Does seasteading need nanotech?

I recently heard a talk by Patri Friedman about seasteading. Seasteading means “homesteading the sea,” or at least building floating cities and establishing permanent residences there, and ultimately alternative polities in hopes of enabling beneficial economic competition in the field of governance. Before saying more, let me point out that I am generally in agreement with the goals of the seasteaders and think they may have a chance to advance them. However, I’m here as a technological futurist to examine the possibilities dispassionately.

There seems to be one basic principle that could be adopted as the First Law of Futurism: technology changes faster than expected, and social arrangements change more slowly. (A nice survey of this tendency can be found in Gerard O’Neill’s book; perhaps the classic example is Edward Bellamy’s USA of 2000 (described in 1887) with a fully-integrated, smoothly-running centralized socialism with no labor disputes — and no automobiles.)

Current technology is perfectly capable of building seagoing cities; that’s what a cruise ship is. Boats or platforms built with current maritime technology are feasible but expensive compared to most (but not all) land-based housing. The places that are more expensive are so because of economic network effects, i.e., big cities and areas like Silicon Valley. What economic advantages of a seastead might mitigate this?

The original motivating advantage is lack of (incompetent) government. A look at this paper allows us to estimate that this might be worth about a doubling of the economic growth rate compared to the US. But that’s only going to help if the total cost of doing business can be brought down to within say 3% of what it is elsewhere. Other factors of production must be found that have advantages hard to find on land.

The obvious big advantage is lots of free space. Your seastead estate can be as big as you like, if you can afford a private structure. (And there’s no grass to mow.) Here’s where technology comes in. As we get closer to true nanotech, the cost of a deep-ocean houseboat should fall, where most of the cost of homes on land is location.

Mobility is a second big advantage, and this also argues for individual (or smaller-group) structures. Mobility gives you good climate all year round (just follow it) and the dynamic geography that the seasteaders hope will ameliorate government lock-in.

Energy is another possible advantage that improving nanotech will enhance. Imagine a one-hectare mat that could be rolled up into a standard shipping container like a roll of plastic wrap. This floats on the surface of the ocean behind your boat. It’s a nanotech material that is both photovoltaic and piezoelectric, harvesting energy from sun and waves. This kind of stuff is in the labs right now. (A long thin wave-energy converter is surprisingly more effective than you might think.)

Someone living on a cruise-ship-sized floating city can walk to everything but there’s not so much there — a city of a few thousand people is quite small as cities go. A distributed community of seasteads, including larger platforms acting as apartment houses, malls, factories, and so forth, would need a transportation technology equivalent to cars and trucks. For heavy freight there are ships, of course, but for fast light freight and personal transportation you’d almost certainly prefer seaplanes. No need to build expensive runways or technologically challenging VTOLs. Seaplanes are a reliable technology we’ve had for over 70 years — we can almost certainly improve on them.

Decent energy storage and AI piloting are both technologies we expect to see mature in the next decade. This puts the seaplane in the category where improving technology makes it more feasible as the “family car.” And that in turn makes seastead communities possible in a much more distributed form, with lower barriers to entry (and exit).

And that’s without even thinking about nanofactories.

Of course, technology doesn’t develop itself — people need to be trying to solve problems, and the problems of seasteading are only beginning to be looked at. Given sufficient interest, however, it seems likely that the technology for dynamic, economically viable ocean communities might be available fairly early in this century, given interest and effort.

[Note: there’s a top-notch discussion of seastading going on over at Cato Unbound with essays by Patri Friedman, Brian Doherty, Jason Sorens, and Peter Thiel.]

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