Live Free or Drown: Floating Utopias on the Cheap

[via wired By Chris Baker 01.19.09, thanks to Sascha and Daisy]

Patri Friedman wants to make it easy for anyone to build an independent country: "If we make one seastead, there's room for thousands."
Photo: Dustin Aksland

Several dozen conference-goers are filing into the Mendocino Room of the Embassy Suites Hotel in Burlingame, a San Francisco suburb, arming themselves with coffee and muffins as they shuffle to their seats. It's the kind of scene that occurs daily—if not hourly—in the Bay Area, where techies and businesspeople forever squeeze into drab meeting rooms to discuss how they are going to change the world. But even by local standards, the attendees gathered here are chasing a dream so grand and exotic it makes the typical Internet confab look like an OSHA seminar. Anyone can build a game-changing social-network platform or a virtual community or a set of open APIs. But the people here want to start a nonmetaphorical revolution by creating their own independent nations. In the middle of the ocean. On prefab floating platforms.

At 9:12 am, Patri Friedman stands up to address the group. A former Google software engineer, Friedman is 32 but comes off much younger, with close-cropped hair and a slightly nasal voice. He is executive director of the Seasteading Institute, the nonprofit he founded in April 2008, and this is the group's first major event. He surveys the room, taking in a cross section of Silicon Valley culture: A white-haired nanotech millionaire in a suit sits next to a grad student in a Transformers T-shirt. If you were to break down the audience into high school classifications, you'd find a couple of hippies and goths, a few hipsters, and several preppies. The rest would definitely be at the nerd table. The male-female ratio is 7 to 1. "This isn't enough to create a whole new civilization," Friedman says. "But this is a seed."

The morning sessions from the first annual Seasteading conference, held in Burlingame California on October 10th.
Friedman and his followers are not the first band of wide-eyed dreamers to want to build floating utopias. For decades, an assortment of romantics and whack jobs have fantasized about fleeing the oppressive strictures of modern government and creating a laissez-faire society on the high seas. Over the decades, they've tried everything from fortified sandbars to mammoth cruise ships. Nearly all have been disasters. But the would-be nation builders assembled here are not intimidated by that record of failure. After all, their plans are inspired by the ethos of the modern tech industry, where grand quixotic visions are as common as BlackBerrys, and they see their task not as a holy mission but as something like a startup. A couple of software engineers came up with an innovative concept, then outsourced it to a community and let the wisdom of the crowd improve on it. They scored financing from a top-tier venture capitalist and assembled a board of directors. They will be transparent, blogging their progress. If they fail—which, let's face it, is the most likely outcome—they will do so quickly, in time-honored Valley fashion. But if they succeed, they have one hell of an exit strategy.

Friedman launches into what he calls "my standard rant"—a spiel about government's shortcomings and why they're so hard to repair. In his eyes, government is a sclerotic monopoly that can count on high customer lock-in thanks to inertia and the lack of alternatives. "Government is an inefficient industry because it has an insane barrier to entry," he says. "To compete with governments on existing land, you have to win a war, an election, or a revolution." He points to the democracy that emerged from the American Revolution as the last successful rollout and attributes the subsequent dry spell to the lack of uncolonized space on the map. "We've run out of frontier," he says.

But there's still one virgin realm left, and it covers 70 percent of the earth's surface.

The purpose of the Seasteading Institute—and of this gathering—is to figure out how to make aquatic homesteads a reality. But Friedman doesn't just want to create huge floating platforms that people can live on. He's also hoping to create a platform in the sense that Linux is a platform: a base upon which people can build their own innovative forms of governance. The ultimate goal is to create standards and blueprints that can be easily adapted, allowing small communities to rapidly incubate and test new models of self-rule with the same ease that a programmer in his garage can whip up a Facebook app. "You could roll your own government out of pieces copied from all the societies around you," Friedman says. "Google set my standards for how fast something should grow. This has potential to exceed those standards—if we make one seastead, there's room for thousands."

Your Home Away From... Everything!

You're ready to move to the middle of the ocean. What will your new digs look like? The Seasteading Institute hired Marine Innovation & Technology, an oil rig designer, to sketch out a $50 million, 20,000-ton platform with multistory living quarters and helipads.

