Chasing Utopia, Startup Style

A group of Silicon Valley’s most powerful figures are building startup societies that they believe will set them free.

Carolina Moscoso for Noema Magazine

Lily Lynch is a foreign affairs writer and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine.

In April 2018, the Thai navy towed a strange white box to shore. Octagonal in shape and around 20 feet across, it was made of fiberglass and sat atop a 65-foot-long steel pillar. It had been found floating about 12 nautical miles off the coast of Phuket. But this was no ordinary detritus of the sea. The Thai authorities feared it posed a threat to the country’s very sovereignty.

By the time Thai sailors climbed aboard the box, its previous inhabitants had fled. For about three months, the pod had periodically been inhabited by an eccentric bitcoin investor, an American software engineer named Chad Elwartowski, and his partner, Supranee “Nadia Summergirl” Thepdet.

Authorities accused the couple of “intent to cause injury to the nation,” a crime punishable by life imprisonment or death. Dodging the authorities, they fled before they could be taken into custody. The couple maintained that their home — which they called a “seastead” — had been outside Thailand’s territorial waters, but the government insisted it “reveals the intention of disobeying the laws of Thailand … and could lead to a creation of a new state within Thailand’s territorial waters.” Thai authorities worried that the pair in the box were part of a cult and that they intended to build a full-fledged floating community at sea. 

Shortly before the box was towed to shore, Elwartowski posted a message on Facebook, which is no longer available but was widely quoted in media at the time: “I was free for a moment. Probably the freest person in the world. It was glorious.” For Elwartowski, life on the seastead  was supposed to be like inhabiting the utopia of Galt’s Gulch in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.”

“Seasteading” is a utopian, libertarian-inflected vision of creating floating communities at sea beyond the tentacles of the state. The movement’s most prominent organization is the Seasteading Institute, which aims to “reimagin[e] civilization with floating communities” and was founded by none other than economist and free market evangelist Milton Friedman’s grandson, Patri Friedman.

The younger Friedman, a former coder at Google, received his seed funding from Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal and the spy tech firm Palantir, to start the institute. As Thiel pronounced at the time: “The nature of government is about to change at a very fundamental level.”

Silicon Valley tech barons have set their sights on new frontiers for human life. In addition to Thiel’s dream of floating communities at sea, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos talk about colonizing space. Balaji Srinivasan and Marc Andreessen call for the territorialization of online communities into so-called network states or “start-up societies.” 

All these aspirations are rooted in a desire to withdraw from existing polities and to escape their high taxes, regulations and the disorder of liberal democracy. It’s a yearning for new forms of self-governance and citizenship. In other words, they are political exit projects. And while the network states illuminate some real problems — the failure of nation-states to respond adequately to 21st-century crises, disintegrating social cohesion, the epidemic of loneliness — they also create new ones.

In 2009, economist Paul Romer proposed a similar concept: the charter city. Modeled on Hong Kong, he believed it would be an engine of wealth and innovation. In a 2009 TED talk, he suggested that China’s rise could be attributed to the creation of “special economic zones” like Shenzhen, where the government of Deng Xiaoping introduced special tax benefits for foreign investors in the 1980s.

Romer believed that new Shenzhens and Hong Kongs were waiting in the wings; they were a model that could be replicated almost anywhere, creating pockets of prosperity through low taxes and cheap labor, particularly in the Global South. Romer insisted this was not a new form of colonialism. “The thing that was bad about colonialism … is that it involved elements of coercion and condescension. This model is all about choices,” he explained in his TED talk. “And, choice is the antidote to coercion and condescension.” 

Not all were convinced. Writing in The Baffler in 2012, author Belén Fernández quipped: “It’s … safe to assume that, were the Chinese to build a charter city in half of Paul Romer’s house and give him the option of living in the other half of it, he might well be hailing this incursion as something other than an ‘antidote to coercion and condescension.’”

“‘I was free for a moment. Probably the freest person in the world. It was glorious.’”
— Chad Elwartowski

That same year, Thiel voiced his belief that exiting the tyranny of centralized government could be facilitated by a proliferation of new countries around the world. “If we want to increase freedom, we want to increase the number of countries,” he explained. As Quinn Slobodian wrote in “Crack-Up Capitalism,” Thiel imagined this would discourage states from raising taxes for fear of losing resident capital to competing states.

There were other supposed benefits. “The specter of the zone and the attendant threat of capital flight serve to blackmail out of existence the remains of the social state in Western Europe and North America,” Slobodian wrote.

