College Ships: A Pathway to Seasteading

Seasteading, a topic popular in futurist and libertarian circles, is simply the construction of settlements on the high seas capable of sustaining permanent populations. While floating cities dominate futuristic concepts of high-seas settlement, there are many other kinds of communities that would benefit from seafaring, the foremost in my mind being educational communities. A college town at sea, rather than a city, may be the best place to begin human colonization of the oceans.

The Call of the Sea

The attraction of seasteading to futurists is obvious: a frontier no one has ever settled permanently before opens up new possibilities, and it is an undertaking that would require rather advanced technology to be successful. The attraction to libertarians is somewhat less obvious but perhaps more compelling: as the last place on Earth unclaimed by any state, it is the closest place one can escape from the state’s clutches. The cruel and wrongful suppression of the world’s first seastead well off the coast of Thailand last year demonstrates that states cannot be trusted to abide by their own laws, rules, or borders when they can get away with violating them to serve their own interests. This includes territorial boundaries in the ocean.

Nevertheless, the secular trend, starting from the 1970s, is toward more seasteading, and Ocean Builders’ attempt in 2019 came closer than any of their predecessors. If this trend continues, eventually the seasteading movement may well achieve complete success, perhaps through playing off states’ interests in being globally competitive in the same way microstates have done with the large states. Considering the secular trend in favor of fragmentation and decentralization globally, this sort of future may even be the most likely outcome. In any case once space colonization begins states will be forced to relinquish the power of controlling every site in the universe inhabited by humans they’ve been drunk on for over a century. On Earth if you keep running away from the state eventually you come closer again, but space is effectively infinite; you can keep running away forever without coming any closer. For this reason I believe the end of pervasive statism is much more likely to come from spacesteading than seasteading.

Flags of Convenience for All

Despite these cautions, seasteading principles may prove very useful in the future and in practical (as opposed to theoretical) terms. States do respect other members of the sovereign state club on the high seas after all, even if only out of fear of retaliation, and this enables owners of ships to choose their own jurisdiction for their vessels by registering the ship with a foreign country, usually one with more favorable taxes and regulations than their own country. This is known as flying a “flag of convenience”, and is a common practice. The modern flags-of-convenience trend apparently began in the 1920s, when American ship owners, who traditionally registered their ships with the United States, registered their ships in Panama instead so they (and their customers) would not be subject to alcohol prohibition on board; rising regulations and labor costs inspired them to continue the practice, and the proportion of ships that fly flags of convenience has continued expanding through the present day.

Cruise ships are perhaps the most famous users of this technique, and the practice is in fact being used right now as an argument against the United States government giving financial aid to cruise liner companies, who don’t follow (and aren’t obligated to follow) American taxes, regulations, or laws. Similar techniques are used by the “Perpetual Traveler” movement, where the basic idea is to become a citizen of a tax haven and never stay in one country long enough to become a legal resident and subject to taxation, thus avoiding taxes and dependence upon a single jurisdiction by internationally diversifying one’s assets and lifestyle.

Where this ties into seasteading principles is that not only individuals but entire organizations and communities could employ these techniques, especially if they lived aboard a ship permanently. A few individuals and households do make ships, boats, and yachts their permanent home today, and a few of them likely employ Perpetual Traveler principles, but as far as I know no communities or organizations do so. This is curious considering that cruise ships amply demonstrate the technical feasibility of making a ship home to a whole community. While the passengers rotate on and off a cruise ship, the same systems that supply rotating groups of people on board could easily supply the same group.

This opens up a pathway toward full seasteading with “off the shelf” components so to speak, without the need for special deals from existing states, direct and overt challenges to pervasive statism, or new purpose-built technologies. All of the required technology and technique could be developed gradually and incrementally, arousing less attention and opposition. Incrementalism would extend to longer and longer stays aboard, which brings us back to the aforementioned “college town at sea” concept.

Universities sailing the Seven Seas

Students at universities normally stay for a period of a few years before moving on, making college programs an ideal length of time between the longest cruises now, such as Cunard’s three-month round-the-world cruise, and permanent residency. Even better, study-abroad programs have exploded in popularity and desirability in recent decades; a student on a ship that sailed overseas could study abroad while taking the whole university with him, a convenience unknown to today’s students. Such a college ship could either stay at ports in a specific country long term, to deeply immerse the students in a particular culture, or (more likely) cruise around the world, exposing students to a wide diversity of cultures and countries over the course of their degree program.