1// Living Platform
The 160,000-square-foot steel expanse puts the cruise ship lido deck to shame. Carbon-fiber cables anchored to the pillars reinforce the structure and make possible a larger platform surface.
2// Water Supply
Water, water everywhere—and plenty for you to drink! Desalination equipment provides potable freshwater and gray water for gardening.
3// Foot Tanks
Leave the Dramamine ashore. Water tanks inside four flotation pillars hold the seastead 30 feet above water and minimize the impact of rogue waves.
4// Engine Room
Don't like your neighbors? Move! The island can travel at speeds of up to 2 knots, powered by four diesel engines that double as electrical generators.

Illustration: Kate Francis

Friedman's optimism is easier to buy into if you ignore the history of previous would-be nation builders. There was Operation Atlantis, created by Ayn Rand admirer Werner Stiefel in the late 1960s. Stiefel, who made a fortune selling dermatology products, devoted his life to creating a sovereign society with the freest markets imaginable. He started with a ferro-cement boat that made a single successful voyage on the Hudson River. He erected a system of seabreaks near the coast of Haiti but was run off by president Franè7ois Duvalier's gunboats before he could put land on it. He bought an oil rig and tried to anchor it between Cuba and Honduras, where it was destroyed by a storm. Stiefel died in 2006 with little more than a sporadically published newsletter to show for his efforts.

In 1971, real estate millionaire and committed libertarian Michael Oliver dumped large quantities of sand on two coral reefs in the South Pacific and dubbed it the Republic of Minerva, a land with "no taxation, welfare, subsidies, or any form of economic interventionism." Minerva was soon invaded by the nearby kingdom of Tonga, and it dissolved back into the ocean shortly thereafter.

The Oceania city project, a plan for a vast floating settlement off the coast of Panama, emerged in 1993. The founders took out a two-page ad in Reason, a libertarian magazine, promising to free prospective residents from governments "entangled in bureaucracy, corruption, and the free lunch philosophy." The project was disbanded the following year due to lack of interest and funds. "The Libertarian party is small in number and too few members have the financial resources to bankroll their beliefs," founder Eric Klien wrote on Oceania's Web site.

Other projects still exist as hypothetical concepts. There's the Freedom Ship, a mile-long floating tax haven, which will come into being just as soon as its organizers can drum up the $10 billion needed to build it. (They've accused their former president of absconding with the first $400,000 they raised.) The concept of failed aquatic libertarian havens has even entered the pop consciousness, providing the setting for the blockbuster videogame BioShock.

Wayne Gramlich will never move to the middle of the ocean—his wife forbids it. But when the former software engineer, who has been "on sabbatical" since the late 1990s, stumbled across the Oceania Web site about a decade ago, he was both enthralled by the vision and dismayed at the execution. An early Sun Microsystems employee who worked on browser security at the dawn of the World Wide Web, he thought what was needed was a dispassionate perspective—a realistic plan to build floating autonomous countries. "Oceania had a lot of pretty pictures, pretty concept art, but that was it," he says. In 1998 he wrote a modest proposal, SeaSteading—Homesteading on the High Seas, to get beyond the grandiloquence. "Big and expensive projects will have a very difficult time attracting the requisite capital," Gramlich wrote. An engineer at heart, he tried to devise a way to build islands on the cheap. His report outlined how thousands of empty 2-liter soda bottles could be used to create a floating platform.

That sounded like paradise to Friedman when he saw the paper on Gramlich's site. He had always been interested in big-picture socioeconomic theories. The son of libertarian legal theorist David Friedman and grandson of the Nobel Prize-winning free-market economist Milton Friedman, Patri had until then expressed his worldview mainly through his lifestyle: engaging in "radical self-expression" at Burning Man, experimenting with drugs, living in intentional communities with several other families, and maintaining a polyamorous relationship with his wife. His BMW 328i has a customized license plate: FRRREAK.

