Sea View

Civilisation ahoy! A visualisation of the seastead "Oasis of the Sea" by architect Emerson Stepp

“Buy land,” Mark Twain famously advised. “They’ve stopped making it.” A century after Twain’s death, according to an organisation called the Seasteading Institute (SI), production is resumed.

“Seasteading” is a 30-year-old portmanteau word combining homesteading with the unused resource provided by the oceans: the building of small offshore cities planned outside the jurisdiction of any nation state. The idea originated with Ken Neumeyer in his 1981 book, Sailing the Farm, and SI intends to bring the phrase to life by the end of this decade.

Seastead cities would be built on rigs in areas of ocean unclaimed by sovereign nations. New cities could be linked to existing rigs, creating what the co-founder of SI, Patri Friedman — grandson of economist Milton — describes as “start-up countries”.

Building marine cities is not a cheap business proposition, but it is attracting the attention of America’s moneyed and philanthropic class. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel, co-founder and recent seller of PayPal, has given almost $1.8 million to the SI. A prototype seastead is pencilled in for 2014, and artists’ impressions abound on the web.

Seasteading, however, is as much a political vision as an adventure in construction. The introduction to SI’s homepage is barely a few sentences old when it describes existing governments as “like the cellphone carrier industry, with few choices and high customer lock-in”. Seasteads are explicitly not just whimsical architectural follies, but “the next generation of governance”.

The pervasive tone around seasteading is one of governance fatigue, and the political stance accompanying the whole project is strictly libertarian. Libertarianism, while alive and well in the blogosphere, has yet to make the transition into mainstream politics. Starting from the core principles of radical individualism and limited government, libertarians stress that their credo is “freedom from” rather than “freedom to”, and the drive to offshore development is as much a move away from governmental influence as it is a problem-solving residential innovation.

Building seasteads is just the first challenge. Although SI has found no legal objections to its project, what legal jurisdiction would seasteads be subject to, and would some of them feature state-of-the-art gallows? How would these floating utopias deal with crime, drugs, firearms and all the other flies in the land-based ointment?

Critics claim that seasteads will quickly become a new playground for the rich, that familiar alpha behaviour will dominate and the same patterns of exploitation and corruption emerge as exist in more orthodox cities on terra firma, albeit against the backdrop of an attractive ocean view.

Of course, seasteading may save mankind from itself, but it isn’t difficult to see these blueprints coming to life as a sort of hi-tech Legoland for the super-rich. The SI predicts millions of residents by 2050, but will sea-steads simply become this century’s gated communities?

Only the historians of the future will be able to judge whether seasteading changes planetary demographics for the better, or becomes an expensive hybrid of millionaire’s row and Celebrity Big Brother