A State Is Born

So how does one go about creating a new country? The traditional paths — secessionist war, revolution and referendum — require bloodshed or mass voter mobilization. Srinivasan thinks he’s found a better way, which he detailed in his 2022 book “The Network State: How to Start A New Country.” 

In the foreseeable future, he wrote, countries will be created not by people of shared nationality, but by individuals with shared interests. Tomorrow’s countrymen will discover one another through online subcultures, lifestyles and niche passions (“keto kosher” is one of his suggestions), forging their initial bonds in the digital realm. Existing nation-states have become too polarized, he wrote, and people would be better off forming “aligned” communities.

Eventually, members of these aligned online networks may decide to meet in “meatspace,” or the real world. Once sufficient rapport has been built, they may acquire territory together, possibly through crowdfunding. And after they have acquired territory, they may seek official recognition from existing nation-states. Finally, a network state must establish or adopt cryptocurrency and partake in “an on-chain census” on its blockchain, which proponents say promotes trust in data since it cannot be altered or reversed. Run the state like a startup, in other words, with a simple formula: “cloud first, land last.” Out of the digital ether, a state is born. 

In Srinivasan’s imagination, a network state reconceptualizes statehood altogether. Network states would be decentralized and borderless, permitting citizens to move easily between “nodes” in various locations around the world. It’d be more like a “network archipelago” — not “physically centralized like a nation-state, nor limited in scale like a city-state. It’s geographically decentralized and connected by the internet.” 

The basic underlying philosophy here is not entirely new. In the 1997 book “The Sovereign Individual,” conservative authors Lord William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson argued that the 21st century would spell the death of the nation-state. They also predicted that most work performed by the so-called “cognitive elite” would soon be conducted online. This development would render the individual — rather than the state — sovereign.

“Anyone with a portable computer and a satellite link will be able to conduct almost any information business anywhere,” they wrote. “You will no longer be obliged to live in a high-tax jurisdiction in order to earn high income … the nation-state as we know it will not endure in anything like its present form.” Perhaps knowledge of this threat will be a constraining factor on the growth of remote work.

Island Whales

Forty miles out into the Caribbean from Honduras is a 48-mile-long slice of tropical heaven. The island of Roatán was a frequent stop for European colonialists exploring Central America and later was a haven for pirates. Today, it hosts the most firmly established network state in the corporeal world, a burgeoning Thiel-backed community called Próspera. There are private villas, an 18-hole golf course, a residential apartment complex, restaurants and a Bitcoin Education Center, where patrons can learn how to buy and sell cryptocurrency that they can use to purchase food and drinks with at its cafe. There’s even a drone delivery service and an experimental biotech clinic. 

But all is not well in paradise. The Silicon Valley secessionists are currently embroiled in a vicious legal battle with the government of their host state. Próspera is suing the Honduran government for $11 billion. 

The origins of the legal battle, and of Próspera itself, date back to 2009, when the left-wing government of Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a coup aided by the United States. He was replaced by Porfirio Lobo, whose rise to power was enabled not only by Washington but by eye-watering sums of narco-trafficker cash. As Slobodian wrote, Lobo’s new government was comprised of slick young economists who were graduates of elite U.S. universities; they were amenable to gimmicks promising innovation and quick fixes. This made them the perfect ideological partner for Romer, whom they contacted after watching one of his charter cities talks online.

“‘Were the Chinese to build a charter city in half of Paul Romer’s house and give him the option of living in the other half of it, he might well be hailing this incursion as something other than an ‘antidote to coercion and condescension.’”
— Belen Fernandez

By the end of 2010, the government of Honduras had signed on to make their country “the site of an economic experiment.” This experiment would result in the creation of the ZEDE, or Zone for Employment and Economic Development, an administrative subdivision in Honduras. ZEDEs have been described by critics as “sanctuaries for exploitation” and havens for crime and corruption. They are permitted their own internal security agencies, prisons and intelligence services, as well as their own political, judicial and education systems. Honduran law, however, still applies.

In 2021, the United Nations Honduras representatives expressed concern that ZEDEs might pose a threat to the human rights of Afro-Indigenous people, whose territories could be expropriated to create or expand ZEDEs if they lacked an official land title. Honduran sociologist Pablo Carías has said that ZEDEs recall the land concessions awarded to companies like the United Fruit Company for its exploitative banana plantations a century ago — a history that gave rise to the pejorative term “banana republic.”