Friedman had read about money holes like Oceania and considered them too fantastical to bother with. But the relative practicality of Gramlich's ideas appealed to the software engineer in him. Here was a simple kludge for a floating platform that might be affordable. And if it could work, Friedman would love to be among the first settlers to live on the open sea. "My dad and grandfather write about stuff," he says. "What interests me is doing something." He sent an email to Gramlich, and the two discovered that they lived a few miles apart in Sunnyvale, California. In late 2001, they began to collaborate on a new paper on seasteading. They posted everything online, including their notes to each other. (Friedman coded a Perl script that would allow anyone to submit comments on each paragraph.)

Over the next couple of years, Friedman and Gramlich assembled a 150-page book on the logistics of seasteading. Their guidelines were intensely pragmatic, explaining everything from how to fend off barnacles (a "continuous discharge of low-level chlorination") to how to fend off foreign navies ("sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles like the Chinese Silkworm are fairly cheap and quite effective"). They described the least far-fetched, least expensive design for a safe seastead they could find—the floating spar. The hypothetical dwelling looks like a giant dumbbell standing on end, with a large steel ballast underwater and a 48,000-square-foot platform suspended above, where 120 people could live. They estimated it could be built for about $3 million. "That's the same price as a nice house in San Francisco," Friedman says. (Their design has since evolved, as shown at above.)

Gramlich and Friedman's online tome captured the imagination of like-minded geeks, who peppered it with suggestions and criticisms. It was also brought to the attention of millionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, who shared Friedman and Gramlich's dissatisfaction with land-bound governments. Thiel was a cofounder of PayPal, and he viewed that company as a way to further his libertarian ideals—a way to move money around the world as 1s and 0s without the involvement of nations or their currencies. After selling PayPal to eBay and walking away with a reported $55 million, Thiel started the hedge fund Clarium Capital, which made a fortune earlier this decade by correctly betting that oil prices would rise and the dollar would weaken.

Thiel has invested in Facebook, Friendster, LinkedIn, and Slide. He has also donated $3.5 million to Aubrey de Grey's Methuselah Foundation, which seeks to extend longevity, and given money to the campaigns of small-government conservatives like Ron Paul.

"Peter wants to end the inevitability of death and taxes," Friedman says. "I mean, talk about aiming high!"

Last April, Thiel pledged a $500,000 investment and installed his right-hand man, Joe Lonsdale, as chair of the Seasteading Institute. "Decades from now, those looking back at the start of the century will understand that seasteading was an obvious step toward encouraging the development of more efficient, practical public-sector models around the world," Thiel said in a statement at the time. Three months after the wire transfer went through, Friedman left his job at Google.

Friedman is quick to acknowledge that not everyone will share his vision. "At first blush, this all sounds kind of crazy, and to see the potential beyond that—that's pretty awesome," he tells his fellow enthusiasts at the seasteading conference. "There's a lot of good craziness in this room!"

The afternoon sessions from the first annual Seasteading conference, held in Burlingame California on October 10th.
But good craziness alone will not make seasteads work, and most of the day is spent discussing the nuts and bolts of creating a floating community. First is the question of structure. "The ocean is a harsh and corrosive environment," Friedman says. In addition to rust and barnacles, there's wave motion, which is disorienting in the best of times and potentially fatal during a storm. The Seasteading Institute hired Marine Innovation & Technology as a consultant to solve these problems. Naval architect Alexia Aubault takes the lectern to describe the results of wave-motion analyses her engineering firm performed. To protect the organization from frivolous infringement lawsuits, she is barred by the institute's lawyer from showing off the refined design until a patent gets filed. (That has since been done.)

And that's just one of the legal torpedoes that seasteaders must dodge. According to the UN's Law of the Sea, the jurisdiction of traditional nations extends up to 200 miles from shore, an exclusive economic zone within which countries can control fishing and mineral rights and police polluters. Friedman hopes there will someday be self-sufficient seasteads that can thrive on the high seas, beyond the purview of any country. But for the near future, he concedes, they'll probably need to remain near shore and operate like cruise ships, which are bound by the laws of the country where they're registered. Most governments won't attack these kinds of vessels as long as they behave. "At this point, it matters who you piss off," he says. (Raymond Peck, a former Reagan administration official, has agreed to do further research for the institute on the Law of the Sea.)

