Seasteading and Dynamic Geography

Over at Ars Technica, I have an in-depth discussion of seasteading, an effort by a group of Silicon Valley libertarians to develop technology for living on the open oceans in a cost-effective manner. They argue that government is an industry with excessive barriers to entry, and they aim to change that by creating a turnkey solution for starting your own community.

History is littered with utopian projects, libertarian and otherwise, that fell far short of their lofty goals. At first glance, the Seasteading Institute looks like just another utopian scheme. But there are at least two reasons to think this one might accomplish more than its predecessors. First, recognizing that it would take many decades to develop a self-sufficient ocean metropolis, Friedman and his partners have chosen to focus largely on short-term engineering challenges. They want to build cheap, durable sea platforms that anyone can purchase. Second, they’ve raised half a million dollars from Peter Thiel, the libertarian entrepreneur who co-founded PayPal and is now a major investor in Facebook. Thiel’s backing will allow them to move beyond the extensive background work they’ve already done and begin the expensive task of actually designing and building their first prototype, which they hope to splash down in San Francisco Bay in the next few years.

Will this ultimately lead to the creation of libertarian metropolises in the open ocean? There are certainly lots of reasons to be skeptical. But there are also plenty of examples of technological change undermining existing hierarchies of authority. The invention of the printing press helped to undermine the authority of the Catholic church by democratizing access to knowledge. And in the 1960s, “pirate radio” ships, operating in international waters, helped to undermine many European states’ monopoly on radio broadcasting by beaming the latest pop tunes to eager European listeners. In this month’s Cato unbound, we’re talking about the ways that technological change is challenging traditional copyright law. Swedish copyright activist Rasmus Fleischer kicks things off arguing that advances in Internet connectivity and portable digital storage will make it effectively impossible for the authorities to control the dissemination of copyrighted works. My reaction to his essay will be up tomorrow.

Hence, policy changes are frequently the result of technological progress. Hierarchical institutions often exert control through the exploitation of technological limitations. The Catholic Church exploited the high costs of reproducing the written word; today’s copyright industries are built on the formerly-high costs of reproducing copyrighted works. By the same token, today’s governments owe much of their authority to the high costs of changing jurisdictions. The technology of seasteading may change that by allowing “dynamic geography,” a situation in which any part of society is free to exit and take their homes and businesses with them. It may take many decades for this vision to be realized, if it can be realized at all. But it’s fun to see someone at least giving it a shot.