Is the Seasteading Dream Really Dead?

Wired argues that "Silicon Valley is Letting Go of Its Techie Island Fantasies" on insufficient evidence.


The concept of Seasteading had enough inherent cool, interesting cred that lots of publications took it seriously in its early days no matter how unlikely its quick or even ultimate success might seem. Very roughly, Seasteading is the process of creating competition for current governments via building new land/potential "new countries" out in the ocean that could experiment with new rules (including, yes, the possibility of far fewer ones).


Among the early deep looks at the idea and the Seasteading Institute established in 2008 to promote and actuate that idea were long features right here at Reason by me and, even before us, Wired.

This weekend, Wired tried to bury the Seasteading dream in an article titled "Silicon Valley is Letting Go of Its Techie Island Fantasies" by Kyle Denuccio.

So the headline said. What the article actually did, or tried to do, was more wide-ranging and inchoate, and hard to defend.

Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire who co-founded the Seasteading Institute and whose Thiel Foundation has given over a million bucks to it since it launched in 2008, is the central link in media coverage between "Silicon Valley" and the Seasteading idea. The story wants you to think Thiel has decided it's a terrible idea.

In doing so, the story mischaracterizes and misdirects the reader on some quotes from Thiel. Examples:

Earlier this year, during a talk at George Mason University, Thiel said, "I'm not exactly sure that I'm going to succeed in building a libertarian utopia any time soon." Part of the problem: A truly self-sufficient society might exceed the range even of Thiel's fortune. "You need to have a version where you could get started with a budget of less than $50 billion," he said.

The "any time soon" part was a reaction to a questioner asking about "the libertarian utopia that you will build," not proof that he ever believed he was going to build such a utopia anywhere at any time and had backtracked.

While the quote about the money involved may, and likely does, represent a step back from possible heady optimism when he co-founded the Institute (though the Institute never believed that it, with its own resources solely, was going to be building Seasteads in a hurry so much as planning, advocating, coordinating ideas and practices for them), Thiel says elsewhere in the same George Mason University talk that:

If we could reopen the frontier in geopolitical terms and find a way to really innovate on society, I think this would be a terrific thing to do.

Then the question "How does one actually do this?" is very tricky. All the surface area on this planet is occupied. It seems very hard to get this to work. I know Romer had this experiment with these city-states in Africa. I think it was prohibitively expensive. It could never really quite get started.

So, "letting go" in the Wired headline seems not quite right. Thiel still loves the idea. Perhaps it's a sign of adjusting earlier senses of optimism, though even that is underproven in the piece itself. I have not (ever) been able to nab an interview with Thiel, so I cannot say that he has not decided Seasteading was worthless or a fantasy or something he's abandoned, but the evidence Denuccio presents does not support that assertion. 

Denuccio later writes something about Thiel and Seasteading that's straight-up misleading:

For all Thiel's open criticism of elected officials, he sounded remarkably like a politician recanting false promises on the stage at George Mason. Toward the end of the talk, he reflected for a moment on his early essay on seasteading. "Writing is always such a dangerous thing," he said. "It was late at night. I quickly typed it off."

Thiel was, as the context makes clear, talking about an essay he wrote for Cato Unbound which, while it mentioned Seasteading, was mostly about his controversial declaration that democracy and freedom are not compatible, not about Seasteading per se. A further quote from the Mason talk makes it clear it was that point, not Seasteading, that he was poo-pooing as ill-thought-out: 

My updated version on it would be that?—?I made the case that I thought democracy and capitalism weren't quite compatible?—?the updated version I would give is it's not at all clear that we're living in anything resembling a democracy.

We're living in a representative republic, but then that's modified through a judicial system. Of course, that's been largely superseded by these very unelected agencies of one sort or another, which really drive most of the decision-making.

It is curious Thiel's discussion of the expense of the Seasteading idea during the George Mason talk doesn't mention that he ever had been a funder of the idea. He talked like someone who found it a very valuable idea that was likely too expensive to actuate, without mentioning he'd ever tried. Given that the Institute never believed it was going to be launching seasteds within six years itself, it's hard to say how much any of this represents a shift in Thiel, much less Silicon Valley as a whole, in terms of interest in Seasteading, or "techie island fantasies" as Wired's headline would have it.

Denuccio goes on to say the Institute itself is in retreat on its ambitions:

For its part, The Seasteading Institute has also come to appreciate that the middle of the ocean is less inviting than early renderings suggest. It now hopes to find shelter in calmer, government-regulated waters. According to its most recent vision statement, "The high cost of open ocean engineering serves as a large barrier to entry and hinders entrepreneurship in international waters. This has led us to look for cost-reducing solutions within the territorial waters of a host nation."

