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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Will the Future Hold 'Floating Microcountries'?

PayPal founder and billionaire Peter Thiel thinks so. He’s invested $1.25 million into the idea.

  • August 24, 2011

“Big ideas start as weird ideas,” Patri Friedman, an ex-Googler and the grandson of the late economist Milton Friedman, recently told Details. And Friedman’s idea is weirder than most. The libertarian blogger is tired of the restrictions he feels are imposed on him by American society. The solution? Floating chains of micro-countries, each little colonies in the vast Petri dish of the sea, and each an experiment in a new form of government. The idea, which Friedman terms “seasteading,” caught the eye of PayPal founder Peter Thiel (who recently made headlines for paying kids to drop out of school), who sunk $1.25 million into the idea. Thiel’s picked a few winners before—he was one of the earliest investors of Facebook.

Well worth checking out are these conceptual designs of the floating micro-countries of the future, winners in a Seasteading Institute competition from a while back. (Inhabitat has them queued up in a slideshow, here.) The technologies for building such communities already exist—the Seasteading Institute thinks the first such communities will be retrofitted oil rigs or ships. But an FAQ on the institute’s site shows that the institute is concerned with technological advances in order to bring the cost of such communities down. (The FAQ on the site is worth reading, if only for smirk value. It contains entries like “What about pirates?” and “Why not just buy a boat?”)

The first seasteads would not be self-sustaining, and would need to rely on trade. It should be emphasized that seasteads are by no means being touted as eco-friendly—they’re expected to run on diesel. Libertarians and the green movement, which calls for heavy regulation of carbon emissions, rarely see eye-to-eye.

The recent Details story on the idea, which is really a profile of Thiel, offers some more information of his and Friedman’s visions of these floating utopias. Friedman almost concedes that the islands could become corporate dictatorships, of a sort. Only, as he told the reporter Jonathan Miles, “The way most dictatorships work now, they’re enforced on people who aren’t allowed to leave.” Friedman thinks that companies might run countries like businesses, forcing them to compete for residents. He calls the model “Appletopia”: “The more desirable the country, the more valuable the real estate.” In other words, these are dictatorships he thinks you’ll willingly pay a premium to live in. Friedman wants to have tens of millions of seasteaders by mid-century.

Needless to say, not everyone likes the idea. Indeed, many hate it. As Slate’s Jacob Weisberg wrote in a condemnation of Thiel last year, seasteading “may be the most elaborate effort ever devised by a group of computer nerds to get invited to an orgy.”

Update 8/30: The Seasteading Institute disputes some of Details’s details, insisting that the institute is apolitical and does not have plans to build diesel-fueled floating platforms itself. They’ve posted a rebuttal.

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