While this might seem far out, there is some precedent for this concept in the form of the Semester at Sea program; while imitators have not been able to financially support themselves, and it is as the name suggests only one semester long instead of a whole degree program, it does demonstrate the viability of the concept. Existing cruises also offer some education of the more informal sort, such as dance classes. Informal education probably also takes place in the form of rich passengers paying tutors or instructors to come aboard with their children. These existing practices may be gradually intensified into something resembling the “educational community at sea” concept, particularly if the “anti-college”, to use Molly Worthen’s term in her fascinating New York Times article covering the concept, continues its explosive rise as a social trend, likely complementing un-schooling.

Our seaborne Future?

A more informal program might be more competitive. Consider that Cunard’s 2021 Around the World voyage, which lasts for 97 nights at a stretch, costs $15000; 97 nights is, interestingly, comparable to the length of a semester. While the voyage is only offered annually, a per-semester cost of $15000 is actually much cheaper than the top 10 most expensive American colleges, which average $30000 per semester. The amenities at these colleges are also greatly inferior to those of a luxury cruise. Even if there were a one-to-one student to teacher ratio, thus doubling the cost for the student, it would still come to about the same cost as the most expensive colleges.

At this point going on a semester-equivalent cruise at sea with your own teacher actually looks like a better financial value (especially considering the better level of service you get) than going to an expensive college. This may actually be a broad trend among the most inflated goods and services, since assisted living is as of 2017 cheaper to get through a cruise ship than a regular assisted living facility. Additionally, some have found it cheaper in places like San Francisco and New York to live on a boat offshore than to buy or rent housing on land. When living permanently at sea is cheaper and offers better financial value than equivalent spots on land, as appears to actually be happening now, the problem of developing seasteading techniques almost takes care of itself. The future may be much more seaborne than even most seasteading advocates suspect.

To bring this seaborne future into being on even a college-town scale might take bigger ships than we have today, though existing ships would be sufficient to begin the process. The largest cruise ships today are built for 6000 or so passengers, which is easily large enough to hold a college; Harvard University, for example, has an undergraduate population around this number. A new ship of this size costs around $1 billion, which sounds like a lot, but such an investment would be very affordable for the wealthiest colleges. Given a trend of college ships, the already-evident trend for the largest cruise ships to increase in size would accelerate. Much larger ships than we have today are technically feasible and affordable if there were economic demand for them.

A Nuclear Future for Vehicular Communities

This only increases the case to use nuclear reactors, as opposed to diesel engines, as the power source. Nuclear power is well-suited to oceangoing vessels, since seawater provides effectively free coolant for the cheapest and simplest reactor types; the largest cruise ships are well within the displacement range where the Navy employs nuclear power very successfully, and if not for the political controversy large cruise ships would probably already be nuclear-powered, considering that the power density is almost surely superior enough to diesel to make it economical. The superiority of nuclear becomes more pronounced at larger ship sizes, and past a certain point will become the only power source capable of moving the ship fast enough to accomplish reasonable travel objectives.

The general concept of a college ship or “vehicular seastead” could be extended to airships or zeppelins, which can technically be scaled up to sizes similar to large cruise ships. Zeppelins have the advantage of being capable of going over land as opposed to being confined to water, and aircraft have the same “choose a jurisdiction while over the high seas” advantage as oceangoing vessels. Zeppelins, like ships at sea, can be nuclear-powered, and the larger the zeppelin the more nuclear makes sense.

Nuclear airplanes are another possibility. Although it might seem crazy to some, nuclear power enables planes to be permanently airborne since refueling is obviated, and can power very large aircraft. As early as the 1970s a 5000-ton nuclear-powered airplane was considered economically feasible, sporting a 500-foot-long fuselage and harboring over 800 crew members. Modern reactor technology could easily support a somewhat larger version, which would provide more than enough room to hold a small college.

Trains of some sort are another possibility, considering their amenities today can rival airplanes or cruise ships, but would probably not be competitive. Submarines are also not likely to prove competitive, except perhaps for communities that wish to remain stealthy for whatever reason. Another exception might be for underwater hotels that become educational communities; a mobile version that, say, cruises around picturesque coral reef areas, is rather easy to envision. The most likely alternative to ships over the long term would be using the same concept with spaceships or spaceplanes.

Toward a roving Faculty

Nuclear or not, cruise ship or not, another interesting aspect of this vision is that a college ship would be well-positioned to serve a variety of locations, as the faculty would physically be present in a variety of locations and close to students in a variety of regions over the course of a given year. This would fit in very well with online or extension schooling, since it would grant students attached to the college ship online close access to in-person instruction at least part of the year without having to leave their home regions. This may also provide more flexibility for the students on board, as they could hop on or hop off the ship intermittently at various ports, continuing the rest of their education remotely, even if it erodes the full-time seasteading aspect of the program. On the other hand, it might attract students to come on board, as committing to a shorter voyage but with the flexibility to continue for years would be a less intimidating prospect.

