March 23, 2014

6, 3: Seasteading

Once upon a time, someone gave a faffy speech about seasteading and people got kind of upset at how bad it was and this happened. A friend was working on something related and asked for a non-silly take, so I wrote a letter at speed. I’m reprinting it here with moderate editing:

In a hurry so I’m just going to spew. I’m assuming you want a perspective here, not a coherent, broadly explanatory stance. So for brevity I will leave out the hedges and state many opinions as if I thought them to be objective. Ramble time.

I come from a small island just on the US side of the Canadian border. It’s mostly forested and has a population of about 100 in an area a few times that of Central Park. There is a K–8 public school that usually has about a dozen students, a post office in permanent jeopardy of closure, a dock, some county-maintained roads, and nothing else that one accustomed to cities would see as an obvious public space. There are no stores, no public utilities, no hotels, and only private transportation to get on and off.

Take an islander whom I know well from summer apprenticeships: Jim. Jim makes among the best small steel carving knives. Anywhere, ever. He forges a range of tools and little novelties, but blades about the size of house keys are his main product. That niche is small enough that his clientele is necessarily international – I was just reading about how people on Yap have comissioned him to make adzes for canoe-carving, and his little curved blades are to be found in many YouTube carving videos.

As you can imagine, he requies specific alloys; a supply of various dense hardwoods, for handles; precise and accurate thermometers, to check his intuition about tempering; of course he needs propane, firebrick, a sander and the supplies it consumes, a drop hammer, several anvils, soapstone sticks for marking up chunks of steel, ear plugs, WD-40, high-end fire extinguishers, many different lubricants, and so on. And corrugated plastic roofing for diffused natural light, and a sawmill to cut his local wood, and so on.

So Jim is a blacksmith – a word I mostly hear these days in jokes about obsolescence. He lives on a small, rural island where he has the time and quiet to think and work very hard on small things that most people have not imagined. He is also one of the most globalized people I know. I’m counting people who had “major liquidity events” and whose Twitter profiles say their location is SoMa/SoHo or whatevs. Jim is narrowly specialized labor, enabled by things like oligopolistic global shipping companies.

And likewise, my family’s off-the-grid setup – solar panels, their own well, their own garden – relies on solar panel manufacturers, modern well-drilling rigs, and the internet.

Many visitors are offended by this. They have a rhetoric of simplicity that feels that e.g. buying gasoline to run a generator to have electric lights in winter is failing to live up to the promise of living in the woods. But for my family and others, that promise was never made. It’s a projection, an assumption, an outsider’s stereotype. They are not claiming or trying to be out of the world.

What do you get from living on a natural seastead oops I mean small island? Well, you get a different kind of time – a different set of distractions. Not simplicity, but a reallocation of complexity that suits some people. You get too many things to list here. The one I want to talk about is that you see your material dependencies more clearly. That is, you have to carry the gas that you buy. You know where your water comes from, even if it’s just as technologically mediated as a Brooklynite’s water – maybe more – because you have to replace the pump from time to time. It’s not that you have less of a supply chain, it’s that you pay more attention to it because you’re the last link in it. You unload your kit, your cargo, your stuff, from a literal-ass boat that goes across the water.

So here is what I can tell you: our material culture is vast. The substrate of comfortable, middle-class-as-portrayed-in-primetime American life is ginormous, far beyond anyone’s understanding in any depth. Years ago there was a Neal Stephenson Wired story called In the Kingdom of Mao Bell, from which I often think of the line (phrased in terms of Western culture, but mutatis mutandis):

For a Westerner to trash Western culture is like criticizing our nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere on the grounds that it sometimes gets windy, and besides, Jupiter’s is much prettier. You may not realize its advantages until you’re trying to breathe liquid methane.

