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The Evolutionary Perspective
Category Archives: Seasteading
Posted: June 13, 2021 at 12:34 pm
In 2017, the Floating Island Project in French Polynesia gained a lot of momentum when The Seasteading Institute signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of French Polynesia. Our partners in the seasteading community formed Blue Frontiers to develop the project.
During the election that year, a small minority of French Polynesians spread misinformation about the project to discredit the President, douard Fritch. Despite the apparent opposition, the President easily won re-election. The political fighting did cause the Floating Island Project to be postponed indefinitely. A major crash in cryptocurrency that year did not help. Remaining funds for the project were returned.
Seavangelesse Nathalie Mezza-Garcia gave a presentation about the lessons learned from the Floating Island Project. You can read a transcript of her presentation on the Seaphia website.
We at The Seasteading Institute certainly know how risky it is to place ones hope in the political process. While this particular project was not completed, we gained many supporters and connections who are working on related seasteading projects in other locations. Blue Frontiers, in particular, has been in contact with other nations interested in special governance frameworks.
Follow this link:
Posted: at 12:34 pm
This energetic and enthusiastic book gives a fascinating glimpse of the blue revolution to come, as human beings experiment with more sustainable ways of managing the biology of the sea and experiment with more sustainable ways of living and governing ourselves as well, free from the constraints of land-based governments. -- Matt Ridley, author of The Evolution of Everything
Really disruptive, definitely visionary, and even more proof thattomorrowwill look nothing like today. Seasteading is a grand adventure in sustainability and possibility and its definitely a trip worth taking! -- Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman, and coauthor of Bold and Abundance
"Seasteading provides some thought-provoking visions of the future. Messrs. Quirk and Friedman introduce us to some very interesting people experimenting with some very interesting technologies, all having to do with living and working on the sea. -- Shlomo Angel The Wall Street Journal
Seasteading is an enormous opportunity for humanity. Not only will these sea-based communities be able to try new sciences and technology . . . they will allow new forms of community with a fresh start, and an ability to experiment as to form. . . . Anyone willing to work for a living can come and go from a seastead. People can finally be citizens of the world. -- Timothy Draper, founder of Draper Fisher Jurvetson
Passionate and convincing. The idea of individual sovereignty could finally come true with floating ocean cities. -- Titus Gebel, Founder & CEO of Free Private Cities Ltd.
Today a new set of futurists is envisioning the next iteration of the floating city. . . . Quirk and Friedmans book also serves as a manifesto for the movement. -- Rachel Riederer The New Republic
Patri Friedman founded The Seasteading Institute in 2008 with seed funding from PayPal founder Peter Thiel. He also founded the annual Ephemerisle floating festival. Friedman, the grandson of economist Milton Friedman, currently works at Google, runs a micro-venture capital fund, and lives with his family in San Jose, California. Visit him at Seasteading.org.
See the rest here:
Posted: June 2, 2021 at 5:28 am
The Gulf of Fonseca, bordering three Central American nations, was chosen as a test case for the suitability of the design for protected, territorial waters this location selected was based loosely on the criteria we used for selecting host nations, such as proximity to cities and existing infrastructure, and location within an attractive climate, outside the path of hurricanes. However, site selection for this study should not be interpreted as suggesting that we have an agreement to develop a floating city in the Gulf of Fonseca. In a location like this, DeltaSync reports that the platforms could be completely solar-powered, and that this would in fact be more cost-effective than diesel generation, even including the costs of battery storage and distribution via micro-grid. This concept also assesses a scalable method of financing a breakwater, which could eventually surround the city and allow it to move out to the open ocean. Mobility of the individual modules is key from the perspective of guaranteeing autonomy for the city in the event that the relationship with a particular host nation no longer suits either party, the platforms could detach from their moorings and float to a different location. Modularity and mobility also enable dynamic geography and empower citizens of the city to rearrange into more desirable configurations as the population grows and evolves. While more in-depth engineering research is required, the preliminary analysis suggests that concrete platforms in the 50 x 50 meter dimensions strike the best balance between cost, movability, and stability in the waves of the representative region. Future research includes verifying the findings in DeltaSyncs report and honing the assumptions off of which the design is based.
See original here:
Posted: at 5:28 am
BANGKOK Thai authorities have raided a floating home in the Andaman Sea belonging to an American man and his Thai partner who sought to be pioneers in the seasteading movement, which promotes living in international waters to be free of any nations laws.
Thailand's navy said Chad Elwartowski and Supranee Thepdet endangered national sovereignty, an offense punishable by life imprisonment or death.
It filed a complaint against them with police on the southern resort island of Phuket. Thai authorities said they have revoked Elwartowskis visa.
Elwartowski said in an email Thursday that he believes he and Supranee also known as Nadia Summergirl did nothing wrong.
"This is ridiculous," he said in an earlier statement posted online. "We lived on a floating house boat for a few weeks and now Thailand wants us killed."
The couple, who have gone into hiding, had been living part-time on a small structure they said was anchored outside Thailands territorial waters, just over 12 nautical miles from shore. They were not there when the navy carried out their raid on Saturday.
The Thai deputy naval commander responsible for the area said the project was a challenge to the country's authorities.
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"This affects our national security and cannot be allowed," Rear Adm. Wintharat Kotchaseni told Thai media on Tuesday. He said the floating house also posed a safety threat to navigation if it broke loose because the area is considered a shipping lane.
Seasteading has had a revival in recent years as libertarian ideas of living free from state interference such as by using crypto-currency including Bitcoin have become more popular, including among influential Silicon Valley figures such as entrepreneur Peter Thiel. Elwartowski, an IT specialist, has been involved in Bitcoin since 2010.
Several larger-scale projects are under development, but some in the seasteading community have credited the Andaman Sea house with being the first modern implementation of seasteading.
"The first thing to do is whatever I can to help Chad & Nadia, because living on a weird self-built structure and dreaming of future sovereignty should be considered harmless eccentricities, not major crimes," Patri Friedman, a former Google engineer who heads The Seasteading Institute, said on his Facebook page.
The floating two-story octagonal house at the center of the controversy had been profiled and promoted online by a group called Ocean Builders, which touted it as a pilot project and sought to sell additional units.
The group describes itself as "a team of engineering focused entrepreneurs who have a passion for seasteading and are willing to put the hard work and effort forward to see that it happens."
In online statements, both Elwartowski and Ocean Builders said the couple merely promoted and lived on the structure, and did not fund, design, build or set the location for it.
"I was volunteering for the project promoting it with the desire to be able to be the first seasteader and continue promoting it while living on the platform," Elwartowski told The Associated Press.
"Being a foreigner in a foreign land, seeing the news that they want to give me the death penalty for just living on a floating house had me quite scared," Elwartowski said. "We are still quite scared for our lives. We seriously did not think we were doing anything wrong and thought this would be a huge benefit for Thailand in so many ways."
Asked his next step, he was more optimistic.
"I believe my lawyer can come to an amicable agreement with the Thai government," he said.
Associated Press journalist Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.
Posted: February 22, 2021 at 2:35 pm
A type of ocean claim
Ocean colonization is the theory of extending society territorially to the ocean by permanent settlements floating on the ocean surface and submerged below, employing offshore construction.
The theory of developing permanent dwellings in the ocean, both floating and sunken, to allow permanent human settlement. This idea was first suggested by Friedman and Gramlich, and has been researched since the early 1990s.
The process of extending space available for humans to inhabit involves developing seasteads such as artificial islands, floating rigid structures, extreme-sized cruise ships or even submerged structures, to provide permanent living quarters for sections of the world's population. Specifically catering for the growing issue of overpopulation, and need for extra housing as a result, the urban theorists that have pursued this idea also suggesting it as a sustainable form of living to help assist climate change  Colonies may form their own sovereign state of independence, with these structures also being generally less impacted by natural disasters.
However this theory for future urban planning has been critiqued by other scientists, suggesting that developing artificial structures in an aquatic environment will disrupt the natural marine ecosystem. and may instead be impacted to aquatic natural disasters such as tsunamis. The debate against this theory further notes the threat of security of these colonies and the potential lack of protection without an overseeing government or body.