There might even be different classes of students: the hardcore students staying on board for the duration, and softcore students who would hop on or off and mostly get their education remotely. Naturally the softcore group would be charged less, as they would be taking up less expensive resources of the organization. This would also encourage, among other things, social mixing, especially between nationalities.

It also might be possible to combine functions; for instance, recreational passengers might sail with the collegiate passengers. This technique may be particularly useful in the earlier stages, as any collegiate cruise ship might start out as a unit on board a normal recreational cruise ship before expanding enough to rate (and be able to afford) its own dedicated vessel. This is often done today, albeit with buildings instead of vessels, in the informal sphere of education, particularly in the physical disciplines.

Navigating the Accreditation Minefield

Admittedly this post has drawn little distinction between the formal and informal variants of this concept, when they would have significant differences. The informal version would be easier and cheaper to deploy, but would suffer from not granting the students an accredited bachelor’s degree, unlike a regular college. The formal version might drive up cost by introducing much bureaucracy that would defeat much of the point of the exercise.

A compromise between these two versions would be keeping the informal character of the actual education but outsourcing the accreditation, perhaps by officially endorsing the “bachelor’s degree by examination” technique. This is combining CLEP and DSST examinations, among others, to test out of not only a few introductory courses but the entirety of a bachelor’s degree by proving the student has the requisite knowledge. Almost every college has some residency requirement to graduate, but there are a few, the so-called “Big Three”, Excelsior College, Charter Oak State University, and Thomas Edison State University, that have no residency requirement.

This technique, when used to graduate from these universities, has the advantage of not requiring any class attendance, and so enables graduation in as little as several months if one already has the knowledge required to get a bachelor’s degree. Competency-based online instruction, such as that offered by Western Governors University, is the only other offering in higher education that can compare to this. These two techniques, degree by examination and online competency-based instruction, are the cheapest methods of obtaining a bachelors degree, running no more than $10000 for a degree, often much less. That amounts to no more than $1200 per semester, a trivial addition to the price of an informal-higher-education luxury cruise with costs comparable to the most expensive colleges. This would be similar in principle to how otherwise unaccredited high school programs, usually home-based educations, sometimes accredit their education by earning a GED.

Conclusion

There are many aspects to such a system, from whether or not to outsource the accreditation process to how the admissions process would work, but the more social implications such a vision would inspire as well as render possible, and how various social models and visions would impact the attractiveness of the program and serve as a draw, is a topic for another post. This post has gone over the basic concepts concerning the educational ship in relation to seasteading and trends in contemporary society, which is needed before we get into the details of implementation, or even lovely visions of it.

The inspiration for the concept was a March 2019 tweet by Alrenous, where he pointed out a workable application of seasteading was to site a university on a cruise ship to avoid (inevitable in his view) government meddling in its instruction. I would add that an excellent example of this would be Central European University leaving Hungary after the government stripped it of some of its accreditation powers; while the move was successful even without Central European University following the seastead model, it’s easy to imagine that leaving Hungary (or an equivalent country, since Hungary is landlocked) would have been far easier, simpler, and cheaper if the university was already mobile to begin with. If it were under a different country’s flag, it would have been even more difficult to interfere with their powers at all, even leaving out the leverage the university ship would have by sailing to a friendlier port. That encapsulates the power of this concept.

With the cruise ship business at a low ebb due to the twin blows of the coronavirus pandemic and the greatest deliberately state-inflicted economic depression in history, buying cruise ships or even an entire cruise liner company is now likely within the reach of an interested multi-billionaire, a well-endowed private equity firm or investment fund, or a combination of less-well-endowed entities. If any of these people or groups have interest in implementing such a strategy as I have outlined here, now would be an excellent time to amass the required assets.

Even better, there is now, for obvious reasons, an explosion of interest in online and to a lesser extent unconventional education, which meshes very well with some aspects of the concept outlined in this post. Better still, the advent of “lockdowns” as acceptable policy even across the (supposedly) liberal democratic world means that mobility is a much more valuable asset to any college (or frankly any organization) that doesn’t want to be shuttered at the whim of their host government than most suspected. Siting yourself on a ship erects logistical barriers to any government that wishes to send you home, since the ship is your home. Conveniently, ships are much easier to quarantine, at least while they’re at a port, than any land-based structure, offering the chance that security against disease for the inhabitants may actually be improved. This may prove a draw in the future. Governments have isolated ships as a unit rather than disembarking everyone one-by-one and isolating them on land, meaning that a college situated on a ship would likely have been able to continue operating normally while under forced isolation, unlike any land-based institution.

If one thinks of seasteading and these vehicular communities or organizations as a continuum rather than a binary choice, we see that the line of thinking we have explored in this post is not only quite realistic, it is very relevant in our time. Opportunities await.

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