The Futurist Interviews Patri Friedman, executive director of the Seasteading Institute.
Sept-October 2008 Vol. 42, No. 5
Patri Friedman is executive director of the Seasteading Institute.
FUTURIST: Seasteading, for those readers who are not familiar with it, is essentially staking out a long-term residence on the ocean’s surface?
Friedman: The frontier is part of how we think of it. The frontier thesis is: America came in large part from people who were willing to venture out and attempt new ways of living. Looking at a frontier is looking at new ways of living, a spirit that is kind of lacking right now. It’s not just that the ocean is empty and we want to fill it. It’s about finding new uses of living space and resources.
FUTURIST: What does technology allow us to do right now?
Friedman: Oil platforms - they are permanent, they are fixed. They can take the beating of the waves. However, they are incredibly expensive. One thing we’re trying to figure out is how to make it less expensive. Are they expensive because they are on the ocean’s surface, or because they are drilling oil, which is in itself expensive?
Another example is cruise lines. They sustain people very comfortably while sailing atop the ocean. They too, however, are very expensive. What we need to do is make something that’s permanent and spacious but also cheap. We see it as a technological solution to a political problem. People are bad at changing human nature or changing politics, but very good at finding new technological means to make things work better.
FUTURIST: What maintenance challenges does Seasteading present – what kinds of wear and tear would you have to address?
Friedman: You can expect to pay the construction costs in maintenance every 20 years, which is not good. One of our challenges is going to be to try to minimize that. What does help is that we’re not going to move any place very fast. We could use cheaper things like cement. Cement is good in that it’s cheap and its strong. Steel has a good weight ratio but is very expensive. Plastics hold up against water really well also.
FUTURIST: This research into more durable materials could probably serve us well down the road when we’re trying to build spacecraft that could transport people to other planets.
Friedman: It could. We view this as a more achievable frontier.
FUTURIST: Your Web site makes some mentions of self-governance. Might seafaring give rise to independent communities and even whole new sea-based nations?
Friedman: Absolutely. That is our interest, the idea of experiments in self-governing. Instead of a few large firms or countries, having many small firms and niche markets. One of our hopes is revolutionizing the government industry. Things floating on the ocean can be moved around and changed quickly. A floating city can be modular, a building can be detached and be rearranged. If a business doesn’t like a new tax that is passed, it can move it to another city. It will give cities more incentives to do a good job.
That would be true in space also you can move around different things. The next frontier is the ocean state. They have this weird dynamic that you can rearrange things and make it work more smoothly.
It’s kind of like if everyone lived in an RV, except everyone lives in something spacious and comfortable. There is a lot of space on land but it’s a place we could go to in order to get more resources. Aquaculture will be a necessity. There is decline in wild fish stocks. Currently, coastal and freshwater aquaculture freshwater areas are limited they tend to be sensitive environmentally. Offshore aquaculture, where you basically maintain fish farms in the deep ocean, There’s demand for fish. It’s a way to increase the amount of food that we can produce. So we increase the earth’s food-bearing capacity. And fish are known to make you smarter. So we’re also making the world smarter. The ocean is a lot less sensitive. There is a lot more space. One problem, though, is it is food-poor. When things die, they drop down to the bottom where only bacteria live. Most of the life is concentrated in natural upwellings. We’ll have to either locate in those areas or artificially create upwellings by means of artificial pumps, or OTEC generator that pumps nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean pipes that run way down. OTEC plants generate a lot of power and they generate fresh water. As a side effect of the heat engine, you end up boiling water. The water condenses and you have automatic fresh water. We’re not doing anything with OTECs right now because you need a community that can afford a couple-hundred-million-dollar power plant.
FUTURIST: How far along are you in developing Seasteads right now?
Friedman: We’ve established a research institute that is applying for non-profit status. We’re planning to hire a researcher and engineer and do some designs work that could figure out what the best design is and do some cost effective work. First we’d want to build one in the San Francisco Bay. Once we’ve built it and tested it, then well look to build bigger ones
FUTURIST: It seems that while space stations and space colonies would require the resources of whole countries and consortia of countries, Seasteads could be built by communities or even by individuals.
Friedman: That’s true. We’re very focused on an individual-level path. We think it’s important to make a lot of stuff that people can try on a small scale.
Interview by Rick Docksai