The utopic theory of ocean colonisation has been explored and visually explained in many forms of entertainment such as in gaming, virtual realities and science-fiction movies, to show the potentially positive and negative changes on societies daily living.
Lessons learned from ocean colonization may prove applicable to space colonization. The ocean may prove simpler to colonize than space and thus occur first, providing a proving ground for the latter. In particular, the issue of sovereignty may bear many similarities between ocean and space colonization; adjustments to social life under harsher circumstances would apply similarly to the ocean and to space; and many technologies may have uses in both environments 
Underwater habitats are examples of underwater structures.
Submerged structures are sunken, air-tight vessels that either sit at an intermediate position or attached to the ocean floor that create an underwater metropolis for residences and businesses.
H2ome is a project for building sea floor homes, along with high-end resorts and hotels.
Ocean Spiral City is a $26 billion Japanese project, with research and designing being underway to potentially house 5000 people and may be a reality by 2030.
Offshore construction is one of the main forms of ocean colonization.
Land reclamation, or artificial islands, are the man-made process of relocating rock or placing cement in a sea, ocean or river bed, to extend or create a new area of liveable land in the ocean. This process involves creating a solid base on the sea floor and further building upon it with materials such as clay, sand and soil to form a new island-like structure above the water surface. It therefore expands the area for potential development space, supporting the erection of buildings or other necessary urban developments in response to support human activities, by utilising this otherwise untouched space for more productive uses. This ocean colonisation technique is the most developed in terms of planning and implementation in the present day.
The Palm Jumeriah is the main of the three artificial islands in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to be developed. The name Palm resembles its palm-tree like design when viewed aerially, and is both culturally and symbolically relevant to the coastal city. This land reclamation project began in 2001 and involved the movement of 94 million cubic metres of sand and 5.5 million cubic metres of rock off-shore in the Persian Gulf, to allow the development of luxury beachfront villas for both residential and commercial purposes.
Kansai International Airport located in Osaka Bay, Japan was created in 1987, due to overcrowding at the nearby Osaka Airport. Developers suggested Japan's mountain terrain  is not conducive to the development of necessary flat space required for an airport and thus developed an artificial island in the bay, with a connecting bridge to support both travel and freight arrivals and departures.
Portier Cove is a new eco-district extended off the coast of Monaco designed to reduce greenhouse emissions in the area. The 125m long extension project re-began in 2011 and plans to provide a hectare of space for retail, parks, offices, apartments and private villas, to support their national issue of a growing population.
Very Large Floating Structures (VLFS)  or Seasteads  are artificially man-made pontoons, designed to float on the surface of the ocean or sea to house permanent residents. They have a large surface area and are designed to not be bound to a certain government but instead form their own community through clusters of floating structures. This type of technology has only be theorised and is yet to be developed, however a variety of companies have investment project plans underway.
Seasteading refers to building buoyant, permanent structures to float on the surface of the ocean to support human settlements and colonies.
The idea constructed by Friedman and Gramlich, who founded the Seasteading Institute, and is now a recognised in the Oxford dictionary. The pair received $500k funding from PayPal Peter Thiel, to begin designing and constructing their idea in 2008 
Architectural company BIG proposed their design of the Oceanix City, involving a series of inhabitable floating villages, clustered together to form an archipelago that could house 10,000 residents. The proposed design was developed in response to the effects of climate change such as rising sea levels and an increase in hurricanes in the Polynesian region, that threaten many tropical island nations from being eradicated. The design also outlines its intentions to incorporate predominantly renewable energy sources such as wind and water.
The idea of cruise ships as part of the theory of ocean colonisation, surpass the typical modern-day commercial cruise ships. This technology imagines a large scale vessel, supporting permanent residence on board that can freely move about the world's oceans and seas. These ships include residential, retail, sport, commercial and entertainment quarters on board.
The ideal size and style is outlined in the concept of the Freedom Ship design by US engineer Norman Nixon, proposing a 4000ft length vessel that has the capability to house 60,000 residents and 15,000 personnel  - with an estimated cost of $10 billion (USD).
The World ship debuted in 2015, sitting at 644ft long and is the largest, residential cruise ship presently in the world. This vessel is the closest, existent ship to the idealised Freedom Ship design that hopes to support permanent life on board a ship. Permanent residency on the ship costs between $3million (USD) to $15million (USD) per room.
THE MEG: 2018 science-fiction movie, based in living in an underwater research facility 
It is predicted by 2100, sea levels will have risen by 13 meters as a result of global warming, to which by 2050 are estimated to impact 90% of the world's coastal cities. Theorists who support ocean colonization theories hope to face the issue and provide a solution for groups and nations worldwide that are most at risk.
For example, Polynesian island nations such as Tuvalu with a population of 10,000 are expected to be fully submerged by water in approximately 3050 years 
Entrepreneurs who have devised these technologies to support the colonization of the seas suggest their design will have an overall minimal carbon footprint.
Recycled and environmentally-friendly materials such as recycled plastics and locally sourced coconut fibres will constitute a large proportion of building materials required for construction.
To minimise the use of pollutant energy output in the environment contributing to this rapid global warming, designers suggest using predominantly renewable energy from sources such as water, wind  and solar power.
Designers also intend to utilise bicycles, electric and hydrogen vehicles as the primary transport system on board to prevent extra CO2 emissions.
Ultimately, project designers, entrepreneurs and scientists are aiming to collaborate to create a structure allowing the formation of an eco-sustainable production and consumption cycle in the future human habitat.
The primary group impacted by the effects of climate change, the Pacific Island Nations, are the target demographic identified for the ocean colony projects to which they are still able to remain in their familiar and culturally significant island environment. In 2017, French Polynesia signed an agreement with the Seasteading Institute to utilise their land for testing of the world's first floating town 
Green Float is another example of a project hoping to develop a carbon negative city within the Equatorial Pacific Ocean, with it set to house 100,000 locals by joining multiple floating modules. They hypothesise a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions through more environmentally friendly and energy efficient modes of transport and power 
The number of natural disasters occurring in the world has grown by 357 from 1919 to 2019, according to Our World in Data, with 90,000 people killed annually as a result of this extreme weather. According to this data, the main economic impacts have primarily come from extreme weather events, wildfires and flooding. Due to these economic effects, cities such as Boston, Miami and San Francisco are exploring this idea of ocean colonization as they try to protect their coastlines from an increase in flooding, rising sea levels and earthquakes respectively. Ocean colony technologies are said to be less impacted by common territorial natural disasters and even extreme aquatic weather such as damaging waves as they occupy more shallow waters. For example, the world's first floating hotel, the Barrier Reef Floating Resort, sat 70km off the coast of Townsville, Australia and in 1988 withheld against a cyclone.
According to theorists and scientists at the Seasteading Institute who have begun conducting research into aquatic environments as liveable spaces, many of the technologies supporting ocean colonization are set to mainly impacted by rogue waves  and storms. However, other aquatic natural disasters such as Tsunamis, Friedman says would have little impact on the structures yet only raise water levels.
Research in the 1990s emerged regarding the hydro-elasticity of rigid structures at the face of relentless and on-going wave movement  to which lead to modern scientists such as Suzuki (2006), voicing their concern of the potentially poor integrity of aquatic structures impacting by constant motion and vibration.
Further modern research and design has also been situated around testing the computation fluid dynamics of resistance against vortex formations of water, such as cyclones that form and therefore threaten ocean environments.
Spar platforms, artificial and natural breakwaters and active repositioning, if applicable, of ocean structures to avoid storms are some suggestions and technologies suggested by ocean colonization supporters and scientists to combat extreme aquatic weather events. Entrepreneurs such as Friedman, have acknowledged and are aware of the care that must be taken in the engineering process of these designs.
Biologists have identified the individualised negative impacts of the technologies that support the implementation of colonization, by their effect on the disruption to the local marine ecosystem.
According to scientists, the process of land reclamation can lead to the erosion of natural soil and land, through this human-made and unnatural movement of sediment that consequently disrupts the natural geological cycle.
Scientists at Marine Insight, have conducted studies of the environmental impacts of commercial cruise ships, with these impacts predicted to be similar to the technologies allowing ocean colonization. Currently, these vessels cause air pollution through the emission of toxic gases that increase in the acidification of the ocean.
