Friday, 26 February 2010

Settling the Seas for Freedom

I've been contemplating the future potential for colonising the oceans; possible (high-tech) uses for abandoned oil rigs and massive cargo ships/bulk carriers. Some of the prospects they could offer have excited me for years: an transhuman level AI taking over a container ship and turning it into an advanced manufactury, or self contained, floating AI nation-state. Throw a few pampered humans on board too and you would have Banks' Culture on our high seas. As a main context for a sci-fi novel, it might make a great prequel to the Culture novels, much more interesting than a concluding story, as discussed in my previous blog post.
Having contemplated technical solutions for autonomous living at sea as an purely hypothetical exercise (renewable power generation, pumping heat from the sea, growing plants and meat hydroponically, etc) I recently discovered the term "Seasteading", which represents a growing movement (and a revealing history).
One of the most famous Seasteads is "The Principality of Sealand", a former World War II 'Maunsell' Sea Fort in the North Sea, 6 miles off the coast of Suffolk (England). Despite consisting merely of two corroded pillars sticking out of the sea with a shack on top, it has currency, coins, stamps, national anthem and athletes, a constitutional monarchy that has issued tens of thousands of passports (now mostly revoked after fakes linked to high-profile crimes), broadcast pirate radio in the late 60s, 'defended' its territorial waters against the royal navy, witnessed a forcible takeover by a German and a Dutch citizen, who were later deposed and held as prisoners of war after a helicopter assault by the original owner (Bates), then freed after a diplomatic visit and now self declared "government in exile". Some of the highlights of a truly hilarious Wikipedia article.
The point is having one's own 'land', free of big government, is exceedingly rare and desirable indeed! Dodging legalities for instance: The Pirate Bay attempted to
buy Sealand in 2007, failed, and it's now up for £600M (transferral of custodianship only, seeing as a Principality can not legally be sold).
In 1971, Operation Atlantis (headed by Werner Stiefel) attempted to set up a libertarian country on international waters. Unfortunately his ferro-cement boat sank in a hurricane some time after reaching it's destination near the Bahamas. This sounds awfully like the inspiration for the setting of Bioshock: "Rapture" - a 'laissez-faire' (libertarian) city under the sea, a utopia where the free market is truly free of politics, religion and taxation.
Similar memes in sci-fi:
- "Log Jam" in Ian M Banks' "Against a Dark Background".
- “Gangak Free Trade Zone” - a town of moored boats in Ian McDonald's "River of Gods".
- Underwater settlements, etc, in "SeaQuest DSV" (TV series from 1994).
- "Waterworld" (1995 movie).
The libertarian ideal is quite appealing in many ways: minimal government = minimal corruption, minimal administrative expense, no censorship, no popular 'ethical' (religious) concerns blocking e.g. stem cell research. The closest we've been to it in practice was Thatcherism: She tried to free the country from the burdened of big government, big government spending, etc, according to Andrew Marr's “History of Modern Britain” (recently repeated on the BBC). For better, or worst, converting an existing country into a truly libertarian state is an utterly doomed notion, it's just too far from popular political thought. The only hope comes with the opening of new frontiers...
In "The Virtual Revolution" (a recent 4 part BBC documentary) Aleks Krotoski covers the early days of the internet: John Perry Barlow (lyricist of "The Grateful Dead") greatly boosted the popularity of "The Well" (a pre-eminent bulletin board system founded in 1985, equivalent to Facebook and MSN combined today) by joining and bringing many band fans, he co-founded the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation - Open Rights Group equivalent; fighting for net neutrality and such), and made "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace".
"Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather."
He was the voice of libertarianism, forged in the free love of San Francisco of the 60s, taken on to the World Wide Web of the 80s, itself given to humanity (for free) by Tim Berners Lee.
Of course, the big, bad governments of old aren't staying away from Cyberspace, with legislation ranging from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (that made using the word "shit" on the internet punishable by a $250'000 fine), to the DMCA, various upcoming 3 strike rules, and the great firewall of China (that employs approximately 30K full time censors). Fortunately, computer technology is flexible enough and advancing quickly enough to keep exploiting loopholes, but to be truly free in the virtual world of tomorrow (perhaps, by then, the most essential part of life), one would need to break free of existing nations.
Enter: The Seasteading Institute (TSI), recently covered by Wired, CNN, National Geographic, and no doubt a slew of other news sites/blogs. And recipient of $500k initial funding from Peter Thiel, who founded PayPal largely to be an alternative currency, to help fulfil his libertarian ideals. He is also one of the early investors in Facebook, gave $3.5M to the Methuselah Mouse Prize Foundation and is an outspoken Singlaritarian (and backer of the Singularity Institute). He seems to be supporting everything around that I think is fundamentally important for the future, so, by induction, Seasteading should probably be taken seriously too. In his essay "The Education of a Libertarian" (on Cato Unbound), Thiel describes seasteading as one of 3 technological frontiers that provide the opportunity for freedom (the other 2 being Cyberspace and Outer space).
"TSI was founded in 2008 with the mission to "Further the establishment and growth of permanent, autonomous ocean communities, enabling innovation with new political and social systems." We have developed a strategic plan for making seasteading a reality."
Their road map of future dates and numbers seems fairly modest. Direct work is only currently taking place on a single project in San Francisco Bay. But, as they point out, many of the issues of living perpetually at sea have been solved by the cruise ship industry. TSI's overall objective is big: reinventing countries and government, giving a whole new meaning to floating voters: citizens who can take their home to a new country if they don't get on with their current one (my pun).
Most of their concept art features platforms floating on spars much like an oil rig. This makes sense with all that's been learned from deep sea oil exploitation. Also, there should be a sea-load of retired oil rigs floating about in years to come, when 'peak oil' is long past (e.g. there are currently over 3000 in the Gulf of Mexico alone).

