The New Utopias

When the bus dropped off Paolo Soleri in the dusty Sonoran Desert, the young architect took a long look around at the stucco-shaded sand, jagged mountains and thick saguaro cacti waving back at him, all seemingly un- disturbed for millenia. He was totally lost, but couldn’t be happier.

Just twenty-two years old and knowing hardly any English, Soleri left his war-torn native Italy in the late 1940s to study under Frank Lloyd Wright at the radical architecture school Taliesin West—about seventy miles south of Phoenix, Arizona, where he thought this bus was taking him. But within the de- sert’s infinite and motionless expanse—a sublime tranquility that would be broken by the roaring Interstate 17 constructed just a few years later—Soleri conjured a vision of a future utopia freed from the sprawling capitalistic car crash of modern life. When Soleri finally returned to the desert almost thirty years later, the city of Arcosanti was born. With a planned population of 50,000 self-selected disciples, it would fundamen- tally rewire the way we work, learn and live together.

A half-century later, the dream of Arcosanti has dried up. With only 4% of its master plan completed and no new buildings finished since the 1980s, Arcosanti struggles to retain its 100-ish residents, many of whom are of the same stock: white, university-educated, middle class Americans. In conversation, Arcosanti dwellers are quick to release a fervent, almost reflexive fixation with Paolo Soleri, despite the fact that few ever met him (he died in 2013). There is no real attach- ment to the little desert oasis; I learn from one dweller that the average retention rate is a few months, and that most plan to return to reality after their gap year pouring bronze in the desert.

Barring this issue, there was always trou- ble in paradise. Sexual abuse ran rampant in the new Eden of Arcosanti; Soleri was a notorious womanizer, and out in the desert, his behavior went unchecked for decades. The architect’s life-long abuse of power—like so many “male geniuses” who continue to treat their creative talent like a “get out of jail free” card—ruined lives then dissolved like a mirage, until his daughter Daniela smashed the utopian idealism of Acrosanti’s past in an open letter from 2017, even as its Board of Trustees remained tight-lipped.
Deeply faulted as it is, Arcosanti can teach us a lot today. The powerful cocktail of es- capism, near-delirious optimism and dark dystopianism that characterized the global post-war mood fueled Soleri’s desire to con- struct a new society from the blank slate of the desert. It takes on a new significance as our contemporary condition has grown to mirror it.

Sure, there’s a different set of concerns, the most immediate being climate change. But the core idea championed by Soleri—namely, that a self-initiated colony of enlightened indi- viduals could take up residence in a previous- ly uninhabited place, create new society and live their best lives outside the regulations and fuck-ups of the old world—has found an unexpected bedfellow in neoliberal tech empires. In their efforts to stake out a safe haven for themselves and their capital, Bit- coin billionaires are laying claim to both land and sea. Here, in the depths of the desert, they will build their ultra-lucrative utopias that seem to defy the very real conditions of our time. And nothing—not even a form of neocolonialism—will stop it.

Seasteading is the idea of creating perma- nent dwellings at sea, called seasteads, that exist outside any governmentally owned ter- ritory. By operating through the blockchain, seasteaders dream of a total divorce from all pre-existing government and financial insti- tutions—a distinctly libertarian approach to the emergent technology of cryptocurrency. The movement caught wind in 2009—just as the rest of the world was reeling in the larg- est economic crisis since World War II—when Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, teamed up with Patri Friedman (the son of free-market, anti-federal government economist Milton Friedman) to found The Seasteading Institute. The guiding principle of seasteading is the creation of artificial islands that can serve as both a material and political blank slate on which seasteaders’ city-state fantasies could take root. Seasteaders advocate a contra- dictory set of ambitions. On its website, the Seasteading Institute makes its ambitions as clear as day: these floating islands will “feed the hungry, clean the atmosphere, cure the sick, and enrich the poor.” But after speak- ing to Nathalie Garcia-Mezza, a researcher, spokeswoman, and self-termed “Seavange- lesse” of leading seasteading company Blue Frontiers, it became very clear that only a particular type of person will be admitted into the company’s first seastead.

“Anyone with a past criminal record or his- tory of any mental disorder will not be able to apply, in the safety of all residents,” explains Garcia-Mezza. Applicants will also be sub- ject to an IQ and health test to ensure they are a “good fit” for the future community— assuming they can afford to purchase real estate on the island. Although Garcia-Mezza won’t disclose figures, she hints at an entry- level price tag of around $1 million. Short- ly after our conversation in summer 2018, the agreement between Blue Frontiers and French Polynesia—the “flag nation” for this $50 million, 300-home artificial island—was abruptly terminated, following protests and mass opposition from citizens. Blue Fron- tiers is currently offering a $100,000 bounty (as well as $60 million in future investment capital) to any government willing to take its pilot island onboard.

Given the legal quagmire of building an arti- ficial island on international waters, libertar- ian desires framing the seasteading initiative have mutated into a different strategy: colo- nizing islands ravaged by natural disaster. In 2017, Hurricane Maria blew through Costa Rica, inflicting $91.61 billion of damage and killing 3,000 people, making it the most dam- aging natural disaster in the country’s his- tory. Amid the appallingly sluggish aid from Trump’s administration, opportunistic inves- tors swooped in with a proposition. Housing a number of “disruptive” summits to set the mood (including “Puerto Crypto” and “Hack Democracy” in the summer of 2018), these high net worth cryptocurrency speculators want to recast the territory as “Puertopia”: a libertarian utopia based on the blockchain and distinctly tax-tree, led by techno-spirit- ualist American billionaire Brock Pierce, the current President of the Bitcoin Foundation.