Which is only to make a point that is easy to make but very hard to appreciate, and I have to practice making to myself in new ways all the time, re-estranging it to re-familiarize it: what we have going here, this system by which roads are paved, you can appeal a court ruling, you can just assume you got the right change back at Whole Foods, Whole Foods exists, etc., is so big and complicated that you can’t appreciate it. At best you can call upon cognitive intercessors, like thinky magazine features on the cold chain or whatever, to mediate between your grasp of the size of the culture and its reality. I say this as someone whose job is partly to look at enormous depictions of material culture – I mean staring at the Port of Tokyo–Yokohama, or Magnitogorsk, is kind of what I do all day, and I still take it for granted.

And the system has tremendous momentum. I am no historian, but my vague sense is that in recognizable form in the Euramerican sphere it goes back to things like the New Model Army and the aftermath of the French Revolution: the establishment of a bureauracy, i.e. a system of applied governance with accountability built in as paperwork and defined responsibilities, as opposed to something at best hollowed out like a nest of sticks inside feudalism.

And when I see bureaucracy around me doing things like getting all fetishistic about a piece of paper, I have to remind myself that yes, this is imperfect, but the point is that we enshrine the word, something roughly permanent and widely legible, as opposed to worshipping the squire, i.e., whatever he feels like today, that we can’t even examine directly to mutually identify and begin to debate whether it’s good. A whig history but I’m a whig.

So wait, then, how is this applying to SV separatism?

There are a lot of Valleybros who simply Do Not Get This. They have tried to do things that seemed like common sense, and some combination of old-rich Californians and irritating hippies used legal technicalities to protect their vested interests, and the Valleybros were not allowed to carry out their eminently reasonable projects.

These people have not been poor – or hated it so much that they have effaced the memory. They do not get that a slow, inefficient court applying outdated laws under the influence of mild institutional corruption is at like the 99th fucking percentile of justice that human civilization has acheived. They cannot imagine, or cannot feel, that there are people who don’t even get to go to court, who won’t testify because they’re afraid someone will ask for their papers, who know what a judge did to their older brother for getting in a fight in the wrong place, who have to stay home to take care of the kid who has a disability they can’t afford to hire a carer for, who don’t have transportation to the courthouse, who were yelled at by “their” lawyer when the door was closed, who who will be fired if they take a Monday off for any reason, who – yeah.

No, to the Valleybro, a city unwilling to exercise eminent domain to build a hyperloop, or an FCC unwilling open up a bunch of radio spectrum, or a court that won’t process their complaint about these things this week, is a society in its failure state. Oh my god, they say to each other, this is like driving around with the parking brake on all the time! Things just never work as well as I can imagine them working!

So there is this impulse to go out to the frontier and show that a better way is possible.

What’s a frontier? In the American tradition, it’s a place where you go to kill locals and grow plants and animals that take advantage of the soil that they had been maintaining. (This may seem unnecessarily cynical, but it’s the only one-line overview I know that coordinates the Trail of Tears, cowboy culture as it actually was, and the Dust Bowl, for three high-profile parts of the American story of the frontier.) Which is to say that not only was the Western Expansion expanding into something, it was powered by what it was overtaking. It was consumption. The frontier grew not as a tree trunk grows into air, but as a fire grows across a forest.

You go where there is something you need or want. The island I come from has silence, certain kinds of peace, certain relationships with one’s neighbors, etc., that are worthwhile to a few people. The West, this great American myth, had soil.

San Francisco in particular was the port that stood between a highly fertile drained marsh and the route to Asia. Gold and timber and fish too. It was a crossroads. And the part of SF’s culture that we love, that is radically inclusive and finds foundation and joy in what is marginalized elsewhere, is because (if any cultural thing is because) it was a crossroads. But that was earned the hard way, and still connects with memories of pain – pain that’s inscribed in most great crossroads cities. San Francisco’s wonderful, lucrative connection to Asia, for example, is largely founded on the coolie trade, and let’s not even talk about the Japanese-American internment.

Why is SV next to SF? Stanford is good partly because of this cultural mash created by refugees from around the world and by Americans who electrophoresised over from the East because they were gay, or liked the feeling of the edge, or were just tired of that pinched feeling. The mash was and is volatile: it’s done wonderful things and terrible things.