Their research also showed the noise pollution from these ships can disturb the hearing of marine animals and mammals.
Furthermore, the leaking of chemicals, grey water and blackwater into the ocean can lead to the accumulation of harmful chemicals, increasing the water concentration, that local flora and fauna are accustomed to. These studies of cruise ships and their impact of the marine environment have been incorporated by ocean colonization scientists and designers, as they are the closest, existent technology to their proposed projects.
Ocean colonization is said by theorist to be a potential solution to the world's growing population, with 7.78 billion people currently inhabiting earth as of May 2020. The BBC claim that 11 billion people is our Earth's capacity even after adjusting our consumption behaviours, with the UN predicting this number to be reached by 2100. With the world's oceans covering 70% of the planet surface, this space has been therefore seen as a viable, long-term solution to allow an expansion and extension of in-habitable space by 50%. Pioneers of this colonization theory suggest the new spaces to also cater for new and more jobs, and may be a particular solution to the moral and political dilemma of housing as well as the consequential increased number of climate refugees.
Central entrepreneurs to this theory have suggested that it hosts the potential for a degree of autonomy of residences, currently operating in more strict political systems. As a result, ocean colonisation has been posed as a potential solution to poor governance, in which sovereign states may begin formation of greater personal freedoms, little state regulation and clearly defined state intentions. Despite critical theorists at the Seasteading Institute suggesting their design to allow people to experiment with new forms of government, however socialists critique this idea, seeing it as a possibility bypass tax laws  in international waters. Projects such as the Freedom Ship and those by the Seasteading Institute, have proposed the idea for the installation of their designs in Polynesian water however are exempt by unique governing framework permitting significant autonomy from Polynesian laws.
Under Article 60 of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), artificial islands, installations and structures have the right to build in exclusive economic zones to coastal nations, however these coastal nations still hold sovereignty of the 12 nautical miles adjacent to that coast.
Little has been vocalised on the development of essential services i.e. schools, hospitals etc., within these ocean colony structures yet theorists say it is likely host or closest nations will be relied upon until the initial population grows. With intentions to build beyond territorial seas in exclusive economic zones, the likelihood of the idea for pure sovereignty has been questioned by critics.
According entrepreneurs at the Seasteading Institute, their particular technology of floating modules is said to be high, with a predicted cost of $10,000 - $100,000 per 1 acre of a seastead, comprised purely by volunteers. Similarly, Friedman, co-founder of the Seasteading Institute, has estimated the entire project to cost a few hundred million. As mentioned earlier, other projects such as the Ocean Spiral City, are set to cost $26 billion 
Critics have responded to these future plans; labelling them as elitist, impractical and delusional, with the number of people accommodated limited.
These projects will therefore rely on investors, which is acknowledged by ocean colonization theorists who state the first people to benefit will be the privileged who can afford to invest in the project. However skeptics criticize the idea suggesting it is ultimately designed for capitalist gain, rather than a potential solution for the future society.
Without an overseeing government and lack of taxes, critics of ocean colonisation suggest there would be little security provided in the open waters, in terms of economically and regarding human rights laws. Theorists are considered by threat of being prey to pirates, with colonies on board therefore having minimal personal protection.
There has been resistance to this seemingly capital-intensive project, as critics of the idea suggest private law cannot be embraced if it challenges that of the public laws. Ocean colonization theorists have acknowledged the necessary assignment of responsibility of land and resources into private hands, to ensure at a party is liable. This assigned responsibility is suggested to rely upon existing legal frameworks regarding property, contract and commercial laws to protect colonies. Ocean colonisation theorists are currently working to balance the idea of freedom with security 
Developing these technologies and strategies will ultimately require changes to daily living.
Many current day activities will remain relatively unchanged and un-impacted, such as many of the modern necessities i.e. heating, lighting, kitchen appliances, hot water systems. They would require specially consideration and design, however most technologies would still be available says Friedman.
With such proximity to water resources, there would be a reliance on hydroponics to account for the limited space on the surface, that would generate energy and support the growth of crops. Similarly, to conserve space, vertical gardens have been suggested by designers for growing and composting.
Humans are more likely to accustom to this environment, as psychologically they are more comfortable with water, with humanity gradually moving to reside to coast and have historically always operated close to water ways.
On the other hand, humans are less likely to adapt to this possible solution as the ocean is an unfamiliar territory and they are familiar with their ways on land. Life on the water would also be incredibly different, with limited personal living space and many more shared spaced instead. There is also the threat of possible overfishing of nearby and local species to the colony, and also the raised question of waste disposal. With limited ability of fresh water availability, due to the inability to drill or stream it, critics and theorists of the idea themselves suggest and acknowledge that ocean colonies are unable to ever be purely self-sufficient.
Land reclamation, followed by Seasteading, are the two technologies leading the way in terms of development plans.
In 2017, the Seasteading Institute proposed to begin building the first project village by 2020 in a lagoon in Tahiti. Investor in the project, John Quirk, stated in 2018, that we could conceivably see our first modest seastead for 300 people by 2022.
In terms of law, in 2019, plans were passed allowing a nation to host the first seastead, to which it must adhere to the regulations of that host country but is also liable for its own tailored Special Economic Zone. Economic freedom is likely to be sought after and granted, but more gradually through a staged approach called strategic incrementalism.
As of May 2020, both the Seastead Institute and Blue Frontiers have completed their impact assessments and are waiting for updates on their proposal.
Posted: at 2:35 pm
Its fun to imagine what the cities of the future will look like. Underwater bubble-homes? Sure. Cities that float? Why not? Houses that look like leafy trees? Were on board!
Weve got to give credit, then, to the artists, architects, and other creative voices whove dreamed up these futuristic urban visions. These city concepts span from garden bridges to self-contained biospheres andwhile they probably wont all make it past the drawing boardwere hoping that future urban planners take note. (Seriously, we definitely want to live in a floating city.)
Picture it: a self-contained community that floats on waterand exists entirely off-the-grid, thanks to its sustainability and reliance on clean energy sources. Meet Seasteading Institutes Floating City Project, which isnt just a hallucinatory oasis. Negotiations for this project are currently underway, and the very first floating city could be unveiled as early as 2020.
Water isnt just a one-time solution to urban over-crowding. Its an idea thats also driven innovator Phil Pauleys Sub-Biosphere 2, which is envisioned as a fully self-contained community that floats on the waters surface during good weatherand goes submarine when the waves get rough.
Envisioning what the worlds best-known cities will look like in 2050 is always a fun game, and this projection of Paris is, wellpretty impressive. Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut is behind the concept, which imagines antismog towers with de-polluting properties, photosynthesis towers covered in algae, and vertical farming oriented farmscrapers. Mmm, green.
Next up is Beijing, which gets the 2050 treatment courtesy of MAD Architects. Though the city is frequently in the news for its smog problems, the architects have reimagined the Chinese capital as a decidedly greener place. Were particularly obsessed with these gleaming, elevated gardens. Can we get some of those near us?
Its great to see how many of these futuristic city concepts are focused on bringing more greenery into the urban setting, and Londons Garden Bridge is no exception. A Thames-spanning walkwayfilled with pretty foliage, the proposed project has received planning permissions and is slated to open up as early as 2018. Fingers crossed for new, leafier commutes.
Ever wanted to live in a tree house? What about a house thats also a tree? From stage left, OAS1S: one of the coolest city concepts out there. The plan envisions abodes that are inspired by and effectively function as trees. Theyre oxygen-producing, sustainable, off-gridand pretty, too.
Created by illustrator Paul Chadeisson, this stunning vision of a futuristic Paris is awesome and spooky all at once. A cheery bistro is one of the only indications of the Paris we know; otherwise, industrial, high-tech design seems to have taken over. As this image was created for Dontnod Entertainments Remember Me video game, it probably wont be a reality soon. (Thats okay. We really like all those bistros as-is.)
Not to be confused with Seasteading Institutes Floating City, this one is the work of Chinese firm AT Design Office. And theyve really thought it out. From submarine transit to underwater entertainment centers, this is one city wed move to in a heartbeat. Too bad its not real (yet).
