PALO ALTO, Calif.--This chic, tree-lined California town might seem an unlikely place to begin the colonization of Earth's oceans. Palo Alto is known for expensive modernism, Stanford University, al fresco dining, and land prices so high a modest cottage still sells for well over $1 million.
If Patri Friedman gets his way, the area will also be remembered for birthing a political movement called seasteading. The concept is as simple to explain as it will be difficult to achieve: erecting permanent dwellings on the high seas outside the territorial waters claimed by the world's governments.
"Innovation in society and serving marginalized groups has always happened on the frontier," Friedman said in an interview last week. "We don't have a frontier anymore. The reason our political system doesn't innovate anymore is that there's no place to try out new things. We want to provide that place."
Designing an offshore place to live is one of the first tasks of the Seasteading Institute, which Friedman, 32, founded last year and moved into shared office space near the Palo Alto Caltrain station two weeks ago. Another task is attempting to legitimize living on the seas as practical--and perhaps, given possibilities for offshore businesses, even profitable.
Friedman previously worked in Google's Mountain View headquarters as a software engineer, identifies himself as a Burning Man aficionado, and counts himself as an unabashed libertarian. (His father, David Friedman, is a well-known libertarian law professor, and his grandfather, the late Milton Friedman, won the Nobel Prize in economics.)
Given the large number of like-minded souls in Silicon Valley circles, including at the Googleplex, it should be no surprise that a few dozen have coalesced to form a core group of would-be seasteaders, some of whom met last week for a social gathering inside downtown San Francisco's Metreon entertainment complex.
"I'd say that libertarian geeks are our most common audience so far. But in order to succeed, we'll have to branch out beyond that," Friedman said. "I think people are a lot better at inventing technology than changing human nature or changing social organizations. This is a technological solution to the problems of politics...I'm a libertarian, but I'm not a libertarian who believes that everyone should want to live in the same kind of society as me."
The Seasteading Institute plans to gather a kind of ad-hoc flotilla, called "ephemerisle," in the San Francisco Bay near Redwood City over the Fourth of July weekend. The plan for July 2010: find a way to hold the gathering off the coast in the Pacific Ocean.
Other supporters of the project include PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who runs a hedge fund called Clarium Capital Management and donated $500,000 to the Seasteading Institute. Former Sun Microsystems engineer Wayne Gramlich is the group's director of engineering; former Paypal manager James Hogan is its director of operations; Liz Lacy of now-defunct Excite@Home heads its development efforts.
While their affection for seasteading has varying origins, the broadest theme is to allow people to escape overreaching governments and replace conventional political systems with something of their own creation. (A section of their Web site is titled: "Land = Crappy Government" and says that terrestrial governments do a "terrible and sometimes horrific job" at serving the taxpayers that are their customers.)
Yet the Seasteading Institute's official position is, to put it in terms that Washington politicians might employ, thoroughly nonpartisan. Once the engineering work is complete and groups can purchase, outfit, and launch their own platforms, Friedman and his colleagues predict that some of the first 'steaders will not be nudists, recreational drug users, pacifists, environmentalists, or religious groups hoping to create an enclave far away from secular influences. … Read more