Again, your common or garden Valleybro Does Not Get This. He looks for that magical 10× programmer. He looks for efficiency. His strategy might work, ish, for one generation, which is – gosh – about how long it’s been. But short-term, lines-of-code efficiency completely misses the long-term point. Innovation, “disruption”, comes from outsiders, and you can’t say “hey, let’s make a group of outsiders and rule the world”! I mean, you can – people do all the time – but you lose your outsider perspective really fast. (Unless maybe you have someone like Steve Jobs, who is constantly reminding you that you are not buddies, you have not arrived, and you should drop acid and live in an ashram for a while if you really want to understand technology, and you’re fucking his company, and Microsoft is evil, and so on, but even then, jeez!)

Eh. Everything hinges of course on the details of separateness. The problem for me is that I don’t see any interesting points in the phase space of anything worth calling separateness. A converted oil platform would be astonishingly hard to have an open society on. Where do the sewage engineers live? Why do they come there voluntarily? Why do their countries of origin allow them to work there? Why would even a billionaire want a house there? Is this idea – not to put too fine a point on it – interesting to anyone other than men? And that’s like 90% of what I have to say about it right there.

I’m not offering a new critique here. People have always asked who cleans the toilets in Galt’s Gulch. I’m just trying to color a sketch of how hard a problem practical logistics are. Supply chains are really, really tricky, and it would be quite a trick to sign up for them without entraining a bunch of stuff to do with credit supply, labor and safety laws, and so on. That bureaucracy is sometimes bad, sometimes unnecessary and corrupt, but it’s also what makes it work. The real world is not a packet network – physical objects come with complex and inseparable contexts, and they are produced by a huuuge machine full of flywheels with unfathomable inertia.

Like, okay, say SVstead deals primarily with Large Country X because, hypothetically, Large Country X doesn’t boycott them on the grounds of labor law and other human rights violations. Then SVstead is dealing with a single supplier, and one likely to be in tension with the rhetoric necessary to SVstead. Prices and volatility go way up. What happens if the ship full of building materials has “engine trouble” until SVstead agrees not to recognize the sovereignty of Large Country X’s scapegoat breakaway state? Nerd fight! Two billionaries who look like they could be full brothers have a public argument about means and ends.

Capitalism works because of an undocumented network of mutual trust, and SVstead is talking about pissing off the people whose trust it needs most. It’s like if WikiLeaks said it were a nation. Have a super time, fellas!

What is on a seastead that’s worth having? Mostly, as far as I can tell, permissive financial laws. But there are already lots of places like that, many of them already in the form of small islands – super convenient! Singapore is pretty close to a seastead in some ways. It’s very compact, and the government can put all sorts of innovative urban planning policies in place. Its record on poverty reduction is worth serious study by reflexive critics of capitalism. “You only have to convince one guy, the philosopher king”! But Singapore is not the good part of the Bay. Rwanda since 1994: also curiously seastead-y from some angles. Trying to be a crossroads, trying to be technocratic, powerful leader forcing efficient cooperation between government branches, leaps and bounds of development – not overly friendly to journalists, not a good record on prosecution for major crimes, not the best foreign policy, and so on.

See noble glittering towers, think slavery.

SVsteading is Calvin and Hobbes’s treehouse. You can be separate-ish, or you can piss people off, but good luck doing both. You can’t be separate enough to get away with having superpowers and the economy (you know, the economy) dislike you. No amount of money makes it cheap to have your own supply chain for prestressed concrete or ceviche, and if you fly them in premade then it’s not clear to me what you’ve escaped.

For what it’s worth, I think distance is fascinating. Things like Biosphere and ISS and McMurdo–Scott and prospective Mars bases: we learn a lot from them, and from less flashy versions at smaller scales. A lot of what we learn from them is about what we can’t separate.

Coda: someone wrote an interesting feature about traumatic doings on the island I’m from a little over a decade ago, and how people reacted when he came to report on it: Private Lives.

I was entertained by the comments in which I think some people have shown both insight into the process of semi-isolation and a kind of aggrieved fury that somewhere someone has tried hard to form a good community and not perfectly succeeded.

I welcome remarks. Thank you for reading.