All right, youve caught us; this isnt an artist rendering but a grade-A photo. The Vertical Forest, proposed and created by Milanese architectural studio Stefano Boeri Architetti, is an example of a futuristic, super-green project that has actually made it into the real world. Let this be an inspiration, then. With any luck, the rest of these super-cool city concepts will soon become reality.
Posted: January 29, 2021 at 11:23 am
MISTRUSTWhy Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform ThemBy Ethan Zuckerman
In his new book, Mistrust, Ethan Zuckerman takes us on a kaleidoscopic tour of everyone from Gandhi to Bitcoin enthusiasts, Brexit voters to Black Lives Matter activists people and groups whom he calls insurrectionists because they are trying to overthrow or work around what has been a worldwide decline in social trust. Fighting this erosion from another direction are the institutionalists, those who seek to bolster trust and prevent any further crumbling.
Zuckerman, the former director of the M.I.T. Center for Civic Media, writes with the tone of a sobered-up insurrectionist whos come to see in Donald Trump, QAnon and antimask activists the dark side of a society in which all trust is lost and anything goes. Rather than liberation, Zuckerman correctly explains, this systematic distrust has proved to be a blessing for authoritarians around the world who have only further undermined traditional arbiters of truth (say, journalists) in order to open the way to their own propaganda. He offers the particularly absurdist example that in Vladimir Putins Russia, so all-encompassing is the leaders control that many Russians see the mere fact that a dissident leader like Alexey Navalny hasnt been murdered (yet) as evidence that he doesnt represent a real opposition force.
Its clear Zuckerman hasnt abandoned his insurrectionist sympathies for those trying to work outside a system they see as irreparably broken. He writes sympathetically about plainly loopy ideas like seasteading (the libertarian fantasy of building floating communities outside the reach of established states) and using the same blockchain technology that powers cryptocurrency to establish new virtual nation-states.
But he seems to find most promising those activists with more conventionally progressive politics who embrace new tactics. He offers the fascinating story of the Association for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants in India, along with the more familiar tales of Bryan Stevenson and the success of digital activists in reshaping coverage of law enforcement.
One of his big examples is the Black Lives Matter movement. Citing research from his former lab at M.I.T., he notes that after Michael Browns death and the protests in Ferguson, police killings of people of color were 11 times more likely to receive media coverage than deaths that preceded Browns. Media stories also became far more likely to cover a story not as an isolated incident but as part of a pattern of police violence against people of color.
Zuckermans heroes have what he calls strong internal efficacy (they believe they can do things) but low external efficacy (they think political leaders dont care about them). So they operate outside the system, pressuring retailers to change their approach to selling firearms, decentralizing institutions or shifting media coverage.
#MeToo is a different kind of movement, he writes. Sexual assault and harassment have been illegal for years, so its main demands are for changes not in law but in norms.
This feels like an unsatisfactory effort to rebrand failure as success. The social media phenomenon revealed that conduct short of assault but still deeply troubling to its victims is fairly widespread in American life. And nothing fundamentally changed no alteration to legal liability rules for employers, managers or bystanders, for example to redress that situation. I hope that norms have changed, but theres no clear evidence that they really have. Much-deserved Pulitzer Prizes were won, but crack investigative journalists exposing predators one by one is a not a viable fix.
This is where Zuckerman himself lands when considering the coronavirus pandemic and where he illustrates best the limits of the insurrectionists: Actual functioning institutions became indispensable, and couldnt simply be worked around with internal efficacy and digital savvy.
Recounting a conversation with the activist Eli Pariser, Zuckerman proclaims himself a resurrectionist who believes that we need institutions that deserve our passionate support and defense, and if the institutions we rely on now do not clear that bar, we need to demand new ones that take their place. That seems correct and sensible, though it perhaps raises the question of what the point was in introducing the dichotomy in the first place.
Zuckerman concludes his book by saying that we are likely to find that institutions fail when we no longer recognize ourselves as a single nation, when we no longer feel responsibility for or obligation to our fellow citizens.
Out of context, one could imagine that flowing from the pen of Stephen Miller as part of a denunciation of globalist preoccupation with asylum seekers and the perfidious work of the 1619 Project in tearing down our common culture. In the course of a book that praises the protests that halted Trumps zero tolerance immigration initiative and casually tosses off an endorsement of Ta-Nehisi Coatess case for reparations, Im quite sure thats not what he means. But in many respects the divide between a call for unity that can be read as nationalistic and one that can be understood as cosmopolitan is the real split in the world today.
Another way of thinking about institutional trust is precisely in terms of that divide.
Major institutions have long been led primarily by the members of an educated elite. But its only over the past generation or so that college graduates with cosmopolitan attitudes have become a large enough share of the population that educated peoples sensibilities could be a force in mass politics. Consequently, today institutional leaders face meaningful pressure often from some of the young, college-educated activists whom Zuckerman valorizes like David Hogg, fighting for gun control, and Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter to use their power to reflect and act on those views. But when they yield, they face fierce backlash from a populist right rooted in the cultural sensibilities of older, whiter, generally less-educated people.
Meanwhile, there are those who feel caught between these worldviews: the working-class people of color who largely eschew left-wing radical chic and feel the pull of things like patriotism and traditional gender norms without wanting to hop on a right-wing bandwagon inflected with racism and indifference to the material needs of the lower class. These are precisely the people with the least direct access to media attention or the political process. They are the ones, more than the insurrectionists of left or right, that institutional leaders need to find a way to better serve if they want to preserve their power and restore their legitimacy.
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Posted: October 7, 2020 at 8:52 am
What is a company for? Ostensibly, to make products for customers and profits for investors. The digital economy is different. Google makes products out of its customers. For most of its existence, Amazon has not been profitable. And then there is the imperative to change the world.
Palantir, which became a publicly-traded company this week, is not merely a purveyor of data management software, initially to military and intelligence agencies and now global corporations, capable of funneling disparate data sets into user-friendly interfaces and visualizations said to help with everything from military strikes to building jets.
Judging by the letter accompanying its prospectus, authored by CEO Alex Karp, it is also an ideological project. To dispel fears about a company that can inspire images of Minority Report, he decries the abuse of personal data by many giants of the digital economy, and answers our first question: Companies ought to act in the public interest; after all, the privilege to engage in private enterpriseis a product of the state and would not exist without it.
Public interest takes different forms. Some engineers at digital firms like Google, Facebook, and even Palantir itself have seen it as their duty to publicly protest how government agencies use their products to enable the killing of civilians in military strikes, the spread of election disinformation, and the abuse of illegal immigrants. Some companies backed off; Palantir took a different approach.
Our society has effectively outsourced the building of software that makes our world possible to a small group of engineers in an isolated corner of the country, Karp, who recently moved Palantirs corporate headquarters from Palo Alto to Denver, Colorado, writes. The question is whether we also want to outsource the adjudication of some of the most consequential moral and philosophical questions of our time. The engineering elite of Silicon Valley may know more than most about building software. But they do not know more about how society should be organized or what justice requires.
Set aside that Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel has dedicated his career to reorganizing society, from seasteading and ending college to promoting monopolies and president Donald Trump. What Palantir offers is not so much a nuanced theory of justice as a singular focus on product-market fit: The government wants the best technology, at a time when many of the best technologists are having second thoughts about how their tools are used. Palantir, like a traditional defense contractor, wont waste time worrying about what justice requires.
Striking a blow in the culture war is more than a lubricant for the companys business model; it may have helped its stock price as rampant retail stock trading draws buyers to businesses with powerful, if not often accurate, stories to tell.
Im contractually obligated to mention here that Palantirs name is a reference to magical stones in the novels of JRR Tolkien, which allow users to peer through time and across realms. Less often mentioned is that when Tolkiens characters use the Palantir stones, they are typically deceived by what they see (pdf).
Ideology aside, Palantirs financial prospects are hardly golden. Before the listing, valuations were expected in the $20 to $40 billion range; about half way through the second day of trading, investors valued the firm at $21 billion. Thats about 20 times the companys forecast 2020 revenue.
Palantir wants to be valued like a software as a service (SaaS) companythe darlings of investors, these firms build a software product which can then be used by a functionally infinite set of users. Think Zooms video-conferencing software, or Microsofts Office apps: it takes money up front to build the software, but much, much less to acquire new users. Palantirs two data management platforms, Gotham and Foundry, are marketed this way.
