Explorers in the Valley still charting new territory

Fri, Sep 19, 2008, 01:00

WIRED:I’M STANDING in a large dining room in a large house, in one of the more affluent areas of San Francisco. Through the window, I can see yachts berthed nearby in one of the city’s marinas, overshadowed by Fort Mason, a military port facility now converted into theatres, colleges and museums.

In the foggy distance is the silhouette of the Golden Gate Bridge and, beyond that, the open sea.

There’s a gentle hubbub of talk about investments and financial instruments. The Dow Jones index has dropped 500 points, but nobody seems too concerned.

Many of the people here have already made a million or two: the rest are either happy to get by with what they have, or believe their tech jobs are immune from such market wobbles.

They don’t seem worried about the “direction of America”, as the electoral headlines have it.

They’re here because they believe in something even further afield, something that would allow them to move, quite literally, in the opposite direction to America if need be.

They want to use Silicon Valley approaches, ie technology – and financial backing – to open a new frontier, and homestead the seas.

When you first hear about it, it’s hard not to chuckle at the audacity of the plan.

Patri Friedman, former Google employee and grandson of economist Milton Friedman, came up with the idea when mulling on the inefficiency of governments.

Why didn’t governments improve over time, the way that markets under competition often do?

The answer, it seemed, was because of the huge costs for customers (citizens) to shop between competing government providers (countries), and the ability of governments to enforce their will on their captive audiences.

His solution? Why not create habitats that can get away from governments and which states would have a hard time keeping in one place: habitats that exist on the open sea.

It’s not a new idea, particularly among the idealistic strain of freedom-loving libertarians who live on the west coast of the US and who frequently bemoan the closing of this country’s own legendary frontier.

What makes this plan different is the approach that Friedman and his colleagues are taking.

First, rather than idealistically forming a utopian commune to work on the problem, they’ve set up a non-profit organisation called the Seasteading Institute – with $500,000 (€350,000) in funding from Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal.

They’ve commissioned engineering designs for a platform and are considering constructing a proof-of-concept version to float in San Francisco Bay.

And they’re determined to run the venture as a business, pragmatically placing their political ideals on hold as they struggle to find a way to make offshore platforms self-supporting.

Plenty are sceptical of Seasteading’s chances. Many have tried to create their own state on the high seas; none has succeeded.

In the same room as Friedman at this informal event is Ryan Lackey, who set up an internet server farm on the disputed “micronation” of Sealand, a discarded sea fort six miles off the coast of Suffolk.

As Friedman and Lackey joked, the latter’s project set the bar for commercially-driven new sovereign states, but it was a very low bar: the plan failed, and Lackey lost his money.

But what I find fascinating about this project is the willingness of these individuals to seriously consider such an outlandish plan.

They’re not deluded about the chances of their success: almost all of the discussion was about potential problems – social, political, engineering and financial – and how they might be practically evaded or overcome.

There was a strong understanding that this was a high-risk venture.

But rather than arguing against that, this high-worth audience took it as an indicator that it should be investigated, and invested in, further.

Is this a product of an environment that has too much money sloshing around?

There were plenty of ex-dotcom (and ex-Google) employees in the room.

I’ve already written about others who have taken their millions and invested them in equally low-probability projects, such as rocketry or life-extension or cryonics or smart drugs.

I’m sure there are other, less romantic, ideas than putting up floating platforms for free- marketeering heroes to skirt current laws and regulations which might have a better chance of bettering the world.

But it has to be said that, if you want to know what drives Silicon Valley’s 50-year lead in innovation, it’s this attitude towards crazy risk-taking.

Watching this audience and listening to the pitch, I am reminded of reading the “Information Letters”, memos to investors written by John Walker, the founder of Computer Aided Design pioneer AutoDesk, in

1982.

Walker’s plan – to build software for this new “IBM” personal computer – sounds nowhere near as farfetched as building habitable sea platforms, although it wasn’t exactly a common business plan back then.

Nevertheless, it has that same strong tone of an innovator breaking out for an entirely new place – and trying to encourage others to give him the cash and the support to do so.

Some gambles work, some do not: but it’s sometimes nice to be in a place where you’ll get an audience, no matter how sky blue your dreams are.