Futurist topics tend to have cyclical levels of interest. What were once the most exciting future technology of yesterday are often marginalized by the new innovations of today. At the moment, the hottest item are self-driving cars; but it wasn’t too long ago that it was smart homes or augmented reality (which is scheduled for a comeback with Microsoft’s HoloLens). Interest comes in waves, and will return just as easily as it subsided.
When it comes to the topic of floating communities and ocean cities in international waters, however, these have always been more of a specialist area. For most people, they are firmly placed in the realm of science fiction – all well and good for shows like Stargate: Atlantis but not necessarily something that most people really consider as viable or think we will see anytime soon.
Seasteading, as it is known, tends to be of interest mostly to people who are pursuing particular political or technological ideals. Otherwise, it is generally relegated to the fringe of society with stories about the Principality of Sealand trying to claim sovereignty, or the cruise ship of L Ron Hubbard that spent years on the seas to avoid a cornucopia of legal and personal troubles.
It was in 2008, though, that the concept of seasteading began to solidify with the formation of the Seasteading Institute. The notion quickly became the futurist flavour of the month when Peter Thiel, venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal, become its most vocal and prominent supporter – contributing substantial amounts to the Institute’s various projects and gaining a lot of mainstream press attention in the process. Spearheaded by Patri Friedman (grandson of economist Milton Friedman), and influenced by cyberpunk writers such as Neil Stephenson, the idea of floating cities free from government control was picked up as a new frontier of the Great American West. They have since continued to be the defacto spokespeople for the field, hosting annual conferences and recently an architectural competition to help develop tangible implementation.
At its core, proponents of seasteading tend to be drawn towards libertarian ideals and the desire to form voluntary communities founded on choice rather than circumstance. Many current visions of ocean city-states tend to revolve around modular designs for this very reason, which would allow individuals to decide whether or not they wanted to support a particular community or move to another one more in line with their ideals (or, perhaps more accurately, their desires). The goal for many proponents, as stated by the Seasteading Institute, is to ‘peacefully test new ideas for government’ and ‘maximise entrepreneurial freedom’. It’s a thoroughly utopian pursuit, in most instances linked closely to free-market ideology and an Ayn Rand level of individual empowerment and self-interest.
Which is where we might start to question some fundamental assumptions about a multiplying abundance of independent city-states that at first seem so enticing. It’s hard to fault ideals such as ‘enrich the poor’ or ‘cure the sick’ – these are inherently honourable pursuits – but if the rich literature of science fiction (not to mention human history) has taught us anything, it’s that beneath the surface of every utopia there exist dystopian manifestations ready to emerge. For every seasteading vision of flourishing freedom and personal autonomy, there are possibilities of corporate domination and the subversion of collective responsibility. If you can refuse to participate in a society simply because it doesn’t serve your particular wants (often because of supplying the needs for many), then how do we build the necessary levels of obligation and solidarity that successful societies depend upon?
The other spectre in the seasteading vision of the future is that of the elevation of corporate sovereignty over and above the authority of nation-states. We are currently at a pivot point in history where it is clear that transnational corporations are able to create the legal and operational structures necessary to overcome most attempts by individual governments to curtail their activities. One needs merely to look at issues of tax justice and practices of transfer pricing to see a very clear example of this shift, one that currently drives a great deal of the global economy.
Autonomous, ocean-based cities will exacerbate this tension between civic populations and the interests of private wealth accumulators. Not least because it will be the wealthiest enterprises and individuals who get to experiment with these new innovations before anybody else gets an opportunity to even consider doing so. Indeed, even those at the forefront of the notion are starting to doubt the viability of its success given the sheer amounts of capital that would be required. It looks like the relationship between governments and innovators continues to be a necessary component of long-term endeavours, which also acts as an important failsafe for the rest of us whose lives are shaped by such activities.
Which is not to say that creating new (and, importantly, peaceful) ways to subvert state authority is by definition a negative pursuit. There are countless examples where the legitimacy of government power is rightly questioned and alternatives need to be found. Seasteading is an evocative concept because it enables us to envisage an escape from the over-reaching arm of power and its tendency to oppress people’s ability to live peacefully, express creativity and explore the boundaries of human experience. It’s also an exciting path because of the scientific foundations required for it to succeed, and the positive implications that such areas of progress could have for living in harmony with the environment and global ecosystem are substantial.
However, whenever we hear rhetoric about ‘freedom’ we should be wary about whom such freedoms will ultimately serve. When ideologies of individual (and corporate) freedom are combined with the ability to circumvent regulation designed to serve the collective good (even though such controls can often be misguided or excessive) we must stop and carefully consider the flipside to the utopian vision being presented. Freedom is rarely, if ever, granted to all. It’s important to consider who will be overlooked by any vision of the future before we are fully convinced by the passion of those positioned to gain the most from its arrival.
Robert A. Gordon is an anthropologist and social commentator who has been writing about the ethics of future technology for the past decade. His debut novel When Winter Calls is a science fiction thriller, set on the ocean city-corporation of Caldera, which explores the boundaries of our personal and collective identities in an ever-changing world.