The issue, however, is that both platforms appear to require significant customization and engineering support for users. Palantir brags that its engineers are on the front lines in places like Afghanistan alongside its users, which sounds badass, and is also very expensive to scale. The companys prospectus says it is not throwing people at problems, and it predicts that the costs of its services will continue to fall, particularly as revenue from on-going customers continues to grow.
Palantir has spent $1.5 billion on its platform thus far, engineering that may set it apart from potential competitors. However, in attempting to win market share in industries ranging from finance to aerospace engineering (current customers include Credit Suisse and Airbus), it may find itself competing with internal solutions developed and marketed by specialists. SpaceX developed a novel systems engineering and integration platform to build its rockets, while asset management giant Blackrock built Aladdin, an investment management platform now used by Apple, Microsoft, and Alphabet.
Consider the numbers: Public SaaScompanies have traded at valuations averaging 16 times their previous twelve months of revenuebut these firms are generally growing fast, with revenue increasing at 50% or more year over year, and are profitable. Palantir has averaged 20% annual growth over the last five years and never been in the black.
Palantir is part of a relatively young class of venture-backed companies seeking to make a business out of working for the US government, alongside SpaceX and Anduril, a national-security company founded in part by former Palantir employees, if you couldnt guess from yet another Tolkien allusion.
These companies share something in common, according to Katherine Boyle, a partner at the venture fund General Catalyst, and Anduril board member. Traditional government contracts state both the problem and the requirements for the solution, which newer firms with Silicon Valley mindsets often see as inhibiting innovation. But trying to convince the government to change how it writes contracts often leads to conflict, as traditional contractors with significant political influence fight to preserve traditional methods.
Palantir and SpaceX have both fought for contracts that emphasize commercial buying, with fixed prices and limited requirement-setting. It has been contentious: SpaceX sued the US Air Force in 2014 to compete for rocket contracts, eventually winning billions in launch business.
In 2016, Palantir sued the US Army over a contract to provide battle management software. Palantir won the right to compete, a victory the companys prospectus suggests will significantly increase the amount of government contracts it can win.
One of the first outside investors in Palantir, back in 2006, was a little shop called In-Q-Tel. Its not your typical fund: Its non-profit, and it was founded by the CIA. (And yes, the Q is for James Bonds Q.)
The US intelligence agency, once responsible for creating spy satellites and supersonic planes, felt it was losing its high-tech touch in the nineties as information technology became dominated by the private sector. Venture capital was where the tech was, and the CIA decided to go there, launching a fund led at first by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine.
At the beginning of 2018, the most recent year it has publicly reported data, In-Q-Tel reported about $450 million in investments; the fund appears to aim mainly at seed and early-stage investment rounds in companies that manage big data, launch satellite sensors, develop nanotechnology, and organize geospatial imagery.
We have a board observer position, and we are able to influence where it goes with its product, an early In-Q-Tel leader said. There is the aspect that at the end of the day, we want the technology, obviously. Thats sort of our, for a lack of a better term, our special sauce, if you will, of getting in there with that venture relationship.
For young companies daunted by federal procurement rules, the CIA venture fund was a key way to develop the understanding needed to compete for government contracts. The imprimatur of the spy agency also gives these firms a sexy gloss that helps them raise new money from traditional private investors.
Palantir, explicitly founded to work with US intelligence agencies, was an obvious candidate for In-Q-Tels investment. Its fascinating, then, that Palantirs relationship with US spy agencies appears to have soured in recent years: Its not clear either the CIA or the National Security Agency is using the companys platforms.
Palantirs greatest successand the one most reflective of the Silicon Valley ethos the company may or may not be abandoningwas in how it got the military to buy its platform.
As the lawsuit story above highlights, going through the front door wasnt exactly an easy option. But successful startups find a way in, and one move was providing free training and software to soldiers. Palantirs Gotham platform was used in Afghanistan by soldiers combining maps, intelligence reports, and records of roadside bombings to plan their missions.
This helped win over the rank and file, who appreciated the more intuitive tools and support offered by Palantirs engineers. Its not unlike how instant messaging platform Slack spread initially, winning over individual teams rather than corporate IT departments. Senior Army officials were perturbed because the freebies likely violated government contract rulesbut they wound up putting Palantir on a small contract to solve the problem, effectively paying for the companys marketing.
The act-first, ask-questions-later approach offers shades of Uber selling rides without regulatory approval in cities, then using its customer base as leverage to win the right to operate. For Palantir, getting troops in the field to use its platform paid off when Army officials saw that their troops were more comfortable with it, compared to a kludgier product delivered by traditional military contractors.
I walked away convinced that Palantir is much easier to use, Heidi Shyu, the Pentagon official in charge of buying gear for the military between 2011 and 2016, told New York Magazine.
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Posted: July 5, 2020 at 10:00 am
Id just finished chopping up a watermelon with a dull hatchet on the wing of a floating platform called Siren Island when a party boat named The Entanglement motored over to offload a group of half-naked passengers.
Guests of Siren Island, a two-tiered wooden isle affixed with four spindly maple tree branches, were relaxing in the late-afternoon sun on the calm waters of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. They took turns plunging their hands into a steel basin of black lagoon mud then spreading it on one anothers skin limbs, torsos and faces. The dozen or so passengers aboard The Entanglement had spotted the action from across the channel and were eager to indulge themselves.
Permission to come aboard? one hollered.
It was about 5 p.m. on a cloudless day at the height of summer one of the last days of the annual weeklong floating festival known as Ephemerisle. The event, which just concluded its tenth year, draws a menagerie of watercraft and makeshift rafts to a remote corner of the delta for what is, depending on whom you ask, a weeklong art party, a spiritual retreat from earthbound society, a social experiment in self-governance or all of the above.
One longtime Ephemerisle-goer, Adam Katz, described it in an email: The gathering is all of the inconvenience of Burning Man, plus the risk of drowning.
At the center of Ephemerisle (pronounced eh-FEM-er-ile) was a one-of-a-kind craft, planned on land then assembled on the water and housing dozens of grungy delta campers. It was the multilevel island called Elysium, a compendium of barges, docks, platforms and pontoons all anchored and lashed together into a 3,000-square-foot Frankenmarvel of aquatic engineering. Among its amenities were an outdoor kitchen with gas grills and running water, a living room area replete with fireplace and antler mount, sleeping platforms loaded with camping tents and, to one side in a neat row, four orange portable toilets.
Off one end of Elysium, across a 20-yard floating plywood track, was a massive black tugboat covered in camping tents, the sides of its hull draped with tractor-size rubber tires. Another short dock led to a row of boats tethered in a solid floating block. There were smaller, independent islands of various forms with fun names like the Washed Up Yacht Club, DIYsland and Siren. But Elysium was the event hub, the sun around which the Ephemerisle solar system orbited.
There is no central leadership at Ephemerisle, no entry fee or sign-up sheet, and no admission tickets.
Theres this roll-up-your-sleeves, were-just-gonna-build-it attitude that shines through here, said Tom W. Bell, a law professor at Chapman University in Orange County and author who attended Ephemerisle the past two years. Its a very Silicon Valley ethos: Were just gonna do this. Its everywhere here.
The people who put together the islands arent just building a temporary respite. Many Ephemerisle participants view the event as an evolving experiment in competitive governments that could serve as proof of concept for a future in which human civilization migrates into the ocean. To them, each gathering represents an opportunity to inch toward a new vision of society.
The island of Elysium at Ephemerisle in 2019.
Early on, I was informed that the founding principles of Ephemerisle were long lost, and the only surviving rule from the events first years is the most important: No Dying.
The area of the delta where the event takes place is overseen by the U.S. Coast Guard and San Joaquin County Sheriffs Office and patrolled by local police boats. For several years including this year authorities have been called to respond to medical emergencies (in my reporting, I didnt hear about any deaths at the event), but by and large, the floating colony has maintained a strong measure of self-reliance, a trait hardcoded into the events DNA.
