On Friday, the Seasteading Institute—a non-profit group cofounded by Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman (grandson to Ronald Reagan advisor Milton Friedman)—successfully closed its Indiegogo campaign to design “the world’s first floating city” for “pioneers who wish to demonstrate new ways of living together.”
The campaign exceeded its $20,000 goal, raising $27,082 in tax deductible funds from 291 donors: a sum that will be matched, dollar-for-dollar, by the Thiel Foundation, the philanthropic organization best known for keeping kids out of school.
Thiel has personally backed this kind of matching funds arrangement for the Seasteading Institute before. However, Friedman, a man the New Yorker once described as an elfin “free-love libertarian,” was compelled to put some distance between himself and his billionaire patron a couple years back. In 2011, Friedman stepped down as CEO of the Institute just before a Details profile of Peter Thiel that quoted the following tweet from Friedman: "Explored BDSM in SF w/big group of friends tonight."
This Indiegogo campaign makes it seem like the dinner party companions are as united as ever in their aquatic cause. For example, the highest category of donor (“Dolphin”) handed over $1,000 to win a conference call “or dinner if able to meet near San Francisco” with Friedman, who still serves as the Institute’s chairman of the board, as well executive director Randolph Hencken, an activist in the drug policy reform movement “since his early 20s, when he used ibogaine to kick heroin."
During the keynote speech at Google I/O in May, CEO Larry Page described a similar hope to “set apart a piece of the world” as a safe space for technologists—a Google Island, if you will—“where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society,” unencumbered by outdated laws on technology.
“If we can solve the engineering challenges of Seasteading, two-thirds of the Earth’s surface becomes open for these political start-ups,” explains Friedman, a self-styled cult leader who’s known to the community as just Patri. The Seasteaders have chosen as their motto “Let a Thousand Nations Bloom’—an apparent spin on “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom,” a Maoist policy which encouraged dissidents to speak out and then used their views as a pretext to jail them.
Like so many technocratic pipe dreams these days, the Institute’s grand plan hinges on a pretty big “if.” Back in 2008, Friedman himself estimated that it could cost hundreds of millions to build a seastead for just a few thousand people. Now, seven years later, the proceeds from amateur investors who backed this crowdfunded campaign are going towards a white paper exploring “feasibility” of the idea—with any leftovers allocated toward "diplomacy" with countries that might "consider hosting a seastead within their territorial waters, while still granting the city substantial autonomy."
Becoming a "seasteader" means that you not only yearn for a better future for humanity, but are also willing to put skin in the game to demonstrate what a better future could look like. Giving to this campaign shows that you are above partisan bickering about how government "should be," and are ready to lead by example.
Thiel is never happier than when others scoff at his ventures, but he’s prone to the mistaken belief that the contrarian view is always right. He defended the indefensible after the Rabois incident, in part, because it was a case of one against all. His dislike of George W. Bush didn’t soften until his poll numbers hit rock bottom, and the same is now true for Barack Obama. During the financial crisis, Thiel lost billions of dollars because he refused to behave like the rest of the world. If artificial intelligence and seasteading are our only hope, it isn’t because politicians and professors mock and fear them. Nor is it at all clear how much hope Thiel’s utopian projects really offer.
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