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Startup Societies: Laboratories of Innovation
Preston Martin   Feb 25, 2016   Ethical Technology  

Never before in recorded history have humans navigated our daily lives with such ease. The technology we use daily, much of which has been produced in the recent past, has opened the floodgates of possibility for human potential. Unfortunately, this convenience has not been extended across the board, and some fields have resisted innovation. In particular, there is a unique kind of administrative technology, hundreds of years old, which has stayed relatively fixed and yet still affects almost everyone. I am of course referring to the technology of governance.

This post is a general response to Woody Evans’ recent article: ‘Against Transhuman Separatism’

States are operating largely in the same manner they were a century ago, and when compared to, say, blockchains or high functioning prosthetics, they are appearing increasingly inefficient. While other fields such as transportation, communication, healthcare, agriculture etc. have improved at the rate of their technological growth, governance has remained nearly unchanged. What’s almost more interesting is that this observation is no longer just held by a libertarian minority, but is increasingly becoming the view of a growing majority on both the left and the right. Within the American political framework, two party outsiders, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, are experiencing success in the polls. Of course, we all might angrily disagree as to how governance can or should be altered, but it is clear that many more people believe that now is a time for some reform.

Despite this demand for new policy, it is highly unlikely that we will see much of a shift in the governance of a nation-state through its own electoral process. Statistically, in a country of millions, it requires a large investment of both one’s time and money to even affect the political outcome. Even so, competing special interests within government are often enough to mitigate that contribution and maintain the status quo. Moreover, even if you could pass a potentially radical new policy in your country, there is no guarantee that its implementation would actually benefit the country and its people. Such change carries risk. So, if there are inherent barriers to testing new, potentially beneficial policies in our own nation-states, how can we improve our technology of governance? One solution comes in the form of Startup Societies.

A startup society is any new or augmented society that attempts to develop its own jurisdictional autonomy, ranging from private cities to entirely new countries. If we want to determine whether or not a new policy or technology is advantageous or not, it is better to first test it on the local level. Startup societies provide us the opportunity to experiment with policies considered too radical or risky for large countries. In this way, startup societies can function as diverse laboratories for experimental forms of government, economics, and technology. In other words, it is likely that such societies could naturally become hubs for the development of transhumanism. Woody Evans’ recent article outlined a number of concerns about these societies and their potentially negative implications for transhumanism. He assumed particularly that these societies would become isolationist and reactionary, havens for potentially chaotic libertines, or even the spawning grounds for religious extremism.

From the start, this characterization is not entirely accurate. Some new societies may in fact be seeking isolation. However, most of the groups and organizations behind the development of startup societies want to foster prosperous new cities and regions, even countries. To do so they are actually encouraging productive immigration (see Fort Galt, Liberland). I contend that  delusional/extreme/violent groups might seek to create their own polities as well, but it is quite unlikely that other cities and countries would even consider supporting or condoning their actions (see Islamic State). Should we shun all startup societies because some extremists try to carve out their own territory somewhere? I don’t think so.

Evans specifically warns that transhumanism in a startup society could actually hurt the endeavor as a whole, by negatively casting transhumanist separatists as the unacceptable outcasts. If this were to happen, he contends, transhumanism would remain on the fringe and never be able to permeate throughout greater society. For the most part, I agree that it is possible that transhumanism in a startup society could become stigmatized by the rest of the world at some point. I do not believe, however, that this would in any way prevent people outside of a startup society from accepting and adopting transhumanism. Luddites in Mississippi won’t care if you’re implanting RFIDs in your arm on a seastead or in Jackson, they’ll probably be suspicious of you regardless. If it can truly improve their lives, and can be produced at the right costs, then people will pursue it. Not so long ago, cell phones were a futuristic luxury of the very rich, and after relatively short period of time, you can now find them in the hands of millions, throughout all layers of human society. A bigger issue is the great number of implications which can stem from the rapid spread of transhumanism. It has the potential to forever alter human life. It’s risky to hope for the best without the proper vetting of such technology and its effects on a society. If we are able to test transhumanism on the local level, before it might be widely available, we could get a better grasp of how it affects society as a whole. 