Ephemerisle was founded in 2009, the brainchild of an ex-Google engineer named Patri Friedman (grandson of the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman), as a small-scale trial run of a concept called seasteading. A year earlier, with funding from tech mogul Peter Thiel, Friedman had founded the Seasteading Institute, an advocacy and research group that consults with governments around the world on creating new jurisdictions.
Imagine a future of floating man-made island-states, each independently governed and economically self-sustained. A person could select from a range of options on where to pledge citizenship, based on their taste for that colonys philosophy and lifestyle. That was the genesis of Ephemerisle.
The original intention was: Hey, we want to make new countries on the ocean, Friedman said. That sounds really hard. What if we can find an incremental path? What if we start a festival on the ocean where people get together for a week and live under different systems?
But launching full-fledged atolls on the rollicking Pacific would have demanded a level of engineering savvy and, in Ephemerisle parlance, saltiness that participants just didnt have. So Friedman and a large group of friends settled on an out-of-the-way estuary a short drive from San Francisco where currents are chill, access is easy and boat traffic is minimal. Then they started building.
Seren JV Elston (top) and two friends aboard Siren Island at Ephemerisle in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Seren JV Elston (top) and two friends aboard Siren Island at Ephemerisle in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Seren JV Elston (top) and two friends aboard Siren Island at Ephemerisle in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Ephemerisle festival is Burning Man on boats in the Sacramento River Delta
The learning curve was steep that first year, Friedman said. He built a small wooden pyramid out of hardware-store materials, buoyed it with empty water jugs, stuck a motor on one side, strapped on a life jacket and set sail. But there was so much drag that the thing barely moved. After a while puttering along, he got bored, tried climbing one of the pyramid pillars and flipped over.
I swam to the shore, Friedman said. I had my cell phone in a waterproof bag and called for rescue and they brought me in.
Other participants fared better, and Friedman spent the week on a houseboat. In a short video documentary of that first year, you can see glimmers of unique crafts and a community spirit taking shape. Still, the end result a collection of houseboats and some rickety wood structures was a far cry from the grandiose ideal of a floating libertarian Waterworld.
I am not entirely certain I can see the throughline between this and the ultimate end seasteading goal of independent freeholds out in international waters, Brian Doherty, an early Ephemerisle participant, said in the documentary. Seasteading, to be viable moving forward, has to have all of the aspects of a human civilization. The most important aspect of which is it has to be productive, not merely consumptive.
Friedman officially gave up on the event a year later to focus on the Seasteading Institute. But the seed had been planted, and Ephemerisle has carried on without Friedman at the helm. (He has attended for fun several times since then.)
The gathering has shape-shifted each year since, depending on who shows up and what creations they bring.
Ephemerisle founder Patri Friedman floats on a homemade pyramid raft at the inaugural Ephemerisle event in 2009.
Dubbing the event Burning Man on water wouldnt be quite fair, although there is crossover between the two communities, a similar bohemian aesthetic and a certain appeal among alternative thinkers and audacious engineers. Its less a gathering of seasoned sailors (though there are some delta rats) than a weeklong DIY raft-up of free-spirited city dwellers in funky outfits. Self-expression and its accoutrements are rampant.
Toward the end of the festival in July, I spent a day exploring the gathering on a Jet Ski. It takes place at the tip of Mandeville Point, about 15 minutes (give or take) from Korths Pirates Lair Marina, south of Isleton. Unlike the setting at Burning Man, Ephemerisle is within easy reach of civilization. While launching my boat, I spotted festivalgoers loading up on water jugs and bags of ice at a local shop. More waited for a ferry pickup from a person at the event. A small group loaded a barge with art supplies and building materials, including a small maple tree in a wooden planter box. One woman in the group planned to install it in a buoy and set it free on the delta.
Bounding through the channels, the gathering wasnt hard to spot. I throttled down to cut my wake and take in the scene.
On one motor yacht, people took turns diving off the high bulwark. A man in a small skiff cruised the channel on a gust of wind. Someone had fashioned an old RV shell into a small houseboat. On the black tugboat, a man in a Speedo played what sounded like a recorder while a shipmate on deck behind him fumbled around in a VR headset, arms outstretched. Sunbathers lazed about. Many people were napping in houseboats or below decks, avoiding the sun and recovering from the previous nights party. A long black craft called Venom Sound Ship made endless loops through the fractured colony of boats, spouting dance music.
Several people I spoke to heard about the event through the Burning Man community. Some, like Tom W. Bell, are compelled by the seasteading element. Others, like Venom Sound Ship captain Scott Rizzo, regularly appear at maritime events around California. A few stumbled upon it and were intrigued enough to stick around.
Martha Esch, a tan woman moored on the shore of the channel in her cabin cruiser, first attended Ephemerisle three years ago after learning about the gathering while attending a nearby Fourth of July fireworks show. Several young people from the Bay Area I spoke to learned about Ephemerisle via Facebook.
One foursome on a houseboat had never heard of the event but happened upon it during their vacation in the delta and wound up hanging around for the spectacle.
We have binoculars, so weve been keeping ourselves busy, said Sandy Carter, calling across the water from the rear deck of the boat, where she and three friends were sipping cocktails and playing cards. Someone had motored over to them when they arrived and explained the gist of the gathering. Most of us dont know what Burning Man means but well go home and look it up on our phones, Carter said.
About 50 yards away, a couple dove off the rear of a boat and began swimming across the channel to Elysium, where an ad hoc presentation forum was getting under way. A handful of people busied themselves preparing Siren Island to receive guests while an enormous freighter coasted across the channel just south of the gathering.
Overall, the attitude was live and let live. Some people had been living the life all week, others were new arrivals, just in time for the closing party. Boaters helped each other with building projects and resupplies and were generous with invitations to host visitors. Katz, the longtime festivalgoer, summed up the vibe to me in an email: If they came for Ephemerisle, theyre part of Ephemerisle.
Ephemerisle founder Patri Friedman.
The event in July would have felt fractured and unmoored if not for the gravitational pull of Elysium, the big island at the center of the gathering.
While most boats at the festival kept their captains and maybe a small handful of guests, Elysium was responsible for boarding and feeding dozens of campers for as long as a week. That kind of operation doesnt come together without careful planning and, above all, rules. For that, the island represented the closest embodiment of the seasteading ideal upon which Ephemerisle was founded.
To me, rules are to Ephemerisle what art is to Burning Man, Friedman said. He called the process of forming cohesive group identities and drawing parameters around acceptable conduct and behavior Ephemerisles artistic spirit.
All of those challenges thats the heart of the festival, Friedman said. Some people will get it and be enthusiastic, and some people will ignore it and party.
Tom W. Bell is the former. His book, Your Next Government?,is an account of how special jurisdictions may come to replace nation states. He has consulted on seasteading proposals in French Polynesia and elsewhere. I want to be involved in this experiment in governance, Bell said. I want to see how it happens in this highly decentralized, truly voluntary environment.
He signed up to work as a guide on Elysium at night, during party time. The basic job description: patrol the island, hand out flashlights and whistles to guests who may need them, and make sure no one hurts themselves. Its risk mitigation, he said.
Bell worked in tandem with a greeter, who walked new arrivals through initiation and presented them with documents to sign which focus in part on the importance of enthusiastic consent among people on the island and handed them a wrist band. Its really border control, Bell said. We have to protect our boundaries so no one comes and hurts the people we have there.
(I couldnt get a firmer read on the inner workings of Elysium because of one of the islands core principles: No Media.)
Previously, the area where the greeter met new arrivals was called the immigration station. Some people were questioned about consent in a way that felt like interrogation, Katz wrote in an email. It broadened the divide between islands and made some people feel very unwelcome. Elysium later dropped the immigration station name. Arrivals this year were greeted at a welcoming station.
At one point during his stay this year, Bell encountered a greeter in what looked to be a heated exchange over the islands documentation with a woman whod just arrived. He sat down to help ease the tension, patting the greeter on the back. I want them to see he has people on his side, and I say to him, Youre doing right here. Youre protecting the people who are taking the huge risks to put this place together, Bell said. After that, the woman and her partner signed the paperwork.
I dont know if that helped. But I think thats how governance works here, Bell said. Its not about goose-stepping these people off the barge. Lets do this in a gentle, sociable way."
