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The Iconist: Go Wet, Young Man!

Homesteads on the sea? New experimental forms of government? Patri Friedman, ex-Google- engineer and grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, has some pretty crazy-sounding ideas about the near future. But he also convinced Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to invest in his Seasteading Institute to realize these ideas. We quizzed him about whether he really thinks thousands of people will follow him to live on the ocean, if nations can truly be developed like software, and whether his fellow Americans consider him a radical


  • Dezember 2010

Creative Direction:

  • Brian O'Connor

Redaktionelle Leitung:

  • Inga Griese

Tracking down Patri Friedman these days is not easy. The 34-year-old executive director of the Seasteading Institute lives in San Francisco’s Bay Area, but at the time of the interview, he is in India for reasons undisclosed by his office. What was supposed to be a light interview turned into something oddly personal.

The Iconist: Hello Mr. Friedman, what are you doing in India? Promoting your seasteading idea?

Patri Friedman: No, I outsourced making a baby to India. We have picked up the baby right now. We’re waiting to get it a passport so we can go home.

Oh, sorry to disturb in such a difficult situation. Should we do the interview at another time?

(breezily) That’s ok. Fire away.

Well then ... The concept of seasteading sounds like a pretty unconventional idea. Can you explain it to us in a nutshell?

Sure. Seasteading is creating startup countries in international waters. It’s based on the idea that we have a lot of dissatisfaction with our governments and we don’t really create new forms of government as fast as we create other forms of technology because there’s no small-scale way to do the experiments. But experiments are how every field in business and science evolves.

All land is already claimed. So if you had an idea for a better way to run Germany ...

... I’d have to convince half of all Germans to elect me to let that happen. It would be impossible. The connection is us wanting to do experiments on a small scale and wanting to do that in an empty place. Most people in conventional countries are like users of the mature technology, they want the mature technology, not the bleeding edge technology. Most people don’t want to use products from a startup. But without startups innovation dies. So we need to enable government-startups, in which the people who are most excited about trying a new concept of government can do it and anyone else can watch and learn. And if something works, copy it.

So you are not the typical tech-start-up founder or businessman but a social utopian?

I don’t really believe in a utopia. But I believe that if many people get a chance to create their utopias, in practice, some of them will learn lessons that let us improve our societies in the direction of a utopia.

You plan to let random groups of people on secluded, faraway places in the open sea tinker with their concepts of society, government and justice. Sounds like William Golding‘s book »Lord of the Flies,« about a group of people on a deserted island who tinker with their own rules of society with disastrous end.

The idea of seasteading is that people would opt in. They only would do the experiment if they choose to. You’d be unlikely to have really terrible things happen when people are choosing it explicitly. If I moved to an experimental country my biggest concern would not be »Lord of the Flies.« It could happen, but I think it would be rare. And if you’re not willing to let anything bad happen you can’t learn.

You are an American citizen – do others there consider you an extremist?

Many people have that reaction when I say that democracy is not that good a political system and that we can do much better. But then I just point out that seasteading is just like the original America, much more, in fact, than America is today. The original America was a bunch of people who didn’t like how things were. They left Europe, wanting more political and religious freedom, creating experiments in this new territory. Part of the idea of the experiment was that each of the American states would be politically autonomous and would be competing for people.

So you don’t believe in an »end of history,« as Francis Fukuyama has called it. The final victory for Western-style democracy around the world?

No end of history. When people tell me we are crazy and running away from the system I tell them that’s exactly how America got founded.

Which leads to the more fundamental question: is your idea technologically possible at all?

One of the central questions of seasteading is to understand which technologies are needed. We divided it into a few areas. One of them is engineering. Ships show that the problems of food, water and electricity are all very much solved. But ships are expensive, they tend to be custom built, and you can’t extend them by adding another module. Also they are designed for moving. So we need new designs that are really suited for our requirements, where we can build one module at a time. Maybe they are heavy and slow but cheaper.

What else?

Other research areas are the legal and political. International law is so complex. We have investors now who are interested in running an offshore free-trade zone as a profitable enterprise. But of course they won’t invest unless they know the risks to citizens of a country that does not yet exist.

So when will you build your first seastead?

