importantly, our vision is much more ambitious. We don’t want to just make one sandy island, we want to bring competition to the governing industry by creating an affordable technology so that anyone can buy/build a seastead and start their own new country. Their method has two major flaws from this viewpoint:

1) It doesn’t scale. Every piece of rock which is above water at high tide is claimed by a current nation (because it extends oil, mineral, and fishing rights). There are very few places where reefs get high enough to make good island bases, yet are low enough to not count as existing land. So there are very few places where this technique works. Whereas if we can make seasteads affordable, there are tens of millions of square miles of empty oceans available for them.

2) It doesn’t take advantage of the ocean’s dynamic geography. We think it’s important for any new country venture to think about why the government will be better than it is on land. The US started with limited government, but there seem to be very robust effects which make small government not an equilibrium for large countries. Modular seastead communities fundamentally change the incentives facing government. Fist, they loweri the barrier to entry for starting new countries. Second, they reduce customer lock-in (since you can leave by floating your home away at any time). Together, this means they are almost guaranteed to make government work better (any government, not just a libertarian one). A new island has no such properties.

MA: In a few sentences, summarize how a seastead might get electricity, food, and generate money.

PF: Two words will suffice: “Cruise Ship” :).

Floating cities are already real – millions of people take cruises every year, and they’re cheaper than the cost of living in some US cities. We have many differences in mind, but cruise ships prove that the idea is possible. Now we just have to make something safer, stabler, more spacious, more modular, incrementally built, cheaper, permanent, and worth visiting even though it mostly stays put!

MA: On your site, all the pictures of seasteads show them suspended above the water. Why is this? What if I want to go to the edge and dip my feet into the water?

PF: We have two designs in mind. The one you saw uses tall spars to elevate the living space above the waves. This minimizes waterline area which helps disconnect the structure from the waves, making it safer and more stable. We currently believe this is the best shape for a permanent structure in areas with big waves. This is how most oil platforms are designed, after all.

If you don’t have to deal with waves, you can just make simple platforms, like hollow concrete boxes. This could be done near the equator (the doldrums), where waves are much smaller. Or for a large community, it could be done inside a circular breakwater.

MA: The practice of using a “flag of convenience” is frowned upon politically. Do you plan to use them for your seasteads?

PF: Wait, why is making politicians frown a bad thing? Besides, if flags of convenience are good enough for half of the world’s tonnage, they’re good enough for us!

Seasteading may be a weird idea, but we think our chances of success are highest if we use as little innovation as possible. Flagged vessels are an existing category in international law which will give us a simple, clear legal status that should get us pretty much left alone. At least, that’s what our preliminary research shows – we have a volunteer who worked on the Law of the Sea treaty negotiations for the US under Reagan who is researching the subject for us.

~~~

Well, that was interesting. I’ve been interested in seasteading ever since I read Marshall T. Savage’s The Millennial Project in the mid-90s. Go seasteaders!

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