One of the things I love about this is it plays out, on a very small scale, the issues we deal with on a national scale, Bell said. Who does government perfectly? No one. If humans are involved, its going to be a mess.
The floating festival of Ephemerisle takes place each year at Mandeville Point near Isleton in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The festival in 2019.
A stream of dance beats flowed over the warm delta channel as The Entanglement, loaded with passengers and outfitted with a makeshift DJ booth, made its way toward Siren Island.
Boaters are taught to dock by lining up their bow parallel to the docking platform, approaching slowly, then swinging in their stern. But The Entanglement approached the low bow of Siren Island head-on, landing with a hard thud and crunch of party-boat metal grating against the islands redwood planks.
Hey! Serena JV Elston, Siren's creator, hollered at The Entanglement. She turned to me. This is the s I hate.
In no time, the boatload of partiers had hopped onto the islands flat nose, straining the ballast of the pontoons supporting Siren and causing the island to pitch and yaw. The islands wings began taking on water, house music from The Entanglement playing over the commotion.
Elston, a woman with wild wavy brown hair and wearing a blue bathing suit, turned to the small crowd, instructing them to spread out and distribute their weight. The Entanglement shifted into reverse, ripping a plank off the island with a loud crack.
OK, time for you to leave! Elston yelled to the skipper, a blond man with headphones around his neck. You dont even have bumpers, dude!
Many, if not most, Ephemerislers live full-time on land, so inter-vessel visitations can have a bumper-boats quality. Making human life happen on the water is a fundamental challenge of the event, and without proper instruction, Ephemerisle participants muddle through on messy experience.
In hosting visitors to Siren Island nonstop, Elston was keenly aware of that knowledge gap. She pointed to a cleat at my feet tangled in a thin silver chain that a visitor had attached with a small combination lock to secure his kayak. This is exactly what Im talking about, Elston said. What the f is that?
A man with curly hair named Adam replied: Its people bringing their terrestrial s with them.
People build Siren Island at Ephemerisle in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta while a cargo ship passes in the background.
Whether Ephemerisle is growing or shrinking is tough to say. There are no ticket sales or census numbers, and while longtimers say there was a big drop-off several years ago when the local houseboat rental industry folded, numbers appear to have bounced back a bit. Best guess? Its roughly stable, with at least a few hundred participants each year.
In many ways, it has come to inhabit the purpose assigned by its creator: a hodgepodge of flotsam and philosophy that amasses at the same time and place each summer, with certain communities gaining strength and stability while neglected ones atrophy. It draws people who are curious and audacious enough to give themselves over to a communal experience with no central leadership. Your safety net is your neighbors.
Yes, there are glow sticks, tents, onesies, didjeridoos, psychedelics, dubstep, mohawks, fishnets, tattoo stickers, cuddle puddles, pirate flags, dreadlocks, gurus, Buddhists, DJs, Buddhist-DJs and armchair libertarians galore. Why wouldnt there be?
Theres also live improvisational music sets, collaborative art projects, ad hoc engineering solutions, presentation forums, deep conversations, communal sunset howlings, bonds forged and a constant swirl of innovative ideas and institutional wisdom.
Some people I interviewed think the spirit of Ephemerisle is dead or irrelevant, the core principles rendered moot, the excitement of venturing into unchartered waters neutralized. To others, its alive and intact, buzzing with activity and brimming with potential. But cultural phenomena are fluid and amorphous, and a persons perspective on their potency and authenticity depends on the timing and circumstances of an individuals point of entry. Whats clear is that the experience is special to everyone who goes whether thats to party or to dabble in low-level world-building.
In my short time there, I found that I was most happy when I was contributing. Hacking away at the watermelon under the warm sun on Siren Island, ferrying a friendly stranger over to Elysium, sharing information about the event with the people I encountered. Everyone had an opinion, everyone was trying to figure Ephemerisle out what it was, what it is, and what it could one day become.
Early on my first day at Ephemerisle, before the snafu with The Entanglement, I jet-skied over to Siren Island to say hello to Elston. Reclining on the bow was a pale, naked woman with long wavy ginger hair and gray eyes Botticellis Venus, I thought. My approach was too fast and before I could maneuver Id set the nose of my boat on a collision course with one of Sirens wings.
A few strangers on the island shot dirty looks my way. Heat flashed into my cheeks and a pang of embarrassment wrenched my stomach. I was so clearly a newb, a kook, a landlubber so obviously not salty dead weight at an event that needs all the buoyancy it can get.
I stammered out a few quick apologies. At the bow, Venus seemed unfazed.
Eh, she shrugged. You live, you learn.
Gregory Thomas is Travel Editor at The Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GregRThomas.
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Posted: June 24, 2020 at 10:53 pm
A white steel pole rises out of the sea off the Caribbean coast of Panama, poking above the waves like the funnel of a sunken steamship. Launched into the water last month, this is no shipwreck, but the base of what will soon become a floating home and, in the eyes of its makers, the first step towards building a brave new post-Covid-19 society, out on the open ocean.
Coronavirus is an opportunity to show the world that what were building is actually going to be very useful in the future, says Chad Elwartowski, in a recent video post from his beachside base in Panama. The Michigan-born software engineer turned bitcoin trader is a leading figure in the seasteading movement, a libertarian group dedicated to building independent floating cities on the high seas. Along with the bunker builders and survivalist preppers, their long-held ambitions have been bolstered by the current global pandemic. No matter if youre scared of the virus or the reaction to the virus, he adds, living out on the ocean will be helpful for these situations.
It is not the first time Elwartowski has attempted to realise his dream of a floating future. In April last year, he and his Thai partner Supranee Thepdet (aka Nadia Summergirl), were forced to flee their first floating home off the coast of Thailand, just moments before it was raided by the Thai navy. They had constructed what they declared to be the first seastead 12 nautical miles from Phuket, but the authorities decided that the six metre-wide fibreglass cabin, perched on top of a floating pole, posed a threat to Thailands sovereignty. It was an offence punishable by life imprisonment or even the death penalty. The couple announced on social media declaring their autonomy beyond the jurisdiction of any courts or law of any countries, including Thailand, said Rear Admiral Vithanarat Kochaseni, adding that they had invited others to join them. We see such action as deteriorating Thailands independence.
After a few weeks on the run, dodging Thai patrol boats and eventually making their way to Singapore, the couple moved to Panama to relaunch their company, Ocean Builders with the financial backer of the project, Rdiger Koch, a retired German aerospace engineer. This event has doubled down our efforts, the group said in a statement, following the Thai ordeal. We can all clearly see that seasteading needs to happen now as tyranny creeps ever more deeply into our governments to the point that they are willing to hunt down a couple of residents residing in a floating house in middle of nowhere.
The coronavirus pandemic has given fringe libertarian groups around the world renewed vigour to pursue their dreams of building autonomous new societies. Government-enforced lockdowns and increased digital surveillance have added fuel to their suspicions of state control, while the suspension of day-to-day norms and the spectre of an economic meltdown have amplified their calls to rethink society. When youre not sure which virus is more contagious, says the slogan of a recent meme made by Americans for Liberty, shared on Elwartowskis Facebook page. Covid-19, or those fine with complete government control.
The sentiment lies at the core of the seasteading community, a disparate group that has grown since 2008, when the Seasteading Institute was founded in San Francisco by Patri Friedman. The self-styled anarcho-capitalist (and grandson of Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman) was working as a Google software engineer when he managed to attract funding from PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel to set up the institute. In a founding statement, they described its goal as being to establish permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems. Thiel was nothing if not confident: The nature of government is about to change at a very fundamental level, he proclaimed.
A new kind of government arises, born in Earths last free places, fated to advance the human frontier
Seasteading represents the ultimate Silicon Valley approach to governance, conceiving society as a technology that can be hacked and innovated upon as simply as an operating system. It is predicated on the idea that government regulation stifles innovation, and therefore the route to a better world can only be found by unleashing a new generation of start-up societies that are forced to compete for citizens in a free market of ideologies. Dont like the rules of your current micro-nation? Simply move to another one. We will give people the freedom to choose the government they want, said Friedman, instead of being stuck with the government they get. Its boosters see it as the route to salvation; its critics say it would lead to an apartheid of the worst kind.
