Sunday, August 14, 2011

Floating Civilization Adrift On An Ocean Of Dreams

Ask any seagoing folk - career sailors, merchant mariners, professional yachtspersons - about life on the ocean and they'll tell you it's grand.  Out at sea, you can commune with nature on a daily basis and fantasize about chasing Moby Dick or exploring Davy Jones' locker.  You can also live as a permanent expatriate in exotic ports of call, with adventures in Polynesia and the Mediterranean beckoning. 

You can also fantasize about creating your own civilization from scratch, if you have lots of time and money on your hands.  Serial entrepreneurs with libertarian ideals have those resources in spades.  Some of them are willing to take a stab at creating a floating nation.  New business models always need to be tested against the real world and this is no less important than for a new model of nationhood.  The folks at the Seasteading Institute should consider how the following topics affect their plans.

Economic viability.  A floating colony of a few hundred people will not have a diverse economy.  The types of people who are attracted to this lifestyle and can afford it are knowledge workers.  Hedge fund managers and media consultants can probably afford to buy a plugged-in condo on a twenty-story semi-submersible platform.  They will also be uniquely vulnerable to the kind of downward pressure on compensation from global wage arbitrage that is offshoring white-collar intellectual work to China and Southeast Asia.  Speaking of Southeast Asia, Singapore and Hong Kong are densely packed urban centers with vibrant knowledge economies, just like our imaginary seaborne civilization.  They also have world-class port facilities and plenty of infrastructure for high-tech manufacturing.  Putting any of that infrastructure onto a floating platform on the scale needed to make a viable economy is probably impossible.  It will also require a whole bunch of workers with skill sets completely alien to our effete urban wannabe platform dwellers. 

Sovereignty.  Here's a sticky subject.  Floating platforms periodically need maintenance to remain functional.  The entire "city" will probably have to be towed to the nearest shipyard dry-dock every few years for months of maintenance.  Your precious homestead will be jacked out of the water for hull inspections, barnacle scraping, systems retrofitting, and all kinds of upgrades and services that are absolutely necessary to ensure the enterprise does not sink while it's on the water.  This raises a very important point besides the livability of the platform while it's in drydock.  A platform parked on land is subject to the laws and regulations of the nation where it's parked.  That means the enterprise's sovereignty will most likely be erased when it pulls into port.  The platform's residents will have to vacate their homes while the superstructure is undergoing maintenance, so once they're on land they are fair game for the local government.  The libertarian fantasy of permanent life at sea bumps into the hard reality of periodic maintenance.   

Physical security and safety.  Building a whole town on the same superstructure as a semi-submersible drilling rig exposes the residents to the kinds of risks oil workers have taken for decades and adds some new ones. Will the structure have enough lifeboats moored in case something happens to render the thing unstable?  What happens to one of these floating communities if a hurricane or tsunami comes its way?  Today's oil drilling platforms have to be towed to shore upon notice of inbound hurricanes, as in the Katrina disaster.  A tsunami would leave even less time to evacuate, so the rig would be stuck while residents scramble into lifeboats that will then be carried away by the tsunami's force.  Ask yourself if you're in for the ride of your life.  "All aboard the tsunami express - woooooo!" Daisy-chaining a few dozen platforms together to make an archipelago holds the entire civilization hostage to a structural failure on one platform.  Think about that one:  You look out your twentieth floor window and watch one of your neighboring platforms sinking, knowing your platform is chained to it by permanent infrastructure.  Your twentieth floor view will be an underwater view in about five minutes.  Ask anyone who's ever evacuated a sinking ship or drilling rig - like the Deepwater Horizon after it blew out in April 2010 - just how difficult it is to get into a lifeboat in a pitching sea.  The people who survive those things are tough, trained marine technology experts; one disaster rehearsal with a bunch of transplanted urbanites will convince quite a few of them that ocean life isn't all it's cracked up to be. 

Self-defense.  This is closely related to the above paragraph on safety during structural failures.  Security against natural disasters is hard enough without throwing malice and international intrigue into the mix.  A floating rig full of rich, influential Westerners is a tempting target for blackmail by a rogue state.  Think Somali pirates are tough?  Try deterring a whole flotilla from a starving country hostile to the West without the protective umbrella of your own military.  The aggressor wouldn't even need a WMD.  They could just park an autonomous underwater vehicle loaded with high explosives under one of the platform's submerged pontoons.  The floating city-state's mayor would then get the following call on his satellite phone:  "Hello, this is Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.  You will wire $US100mm to my account in Zurich or I will blow your city out of the water.  Cast your eyes out two miles at 15 degrees north latitude for a demonstration explosion.  (BOOM!)  See that spray cloud?  That's you if I don't get your money.  My hackers have already identified your account numbers so all you have to do is hand it over.  You have one hour to complete the transaction or you sleep with the fishies.  Thank you in advance for your business."  Laugh all you want at the James Bond-type brinkmanship.  Dictators are amoral psychopaths who will salivate at the target presented by a bunch of wealthy idealists aimlessly riding the waves.  Try calling the nearest U.S. Navy carrier battle group if you need help in a pinch. 

There's nothing wrong with testing the viability of permanent, autonomous floating communities.  Private investors are welcome to do anything they like with their money.  Nothing in the concept mandates that the communities be ocean-going.  I suspect that the most viable application of this concept is a series of connected platforms moored very close to shore, no more than a mile or two out.  They could hold a kind of special economic status (like Hong Kong, or other countries' designated high-tech zones for foreign direct investment) that would incentivize investment and give residents plenty of autonomy short of full independence.  Tethering them to shore makes connecting infrastructure for energy input, waste output, and movement of people and goods much easier. 

The genesis of the concept makes me wonder about people who wander outside their circle of competence (hat tip to Warren Buffett).  Launching and managing a business model that focuses on shooting electrons between e-commerce portals like EBay and PayPal requires advanced skills in computing and electrical engineering.  Those skill sets are not identical to those required to move and sustain physical structures in the chaotic real world where human life and property must be safeguarded from accidents and malice.  Please tell Thomas Friedman that the world is not flat.

Nota bene:  I have no desire to start my own brand new civilization offshore.  I'm busy trying to save the one that's onshore.