The Puertopia project found an unlikely bed- fellow in the grassroots-led activist organi- zations that rose out of the carnage of Ma- ria, which to many Puerto Ricans became a catalyst to restructure their country from the ground-up. Naomi Klein dissected this seem- ingly contradictory collaboration in a long- read published on The Intercept last year: “In a sense both are utopian projects,” says Klein. “One dream is grounded in a desire for people to exercise collective sovereignty over their land, energy, food, and water; the other in a desire for a small elite to secede from the reach of government altogether.”

Citing the vast imbalance between the resi- dential Bitcoin billionaires and a territory that, for over a year after the hurricane struck, struggled to provide clean water and elec- tricity for its people, we can understand the Puertopia project as a type of neocolonialism. Rooted in the basic structure of colonialism— a subject territory entirely dependent on its ruling state, whether that be the US govern- ment or Bitcoin bros—Puertopia pushed forward its mission through the pressure- grinder of disaster capitalism, in which the blatant exploitation of the territory’s contin- ued state of emergency made it so hard for them to resist these advances, no matter how destructive they would inevitably be.

In 2017, amid the spike of Crypto capital en- tering Puerto Rico (it mushroomed from $191 million to $3.3 billion almost overnight), No- ble Bank International, a financial institution based in San Juan, teamed up with Pierce and co., who sought to open the world’s first cryptocurrency bank in the Puerto Rican capital. In late 2018, when the cryptocurrency market tanked worldwide, Noble collapsed. The bank is now seeking sale, and it is ex- pected to make $5-10 million—hardly a dent in Puerto Rico’s current $70 billion debt.

It’s impossible to understand the warped eth- ics behind these eternal boy playgrounds: the billionaire Bitcoin bros (and yes, they are mostly men) seem to have dislocated their profit-driven utopias from the damage they cause to already-devastated nations. And while seasteads are the elemental opposite of Soleri’s desert paradise, they share their origin in the desert and the seductive sym- bolism of its infinite expanse.

Seasteading Institute Director Randolph Hencken and President Joe Quirk are proud attendees of the desert festival Burning Man, which is increasingly viewed by the tech elite as the perfect model for their neoliberal new world order. “Burning Man is to tech entre- preneurs what the Protestant Church was to industrial manufacturers,” Silicon Valley ex- pert and Stanford Professor Fred Turner told Futurity in an interview. Equating the playa— the seven-mile plot of land in the bone-white expanse of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert upon which 65,000 “burners” descend each year to create a temporary city—to the spiritual- ized business model of the church, Turner suggests the event is a valuable “time off” for Silicon Valley alphas to engineer their own projects.

But this vacation ritual cuts deeper, becom- ing a delusional training ground for the rich and powerful to plot out new colonies on land and sea. New offshoots like Further Fu- ture, advertised as the “Burning Man for the 1%,” make tech networking its primary goal. With a structure roughly resembling the in- tended set-up of 2018’s now-infamous Fyre Fest, attendees fork over thousands for lux- ury accommodation on fifty acres of Native American land for a festival that intends to be equally educational and transformation- al, complete with Michelin-level food, invited speakers, spa treatments and yoga.

Every gathering is a chance to start fresh in a collective fantasy that is equally self-moti- vated, echoing the luxury nomadism of seast- eaders, who could simply detach and float off to a different island if their current residence is not for them. Through their transformative experiences at Burning Man, many tech bil- lionaires have returned to the desert to stake out new riches and novel ways of living. In 2018, Jeffrey Berns, millionaire ex-lawyer and CEO of Blockchains LLC, snapped up 7,000 acres of land in northern Nevada for $170 mil- lion. More recently, he has unveiled plans to build Sandbox City, a cryptocurrency-based smart city in the desert, and has already put $300 million toward the initiative.

The city, which looks like a fusion between Arcosanti and the futuristic metropolis en- visioned by Blade Runner, will run entirely on blockchain technology. The masterplan, while not yet finalized, will include a futuris- tic Blockchains LLC Campus with artificial intelligence, 3D printing, nanotechnology, self-driving cars, and delivery drones, as well thousands of residential units, com- merce and business opportunities. Barring the cryptocurrency element, it’s akin to your average mixed-use urban development, only in the desert. And distinctly unlike seastead- ing, it’s intended to be an inclusive environ- ment, offering both communal and single- family residences.

“The goal of integrating blockchain technology into the city is to keep systems honest, fair and democratic,” explain the architects, Tom Wiscombe Architecture and EYRC. There’s still some knots in the system—like how the city will reconcile its renewable energy ethos with the environmental impact of cryptocur- rency (mining Bitcoin consumes more energy than 160 countries, and the jury is still out on whether renewable energy sources can mitigate this damage), or enable its walkable, anti-car lifestyle in the heat of the high de- sert—but it is a step in the right direction, and hints that the desert might be a better place to start than unregulated international waters.

As the effects of climate change continue to unfold, with deforestation and desertification turning the earth’s forests into arid waste- lands as rising oceans reclaim the cities we have built, the desert and the ocean have been reframed by techno-capitalists as the next frontier for human life. Romanticized as sites of pure, untainted nature, these land- scapes become spaces of unchecked neolib- eral desire, dislocated from reality and blind to the precarity of our collective future.

As illustrated by the situation in Puerto Rico, this desire wreaks havoc on anything real it touches. The purist techno-utopia enter- tained by seasteaders and crypto-colonialists is in fact an incredibly violent type of cultural cleansing that ostracizes all but a select few. If we want to make it out of this century alive, we can’t treat survival as a luxury only af- forded by the tech elite. We need to embrace the contaminated human systems we’ve pro- duced and fit them into the masterplan. Oth- erwise, they will end up consuming us, if by land or by sea.

(Published on: Kaleidoscope Magazine )