So, this is happening. Seasteading—the movement to build floating libertarian cities in international waters to escape the oppressive hand of land-based governance—is holding a conference this weekend at the Le Meridien Hotel in downtown San Francisco. I’m not about to shell out for admission, but I will admit to a mild desire to hang out in the hotel bar tonight and eavesdrop on the conversations.
Some (apparently?) unforseen difficulties of seasteading were raised by Miriam over at Deep Sea News last year. And China Mieville wrote a scathing philosophical takedown of the concept a few years before that. So I don’t feel the need to get too deep into that right now. But looking at the beautifully sketched-up renderings of floating “cities” on the Seasteading.org website, I couldn’t help but think of a book I just read, by the political scientist James Scott, called Seeing Like a State. One section in this book deals with the construction of Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil, in the 1950s. This city was conceived as a civic monument, and meant to stand against everything in Brazilian society perceived as old, backwards, messy, and corrupt.
To make a long story short, the design worked, but the city didn’t. People don’t like living in a monument, and the people who had to (because of their government jobs) still needed other people to provide them services. A whole belt of unplanned settlements grew up almost immediately around Brasilia’s monumental core, just as messy and functional as the older cities on the coast. You can see them in Google Earth.
Scott makes the case that the planned city is in a real sense parasitic on the unplanned settlements around it: it needs them to perform all the urban functions the planners couldn’t forsee and the planned city couldn’t do on its own.
Which brings me back to the seasteads. The designs on the seasteading website betray a certain unfamiliarity on the part of the designers with both ships and cities. As Mieville points out, they look more than anything else like mid-range Miami condos. It’s entirely unclear where the cooks, cleaners, fishermen, and seamen necessary to keep one of these places going are going to live among all the Silicon Valley refugees. It’s not in the plans. And unlike Brasilia, there’s nowhere for an unplanned settlement to grow up around the monument.
I guess what I’m saying is: if you buy a timeshare on one of these joints, don’t forget to pack your own your toilet brush and needlegun scaler. Because Peter Thiel is probably not going to remember to bring his.