The Seasteading Institute, at its beginning and now, was more about proselytizing for an idea and gathering and coordinating people to tackle problems, than it was about itself actually building Seasteads. It also acknowledged that progress could likely be very slow and would likely need to start with building closer to shore. Joe Quirk of the Institute said in an email to me today (after noting that Denuccio did not seek comment from the Seasteading Institute for the story) regarding the "starting in territorial waters" part:

Before the moon shot comes the test launch. If this pilot project demonstrates that a floating community with substantial political autonomy can be prosperous, environmentally benign, and provide blue jobs for local people, the economic, political, and moral incentives will be aligned to attract the best minds to tackle the high seas.

In fiction they taught me: "Show, don't tell." I'd encourage liberty-lovers stop debating and start demonstrating. In our office we work wearing tee-shirts that say, "Stop arguing. Start seasteading." It really has a way of keeping you focused.

Quirk also had this to say on the larger question of whether air has gone out of the sails of the concept:

Randy [Hencken, executive director of the Institute] and I do nothing all day except make arrangements for our free floating city. Randy works with our volunteer legal team when he's not traveling to meet government officials.  He escorts the Dutch engineers to scout the floating city site, visits the experiments in the wave tank. I facilitate meetings between seaweed farmers and a big agriculture businessman. I connect medical researchers interested in ocean research to each other. Our new Managing Director uses his maritime experience to labor over the business models all day. So far I've only described this week. We are all floating city, all the time. I never take a day off. We plan to make this happen, and we've got a large global seasteading community behind us—credentialed, qualified professionals of high caliber volunteering, donating, offering counsel.

The rest of the Wired piece is jumbled mix. It seems to want to be a wider intellectual trend piece about Silicon Valley allegedly getting more comfortable with government or less interested in new forms of governance, as well as being specifically about the Seasteading its headline and lead would lead you to expect.

But declaring, as the story does, that a company hiring someone to deal with regulations proves they (or much less the entire Silicon Valley intellectual economy) understands that limiting them or changing them much is a fantasy or undesirable, is to say too much. And that Denuccio can find, as always, talking heads to point out hey, Silicon Valley is fully enmeshed, and in the current state of the world could be seen as "dependent" on, government again is no reflection of anything either bigger or smaller in "Silicon Valley's" yen for floating techie paradises, or smaller or smarter government, or anything.

That many of the most widely publicized and effective innovations and innovators, from Musk to Thiel to e-hailing to highly publicized tech disruptions that aren't necessarily about Silicon Valley as a business, from cryptocoins to Wikileaks, have a libertarian core likely underlies why someone would want to write a trend piece pitting Silicon Valley against libertarian thinking.

But it doesn't work on any level. The piece wobbles between being a big intellectual trend piece for which it has far too little in the way of wide-ranging interviewing or specific data, and one specifically about the death of Seasteading, for which it lacks specific proof, and fudges some of the supposed proof it gives.

Seasteading.org//Friedman and Thiel

I talked to Patri Friedman, co-founder of the Seasteading Institute and currently with Google (as he was before he co-founded the Institute as well) yesterday, and emailed with him, about the Wired article. He was not misquoted—he knows he was somewhat naive about what it would take at the start, and how long it might take, to actuate new ocean lands with new rules—but had more to say to contextualize the article's larger point.

"Contrasting 'good regulation' with the desire to 'escape regulation,'" isn't he best way to interpret the Seasteading instinct, Friedman wrote. "It's more like: good regulations & institutions are really important, we really want to live under a better legal system, so we want to experiment with new legal systems that might be better."

"If we applied that thinking to Apple computer, we'd say that Jobs and Wozniak were naive technology haters trying to 'escape from the computer' because they built their own Apple instead of using the other computers at the time," he points out, which would be silly. "Experimenting with your own version of an important technology is what people who truly care about performance will do" and that's what Seasteading tries to do with rules and governance.

Friedman also wrote today (and he said it to me in 2009 as well) that "sovereign open ocean seasteads are at least decades off. To get to such a big, ambitious goal, you need to find smaller steps that each produce value….It's good news, not bad news, that TSI is making substantial progress towards the first such development.

"And from the competitive government lens, the goal is not sovereignty, the goal is increased variety, entry, and competition in the government industry. If government start allowing Special Legal Zones the way they have Special Economic Zones today; even if those zones only have 10 percent or 30 percent of laws different from the host country, that's a *huge* step towards legal diversity and competitive governance."

When it comes to the larger intellectual and business culture of the tech industry he's worked in and with for many years, Friedman says, "a sense that it is necessary and inevitable to get a government that works much better [than it does now], that is not changing at all."