The main advantage of these startup societies is to experiment with alternative approaches to governance. The strategies of each new polity are either unlikely to be implemented by a larger, more centralized state. Some may consider implementing a universal basic income, and others opt to provide jurisdictions with little to no commercial regulation. As the number of startup societies grow, so will their technological, economic, and demographical diversity. Ideally, this startup culture would inspire competition amongst the new societies for the most productive citizens (customers). New polities open up fresh avenues for experimentation, providing the benefit of empirically testing technology to optimize for further use.

Of course, the historical ancestors of these new societies have taken many different shapes and have certainly varied in terms of their success or failure. Examples include accomplished societies from the city-states of classical Greece, to modern cities such as Hong Kong or Macau. They also include dramatic failures like Operation Atlantis or the Republic of Minerva. Many of these groups have indeed ‘played pirates’ as Evans suggests in his article, and, of course, there will always be ridiculous attempts to create new micro nations. They have undoubtedly been farfetched and added little value to the world. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the serious projects at the other end of this spectrum. The potential for valuable experimentation and innovation among new societies is vast and, like transhumanism, it should be scientifically pursued to further both prosperity and liberty.


Preston Martin was raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia, and has since lived and studied in both the D.C. metropolitan area and the UK. Now based in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is a Director at the International Coalition for Human Action and one of the founders of the Startup Societies Summit. His areas of interest include international relations, Western history, sociology and transhumanism


Preston, good points here.  I think the strongest and most resonant argument is that startup societies can run tests at the local level—including test runs of some transhuman experiments; this seems to be a direct descendant of the “laboratories for democracy” that the early federal government in the US meant for their component states to be.

I imagine more of this will be developed at the conference in July, but another immediate concern for some of these societies will be the response of the state if they are perceived to be truly independent… secession isn’t legal, after all.  Thoughts? —Woody

Other than those that are explicitly attempting to claim their own sovereignty, such as Liberland, most startup societies will be operating with the blessing of a host nation. The relationship will have to be a symbiotic one, otherwise we can’t expect the host to agree in the first place.

Thankfully, we can point to the recent success of China’s special economic zones (SEZs), which were first were declared along the Chinese coast in the 1980s. Pretty much everyone knows that China’s economy quickly expanded when they adopted capitalism, but when you really look at how this was done, you can see that it began in the SEZs. They looked at the success of Hong Kong, and, starting with 4 cities, began creating what were basically localized free market enclaves. Now there are over 3000 SEZs in China and they have the second largest economy in the world.

As long as startup societies follow through as hubs of economic development for the host country, it follows that they will be less likely to crack down on their autonomy. Of course, this is definitely still a valid concern, especially depending on the host.

The Italian Renaissance was a model of achieving in a micro-city-state with macro results. As for this rebirthing of trans-humans [neo-hippies] they will if successful probably fly off the handle. So far micro-communities have not done much of anything. The mentally challenged religious types invert their intelligence, the neo-hippies perfected new-age-naval-gazing. The most dynamic model is still the city state. It is the nation-state that has become a problem given global rivalries which may vaporize if we scale down our ego’s as well. However what we cannot predict is as the man said: the shock of the new.

Just to clarify for Woody, we never claim to be independent of the state down here at Fort Galt. We’re just building an intentional community for entrepreneurs and their families. We’re still entirely subject to Chilean law and harbor no beliefs to the contrary. I look forward to the day when we can transcend state control but that’s a more long term goal that shouldn’t be confused with our little project down here… and in regards to transhumanist research, I know there are a few of us here, including me, that are very interested in the subject and I’m sure that planty of related experimentation will be commencing in our tech shop over the years to come.

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