Seasteads: off-grid havens

Facing ecological catastrophe, libertarian seasteads promise a utopian alternative to Earth-bound societies. But are they for everybody?

Cosmopolis column in the Hindu Business Line, 18 May, 2018

Last January, a delegation from Silicon Valley travelled to French Polynesia to set up a new world. Representatives of the Seasteading Institute inked a memorandum of understanding with the Pacific island archipelago that would allow for the eventual establishment of autonomous “seasteads” in a lagoon in Tahiti. Seasteading is the quasi-utopian, libertarian dream of building floating societies outside the bounds of existing nation-states, unhindered by government regulations.

It was hatched a decade ago, in part, by the PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and the grandson of canonical free-market economist Milton Friedman. These tech-enabled communities would consist of solar-panelled floating housing units that clump together on the surface of the sea. Seasteading settlements would one day have their own schools, markets, aqua-farms, clinics, cultural centres, and systems of self-governance. Crucially, a single seastead household can decide to split away at any time. Not happy with the way things are going in one ocean-borne community? Fine, just detach your aquatic home and float off to another settlement or, better yet, venture off on your own. Seasteads hope to offer their inhabitants the radical freedom of uncompromised autonomy.

Mathematics, however, can restrict even the most ambitious aspirations for liberty. The original seasteading plan had aimed to set up in international waters, outside the remit of any government control (the unrecognised Principality of Sealand, which claims a defunct oil-rig off the coast of England in the North Sea, is an earlier example of this principle). It proved too expensive, however, to structure the transport and provisioning of a deep-sea community. It also was difficult to adapt seasteads to float in the most tempestuous water and to ensure their safety from pirates.

A more practical route was found, albeit under the aegis of a country. French Polynesia offered the advantage of being remote from major hubs of both piratical and volcanic activity (tsunamis pose a major threat to seasteads). It also boasted fibre-optic internet access (no ocean retreat would be bearable without Wi-Fi). The “host nation” would help the seasteaders with access to the electrical grid, hospitals and food (though seasteads would eventually be self-sufficient, thanks to vertical farming and aquaculture).

Sadly for the seasteaders dreaming of their tropical escape, the government of French Polynesia nixed their plans earlier this year. It turned out locals were not altogether happy about the prospect of a billionaire-funded tech community bobbing off their shores. For environmental, economic, and moral reasons (critics likened seasteading in Tahiti to “tech colonialism”), they forced the government to renege on the deal and leave the Seasteading Institute in search of a new haven.

Despite the setback, I suspect this won’t be the last we hear of seasteaders. Other open-sea settlements are being dreamed up. An Italian architect has proposed the luxurious Wayaland sea-hotel, composed of floating glass-and-chrome pyramids that would allow the wealthy to motor their yachts many miles offshore and revel in the gilded joys of ocean living, unsurprisingly off the coastal waters of the United Arab Emirates.

Life at sea is certainly not for everyone. The Seasteading Institute insists that its technology can be used to help disadvantaged communities around the world most affected by sea-level rises and climate change. But don’t expect seasteads to scoop up displaced villagers in the Sundarbans anytime soon. Bars for entry will be high. The institute claims nebulously on its website that seasteads will be affordable to “the middle class of developed nations,” coded language for a sliver of the world’s population.

The colonisation of the oceans may be a utopian libertarian dream, but it is also dystopian. It offers escape and freedom for an exclusive few, while surrendering life at land to the unwashed many. It’s part-and-parcel with other libertarian escapist fantasies that seek to jettison societies on Earth for the sake of setting up exclusive worlds elsewhere, VIP clubs in outer space (see tech tycoon Elon Musk’s ambition to colonise Mars and privatise the solar system).

There is an eschatological strand in all these visions, an acceptance of the ecological doom facing Earth-bound societies and a disbelief in the current political order’s ability to cope with great change. Why waste time trying to reform structures of governance that affect all people when exciting new ones can be made for the few?

As global inequality soars, science fiction has already grasped the very real implications of this libertarian fantasy. The hit Brazilian Netflix show 3%imagines a dystopian future where only a few human beings are allowed to cross into the “better half” of the world. The Hollywood film Elysium (2013) envisioned an Earth that was ravaged and left to unfettered chaos while the wealthy slipped away to unperturbed lives in an exclusive, interstellar orbit.

The technologies underlying seasteading are genuinely exciting, but seasteading as a political ambition is deeply suspect. It is a reminder of how globalisation produces absurd forms of inequality that lead inevitably to the wealthy entrenching themselves apart from others, whether in the shape of a giant tower looming over the slums of Mumbai or in a seastead settlement on the ocean. The answer, of course, is not to abandon the Earth, but to come down from the clouds, to let the tides bring you back to shore, and to work things out on land.

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