Startup Countries: Are Oceans the Next Frontier?

An artists impression of a building in a floating city

While it’s more likely that you’ve heard of SpaceX than Seasteading, perhaps that shouldn’t be the case. The term seasteading dates back to at least 1981, when Ken Neumeyer used it in his book titled Sailing the Farm. As you might imagine, it refers to the idea of creating a city, or homestead of sorts, on the sea.

Fast-forward 2 decades, and Milton Friedman’s grandson Patri Friedman becomes so intrigued with the idea that he quits his Google job to co-found the Seasteading Institute. His partner and provider of the seed money was none other than PayPal founder Peter Thiel; who in 2009 wrote an essay in which he noted that “between cyberspace and outer space lies the possibility of settling the oceans”.

Avid supporter for the idea of ocean cities, American author Joe Quirk joined the Seasteading Institute in 2011 and is now its President. For him, the idea of independent cities, or as he calls them “startup countries” was about creating diverse societies for different kinds of people, and doing away with governmental control. The entire idea can seem ludicrous in some ways, and almost bordering on science fiction, but faced with the horror of climate change perhaps taking to the sea really is our best solution.

Many leading thinkers seem to agree that the oceans could be our best bet; as Quirk himself says, “We will be living on the oceans long before we live on Mars”. However, others see problems of various kinds with the project. Thiel himself, despite having invested $1.7 million of his own money, has withdrawn from the project and says in terms of engineering; it is still a long way off.

A Pilot Project is Well Underway

The Seasteading Institute originally had visions of creating its first floating metropolis around 2050, but thanks to a flourishing relationship with French Polynesia it should all happen a lot sooner. A pilot venture that could house up to 300 people has an expected completion date of 2020. Called the Floating Island Project, the structures will be created in the waters of a lagoon near Tahiti.

Since rising sea levels are such a threat to the French Republic collectivity, they are very willing to try out the idea of Seasteading. A new company called Blue Frontiers has been created to build and operate the islands, and you can learn more about the entire enterprise on the Seasteading Institute’s website.

The Floating City Utopian Ideal

The freedom of self-governance in a contained community is clearly held very dear to the heart of Quirk, Friedman and the rest of those involved with the Seasteading Institute. If all goes according to plan these islands will be able to produce their own food, make their own clean energy and sell the excess to other nations, and develop several different kinds of technologies, all while liberating humanity from politicians. The initial residents would have high socioeconomic status, but if the project proves successful lower-cost housing is to be introduced.

Problems that Could Contribute to a Dystopian Reality

Issues that could lead to the downfall of future seasteads include developing island bases that could withstand exposure to the sea for 100 years at a time, as well as how they would be administrated. In particular, how would these autonomous communities respond to crime, and what would their obligations be in terms of the environment? For the Floating Island Project, a sort of compromise has been reached and French and French Polynesian laws will be abided by, but this is not the Seasteading institute’s future ideal. How will this be determined?

Also, very importantly, what is the currency that these independent metropoles will use? What if people on the islands want to conduct transactions at online casinos, or anywhere else on the Internet? The solution might be cryptocurrencies; in fact, funds for the further islands that Blue Frontiers is planning are to be raised using an initial coin offering, which is unregulated and uses cryptocurrency. The whole point of these virtual currencies is to separate them from a centralised, regulating government, after all.

Would it be possible to use different cryptocurrencies on the hundreds of island cities that Quirk envisions? What would the global economy look like if that was the case, and how easy would it be to commit cyber fraud? In a way, we can only know the answers to these questions as we see the idea of seasteads come to life. Given the state of the world’s environment and rising sea levels, perhaps that risk is worth taking, as long as everyone approaches this new way of living with respect and tolerance.