I think that we know enough in the next year or two to be able to say. ›OK, this is what needs to happen.‹ But right now, there’s still too much uncertainty, especially around the legal stuff.

But this is not bogus science-fiction talk... You do have proper investors and you already collected quite a lot of startup-money from them, right?

We’ve raised a little bit over a million dollars so far in two and a half years. Most of that is from one investor, Peter Thiel, who was the founder and CEO of Paypal, the first investor in Facebook and who runs a venture capital fund in San Francisco.

Is there any way these investors will ever get their money back?

While we are doing the basic research they are investing in us as a non-profit. But once our first seastead is up I think it would be best to run it as a for-profit, just like a real-estate business.

But honestly, isn’t this just a vanity project for some dotcom millionaires?

The way I think of it is that these technology entrepreneurs are used to the idea that the way you change the world is by inventing a new technology that makes something new possible. And so they apply that to politics. They buy my explanation that the way to improve politics is by invent- ing this new technology that lets entrepreneurs with ideas for better societies actually create them.

A very technocratic world view.

It really is a Silicon Valley kind of perspective, but I don’t see anything vain about it other than the vanity of saying: ‘It’s not going be politicians and traditional political activists who are going to change the world.’ It’s entrepreneurs who make countries that draw in people – just like a good business draws in customers.

Who will be your customers?

Anybody who is dissatisfied with their current government and thinks it’s interesting to experiment with a new type of society. Pioneers who want to live on the edge.

So where do you start?

One thing we are investigating now is chartering an entire ship for a month, taking it out, testing business ideas and trying to live together temporarily before doing it full time. Even when we do the first permanent seastead I expect that most people will be part-time residents. People will want to dip their toe in the water before they jump in.

How many people do you need for the first one?

We think it can be done with 50 to 200 full-timers.

What will it cost?

Some low tens of millions we think. We have one design that’s 120 million for a 200-guest resort. By buying a cruise ship and retrofitting it, it could be done for 20 to 50 million.

How many people do you see living on seasteads in the future?

Our goal is 100,000 people in 25 years. With exponential growth in 50 years, that could easily be millions or tens of millions of people. Look at the growth of cities like Singapore or Hong Kong. If you create a place that’s really great to live in, people will come. There’s a recent study showing that 700 million people around the world would move to another country for a better life. So the potential market is big. The United States had immigration of over a million people a year when they were taking anyone.

But these are not the highly skilled and affluent citizens you will need.

Just like any technology, in the beginning the early adopters are rich and they are needed to bring the price down to the broader market. My hope for seasteading in the long run is that we can get the cost low enough to allow people from the third world to move there.

Will you live on one yourself?

I will live there part-time. I’m not sure how much that will be. My wife has agreed to summers at the beginning. I suspect that I will live there for a couple of months a year and I will visit often for a week of work. Years later, as it moves from a village with hundreds of people to a city with thousands of people, we’ll move there full time.

What about practical things, like waste. Will you just ship it off to the mainland?

Seasteads will tend to generate less waste because resources are scarce out there and more expensive so there’s a lot of incentive to use less of them. Organic waste can be composted, recyclable waste can be recycled just like on land. The rest can be incinerated or shipped to land for landfills. Ocean transport is the cheapest form of transport we have. Importing food or exporting waste are actually very low-cost things to do.

A seastead will not be self-sustaining?

In my vision it will be a city like any city and it wouldn’t be close to self-sustaining. Seasteads will trade sushi for steaks.

What if a person gets seriously ill on a seastead?

Initially there will be helicopters for evacuation and eventually there will be hospitals. Actually hospitals are currently our top business model based on the field of medical tourism, which is a huge industry making 30 billion a year worldwide, and after all, it’s what I’m doing in India.

Do you really think you can talk good doctors into moving to and working on a platform in the open sea run by anarchists?

Yes, because in a lot of countries there are such limitations to being a doctor, or there are awful lawsuits for malpractice like in the United States. The great thing is we have this proven market that people are willing to go to other countries for cheaper or higher quality medical care. With seasteads we can put hospitals something like 12 to 200 miles off an existing rich country, depending on what the political research says. So instead of flying to India or Thailand or Eastern Europe you can take a short ferry ride or a flight to a seastead.