[Pictures - "SESU Seastead" by Marko Jarvela]
Short term plans for fancy apartments/offices in sheltered bays, rivers or deltas of bustling metropolises are all well ad good, but to be outside territorial waters one has to be over 12 nautical miles from the coast. Up to 200nm to fully live the dream. Which means deep, open water, hurricanes, etc, and greatly reduced commuter options. So for sea borne, libertarian utopia, people will need to live *and* work there and produce their own power (preferably grow their own food, and other consumables too).
I think sea cities will need to form around a seed nucleus. Some industry big and bold enough to set up premises in the middle of nowhere and stick it out regardless. e.g.:
- Oil extraction
- Fisheries
- Offshore/deep water power generation
- Space Port (teather site for a space elevator)
- Data centres
This last one is my hot tip. There has recently been a patent by Google for a "floating data centre" that uses wave motion to power on-board computers and the ocean's water to cool them. International Data Security (IDS - a silicon valley start-up) has similar intentions with converted cargo ships serving data. They talk about providing services flexibly, when/where needed (disaster zones, large organised events), accessing locations closer to customers (to reduce lag and bottlenecks), but there are some seriously worthwhile advantages for 'extra-national' data centres:
- No property tax, flags of convenience, easy cooling, direct access to renewable generation.
- Data haven for: file sharing, online gambling, offshore banking, Wikileaks, etc.

Perhaps Google does a deal with an operator (or consortium), laying a new, higher capacity $200M transatlantic cable, to branch them off a connection part way across. With the new territory breached, and with local access to massive international bandwidth, a new community is ready to spring up, like a Railway town, but along lines of fibre-optic cabling instead.
[Undersea Cable routes, largely unchanged since 1901]
I for one would love to jump aboard 'New Sealand' at that point. Having been on a couple of canal boat Thames River parties, the freedom and flexibility of life on the water is pretty attractive, with the one big sticking point being the lack of bandwidth. Of course, sea-borne data centres could flip this around, with seasteads becoming the whitest, hottest centres of the information age.

[Update 2015-05-18] Seasteading now out of fashion and/or ambitions downsized. Wired article contemplates the boons of existing regulatory frameworks and folly of trying to create a new government from scratch. I wonder more and more if all the maligned legacy and apparently bad legislation is a beneficial drag on innovation, keeping it pointing more straight and true, while still unable to totally sap it's explosively transformational power.

1 comment :

  1. I agree the idea of "opening a new fronteer" is a fascinating one, and Google are probably going to be the ones to do it seing as how they have the cash and - as you pointed out - the incentive to get their data centres out away from any potential interference. We're almost there with power too, the thermal gradient on an oil rig's spars can generate a lot of energy, and wave power can be significant on a scale this small. Desalinisation is well understood, so water isn't likely to be an issue, but food I can see being a real sticking point.

    Given the potentially highly contentious nature of such a project, relying on shipments of food from other nations might not be entirely wise. I can see the naturally conservative and protectionist governments of the worlds major powers being reluctant to openly endorse a new nation - especially one that explicitly doesn't share their political values.

    It takes an awful lot of land to feed a human being if they're going to eat anything more interesting than re-constituted algee (which you could probably grow in the sea wherever you happen to moor up) and somehow I can't see our techno-utopians moving over entirely to the vegan lifestyle. Possibly in-vitro meat farming might reduce the space requirements down to something vaguely acceptable, but even then the raw materials may need to be constantly shipped in.