At 11 am, attendees break up into small groups to brainstorm business models. Seasteaders can depend on like-minded benefactors for only so long. Ultimately, these nations will need to pay the bills. Friedman notes that some enterprises—like euthanasia clinics—would incense local authorities, but almost all the ideas attendees come up with would capitalize on activities that skirt existing laws and regulations: Fish farming and aquaculture. Prisons. Med schools. Gold warehouses. Brothels. Cryonics intakes. Gene therapy, cloning, augmentation, and organ sales. Baby farms. Deafeningly loud concerts. Rehab/detox clinics. Zen retreats. Abortion clinics. Ultimate ultimate fighting tournaments.

During the Seasteading conference, Vince Cate showed video of a floating prototype of his own design: The WaterWalker, a tripod lashed to three soccer balls.
(Lonsdale has his own ideas. "Bazooka bikini bachelor parties," he says. "You get there and a Lithuanian model hands you a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.")

But in the end, the seasteaders may face an even more fundamental challenge. During an afternoon session, Friedman asks, "How many people here know how to sail?" Few hands go up. He says plans are under way to offer group instruction at discount rates.

The first annual seasteading conference adjourns at 6 pm. A kayaking trip around the bohemian houseboat community just off Sausalito has been scheduled for the following morning, but it is canceled because of high winds.

Forbes Island isn't really an island at all but a 5,000-square-foot, 700-ton sea vehicle decked out with palm trees, a white-sand beach, and a lighthouse. A houseboat designer named Forbes Kiddoo, inspired by the science fiction of Jules Verne, spent five years building it. In 1999, he converted it into a restaurant that today floats near San Francisco's kitschy Pier 39, serving $35 rack of lamb to tourists who watch sea lions flop around on the nearby docks. Tonight, the eatery is hosting the Seasteading Institute's post-conference dinner.

Kiddoo himself ferries the seasteaders from shore to restaurant in a tiny pontoon boat. On the way over, he explains that obtaining clearance for his island was a nightmare. "I had to get city, county, state, and federal permits," he says, shouting to be heard over the bellowing of sea lions. "I had to deal with the ADA, the ABC ... I had to become a merchant marine captain."

Houseboat designer Forbes Kiddoo gives a tour of his manmade island. The structure, now converted into a restaurant, was host to the Seasteading Institute's post-conference dinner last October.
Afterward, in the island's bar, Friedman seems happy with how the event went, though he says some of his plans will have to be scaled back. He had wanted to hold a floating festival dubbed Ephemerisle on Fourth of July weekend; it was to be a sort of Burning Man on the high seas, where everything is permitted. But several conference attendees expressed concern about the logistics—and advisability—of a free-floating bacchanal of guns and drugs. He'll still host some sort of gathering to test a few miniature floating-island prototypes but expects it to be held in San Francisco Bay, not out on the open sea. "It'll probably take a few iterations to get there," he says. "But at least we're doing something."

Eventually, the seasteaders move to the Tahiti Room, which has a lovely moonlit view of Alcatraz. Chatter around the table gets louder as the wine flows, but the subject matter remains wonky. "The interesting issues are social and legal," says Mikolaj Habryn, a site reliability engineer at Google. "You'll get slavery. You'll get drug dealing. Maybe there'll be polygamous Mormons. The first people involved will inevitably be those who want to do things they can't do on land, and we have to deal with that." A ship passes, and even though Forbes Island is firmly moored a few hundred feet from shore and separated from the bay by a breakwater, the restaurant sways so much that some diners have to breathe deeply and focus on the horizon to settle their stomachs.

At the other end of the table, Patri Friedman raises his glass to make a toast. "I want to see us all at the 10th Annual Seasteading Conference," he says, implying that he expects it to take place on an actual seastead, not in an Embassy Suites or a floating theme restaurant. "It'll be in a bigger room, there will be a better view, it won't move up and down as much, and there'll be a better wine selection and better things to smoke!"

Friedman is joined by a raucous round of toasts. "To Peter Thiel for financing this!" "To having more women here!" "To being on the water!" "To freedom!"

Friedman wraps it up: "To being crazy in a good way!"

Senior editor Chris Baker (chris_baker@wired.com) wrote about Star Wars continuity in issue 16.09.

So now the question is, how do we get to collaborate with these people?

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