Progress has been bumpy. Thiels donations soon dried up, and Friedmans plans never got much further than launching Ephemerisle a waterborne version of the Burning Man festival, staged in the Sacramento River delta near San Francisco, where rival floating pontoons compete for the attention of soggy partygoers. He has since moved his focus away from the water, recently launching a company to develop experimental cities on dry land instead. But the Seasteading Institute continues without him, headed by author and self-appointed seavangelist, Joe Quirk.
Nearly half of the worlds surface is unclaimed, says Quirk, who published a book on seasteading in 2017, with the ambitious subtitle: How floating nations will restore the environment, enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity from politicians. In an introductory video, he describes the planets oceans as a sort of research and development zone where we could discover better means of governance, and says that seasteading could provide the technology for thousands of people to start their own nano-nation on the high seas, giving people opportunities to peacefully test new ideas about living together. The most successful seasteads, he says, will become thriving new societies, inspiring change around the world.
So far, his own attempts dont bode particularly well for the future of floating utopias. In January 2017, after years of technical feasibility studies and political negotiations, the Seasteading Institute signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia to build the first seasteads in its territorial waters. The designs, developed by Dutch architects Blue21, looked like a high-end resort in the Maldives, depicting a series of villas linked by an undulating green landscape. It was all to be magicked from the waters by an initial coin offering, a form of crowdfunding through selling tokens of a new cryptocurrency, all the rage among the tech community in 2017. Were going to draw a new map of the world with French Polynesia at the centre of the aquatic age, Quirk declared.
The choice of location was strategic. Comprised of almost 120 dispersed low-lying islands and atolls, French Polynesia is at severe risk of suffering devastating consequences from even the slightest rise in sea level. It also happens to boast the worlds largest exclusive economic zone, an area of sea that can stretch for 200 nautical miles from a territorys coastline, over which it can claim exclusive economic rights. At five million square kilometres, French Polynesian waters span an area as large as the landmass of the entire European Union, making it an ideal place to experiment with novel forms of aquatic jurisdiction. In theory.
We explained to the Polynesians how having a quasi-autonomous area nearby was a good thing, says Tom W Bell, professor of law at Chapman University in Orange County, California, who drew up the legal agreement for the project. Look at Monaco, or Hong Kong or Singapore special jurisdictions create a lot of growth outside their borders. In his book, Your Next Government? From the Nation State to Stateless Nations, Bell traces the projected evolution of a seastead. It would begin like a coral polyp, he writes, protected by a countrys territorial waters, where it would start to generate economic activity, enriching its environment and attracting still more life, before breaking free to start a new autonomous life on the open ocean. Ultimately, he imagines seasteads nurtured by different host nations congregating in mid-ocean gyres, sheltered within floating breakwaters. A new kind of government arises, he writes, born in Earths last free places, fated to advance the human frontier.
The reality didnt quite pan out that way in the South Pacific. There wasnt a perfect alignment of interests, says Marc Collins Chen, former minister of tourism of French Polynesia, who co-founded the company Blue Frontiers with Quirk to realise the project. The government was looking for something to address sea level rise and environmental degradation, whereas the Seasteading Institute was more about autonomy. He says that the prospect of a tax-free enclave held little appeal for the locals, given that Polynesians dont pay income tax anyway. One Tahitian TV host compared the situation to the evil Galactic Empire in Star Wars imposing on the innocent Ewoks, while secretly building the Death Star. The libertarian position didnt help either. As Collins Chen puts it: Its very difficult to ask for government support when your narrative is that you want to get rid of politicians. In retrospect, Bell agrees: They already had a beautiful paradise in French Polynesia. The local community wasnt very enthusiastic about the project, and I get it. They didnt need strangers coming in and ruining their view.
Over the next 40 years, the world is expected to build 230bn square metres in new construction. This could be a way to accommodate that growth
Collins Chen has since moved to New York, where he has established a new company to develop further plans for floating cities, this time stripped of any libertarian tax-dodging ideology. I realised that the real future for these sorts of projects has to be closer to cities, he says. They have to be an extension of an existing citys infrastructure, they need to be run by the mayor, and they have to pay their taxes as opposed to being enclaves for the wealthy.
His plan, titled Oceanix City, has been designed in slick Ted Talk style by Bjarke Ingels, the Danish architect beloved of Silicon Valley tech companies. His twinkling animations depict a floating world of interlocking hexagonal islands, where power is harvested from waves and the sun, where residents live on a diet of seaweed and fish, and where marine life is regenerated by artificial reefs. If this floating city flourishes, said Ingels in a presentation, it can then grow like a culture in a petri dish. On a screen behind him, the floating hexagons multiplied until they took up an area more than three times the size of Manhattan, a vision of low-density suburbia sprawling virulently across the sea.
Over the next 40 years, the world is expected to build 230bn square metres in new construction, says Collins Chen, the equivalent of adding one New York City every month. This could be a way to accommodate that growth, without the devastating effects of land reclamation or deforestation. He says part of the appeal is the ability to reconfigure the urban form according to changing needs, in a process of drag-and-drop city building. You could literally float one a city block away and put a different one in its place, when the need for a new school, hospital or university arose.
Remarkably, their sci-fi scheme has won the support of the United Nations sustainable development arm, UN-Habitat, which hosted a round table discussion for the project in April 2019. As global heating accelerates, sea levels rise and more people crowd into urban slums, floating cities is one of the possible solutions, said UN-Habitats executive director, Maimunah Mohd Sharif.
Back in Panama, the notion that floating habitats could be an inclusive solution to global housing need seems a long way off, to put it mildly. Despite the countrys coronavirus lockdown, the Ocean Builders team has been at work throughout, laying the foundations for a factory that will soon house the largest 3D printer in Central America, ready to produce what their website touts as the worlds first 3D-printed, smart floating home with an underwater room wrapped in an eco restorative 3D-printed coral reef yours for between $200,000 to $800,000 (160,000 to 640,000).
In light of the global pandemic, were really focusing on making the homes feel like a kind of lifeboat, says the companys CEO, Grant Romundt, who worked on the Freedom Ship project in Florida in the 1990s, an aborted plan to build a mile-long cruise ship for 40,000 people, topped with a runway. They should be a safe place to escape to and be totally energy independent, with solar panels on the roof, water desalination on board, waste collection by drone, and aeroponic systems to grow your own food.
Designed by Koen Olthuis of Dutch architecture practice Waterstudio, the plans for the luxury SeaPods look like a row of gigantic motorbike helmets on poles, sticking up out of the sea in pearlescent shades of blue, green and grey. We wanted to have something that was very futuristic looking, very clean and flowing, says Romundt. I didnt want to have a 90-degree corner anywhere in the house. I think thats bad feng shui. The interiors recall supersized sanitaryware, envisaged as white, wipe-clean worlds of free-flowing surfaces, echoing retro-futuristic visions of streamlined space capsules. The similarity is no accident: for company founder, Rdiger Koch, seasteading is merely a stepping stone for trialling exploits in space. He has long harboured plans to build a cable launch loop to propel payloads into space without rockets, and he sees the ocean as the perfect launchpad. There are almost only large open spaces at sea, he told German regional newspaper, Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung, and you need them to make sure that nothing goes wrong and nobody is hit by possible flying parts.
Romundt insists that the company is merely building floating holiday homes, which will be registered as boats under the Panama flag for legal purposes, and likely operate on a timeshare basis. That would give you the slow adjustment period, he says, then more of an economy would start to build as more people come requiring more services, and it would start to self-perpetuate and grow.
For Bell, the ultimate goal is to see such floating communities raise their own flags in the open ocean. Right now, a self-flagged seastead would have effectively no status at all in international law, he says. The coast guard would show up, assume you were either a pirate or a floating meth lab, and tow you right back in to shore. But if seasteaders can say they have enough people and a big enough territory, and start flagging themselves, thats when things will start to get interesting.
And if they fail? Thats the marvellous thing about seasteads, says Quirk. If a government fails, theres nothing much the people who live there can do about it, but if seasteads fail, they simply disassemble and go away seeing all those bitcoin dollars sink into the sea just as quickly as they were conjured.
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