Now Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason looks at Homesteading on the High Seas:
If Peter Thiel funds something, it’s bound to be cutting-edge awesome.
He is a supporter of the Methuselah Mouse Prize, which seeks to slow, stop, and eventually reverse aging. He was a producer of the film Thank You for Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley’s charmingly ambiguous novel about a pro-tobacco lobbyist. An early investor in social networking, he was involved with Linked In and was the first investor in Facebook. He’s big at the Singularity Institute (reason‘s Ronald Bailey caught up with him at the Singularity Summit earlier this year, check out the interview in the May print edition), which ponders and pushes artificial intelligence in preparation for a Vernor Vingeian “intelligence explosion.” His first success was PayPal, which he originally hoped “would grow to become an extra-governmental system of currency, something reminiscent of the world described in Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, in which programmers use encryption to create an offshore data haven free from government control.”
And last week, Thiel announced a $500,000 investment—the same amount he put into Facebook in June 2004—in the Seasteading Institute. Seasteading, or “homesteading on the high seas,” is an idea that has long attracted libertarians and others who would like to see a little more competition between forms of government. The idea is to get out into international waters and set up a floating outpost (or 12, or 1,200) from which people can come and go, experimenting with different types of legal, social, and contractual arrangements.
Thiel’s co-conspirator and resident big thinker is none other than the impeccably credentialed Patri Friedman, son of David “Machinery of Freedom” Friedman, grandson of Milton “Capitalism and Freedom” Friedman. Patri, 31, has been beating the drums for various floating autonomous entities for several years, whenever he can steal time from his work as a software engineer at Google and from his now 2-year-old son, Tovar.
Despite the seemingly radical idea he’s championing, Patri sees himself as a practical guy: “Starting a new country is actually a much less hard problem than, say, a libertarian winning a U.S. election,” he says. He says that most of his competitors in the libertarian/anarchist autonomous entity business have been too ambitious, citing efforts from Sealand (the abandoned offshore fort-turned-free-state “which sort of worked” until it was devastated by fire in 2006) to more dramatic failures like Freedom Ship (current estimated cost >$11 billion, construction not yet begun) and the Aquarius phase of the Millennial Project (“colonizing the galaxy in eight easy steps!“) to Minerva Reef (an uninhabited dredged island “invaded” by neighboring Tonga and eventually more or less reclaimed by the sea).
Learning a valuable lesson from his predecessors, Friedman is an incrementalist. “I want to talk about what to do this year, not how to colonize the galaxy.” One way to start small, he says, is to hold a kind of floating Burning Man, called Ephemerisle, an idea inspired by childhood pilgrimages with his father to Pennsic, a Society for Creative Anachronism medieval reenactment held outside Pittsburgh, and college stints at Burning Man.
“There aren’t that many people who are wiling to drop their lives and move to the ocean.” Instead, he says, “it could start as a one week vacation, but then unlike Burning Man it could grow and eventually become permanent.” Friedman hopes to hold the first Ephemerisle next summer, inviting many types of floating vessels to join him in international waters. Even an ordinary cruise ship might be enough to get started, since the cruise industry has proven that “providing power, water, food, and internet on the ocean is not only possible but can be profitable.” But some of Thiel’s grant is going toward figuring out the best way to throw up some small, cheap seasteads to provide a little non-state infrastructure and get things rolling (or floating, as the case may be).