ZEDEs also boast no import and export taxes and business-friendly regulations. Lobo left office in 2014, and his replacement, Juan Orlando Hernández, who this year was convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy and sentenced to at least 40 years in prison, became an enthusiastic promoter of the charter city model. 

The ZEDEs infuriated many Hondurans, who opposed ceding their territory to so-called crypto colonialists or blockchain colonialists. Scholar Olivier Jutel has used the term “blockchain colonialism” to describe a process that “advances with a humanitarian face, taking advantage of a desire for technological development and a regulatory weakness among developing world governments.” 

The backlash galvanized a national movement. As a result, the government had anticipated future controversy and was clever enough to embed the ZEDE legal framework within internationally binding agreements. Future Honduran governments would face legal action if they attempted to abolish them.

And that’s exactly what has happened.

In 2021, the leftist leader Xiomara Castro was elected president. Once in office, she made good on her campaign promise to repeal the ZEDEs law that had allowed for Próspera’s foundation. However, the repeal process has been complicated. Shortly after Congress partially approved the repeal in 2022, Próspera went to the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) to try to force Castro to comply with the Hernandez-era policies. The ICSID has received extensive criticism from the governments of developing countries for alleged corporate bias, such as privileging foreign companies over states.

Próspera is suing Honduras for nearly $11 billion, or roughly a third of the country’s GDP. But Castro has not been cowed. Earlier this year, Honduras announced that it would be withdrawing from the ICSID. 

Abundance & Vitality

One of Próspera’s investors is Pronomos Capital, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm with a self-described mission “to build prosperous cities that grow to empower entire nations.” Pronomos has raised more than $13 million from Silicon Valley giants including Thiel, Srinivasan and Andreesen. The founder of Pronomos Capital? None other than The Seasteading Institute’s Patri Friedman. 

One of Pronomos’s numerous other projects is Praxis, a planned metropolis in a yet-to-be-named Mediterranean country that bills itself as “the first internet native nation.” Though still in its pre-territorial phase, it already boasts nearly 2,200 citizens worldwide as of May 2024. Praxis is “organized around the value of vitality,” and a recent video published on the startup city’s X account gives some indication as to what that means.

The video adapts its title, “Every angel is terrifying,” from the opening stanza of Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s cycle “Duino Elegies.” A narrator quotes Nietzsche and offers a bitter account of modern life, wherein people have grown content and satiated, overmedicated on psychiatric drugs, and both history and the news are fake. Worse still, the narrator says, “contemporary media proclaims that having any ideals is fascist. Everything of conviction is fascist.”

But Praxis offers a prescription: a reembrace of values, conviction, beauty, natural hierarchy and greatness. “The great cut a path through the cobwebs of mediocrity,” the narrator tells us. “Those are the men and women who build new worlds.”

Another project in the Pronomos portfolio is Afropolitan, which aims to unite the African diaspora under the tagline “reclaim our abundance.” Afropolitan’s manifesto quotes anti-colonial icon Frantz Fanon, the spokesperson for the revolutionary group Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria — Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

The Pronomos website is filled with references and buzzwords that look lifted from the world of nonprofits and inclusive development — “human-centered governance,” “affordable housing,” “community-owned spaces,” “social impact.”

“Though not a racial project, network states represent something akin to a 21st-century form of ‘white flight’ — the previous century’s mass migration of middle-class whites from blighted urban areas to a new way of life in suburbia.”

But beyond the ostensibly progressive rhetoric is what researcher Isabelle Simpson called “cryptotrad.” Simpson’s term uses “crypto” in two ways, referring both to cryptocurrency and to “hidden” or “secret.” “Trad” is short for traditional, so “cryptotrad” describes a certain Silicon Valley conservativism: While they may seem “innovative, disruptive, and future-oriented,” Simpson noted, they in fact seek to “reaffirm and preserve ‘traditional’ and conservative Western values.”

The evangelists of the network state use the language of progress, open borders and post-nationalism, but in service of the construction of new societies where “trad” morals are protected from the perceived failings of modern nation-states. Though not a racial project, network states thus represent something akin to a 21st-century form of “white flight” — the previous century’s mass migration of middle-class whites from blighted urban areas to a new way of life in suburbia.

California Forever

Proponents of network states and crypto utopias usually focus on founding new states, but sometimes they offer “fixes” for the communities they’d leave behind. San Francisco, often invoked by tech secessionists as the epitome of liberal mismanagement, gets a lot of attention. 

Last year, Srinivasan gave a podcast interview in which he detailed how his own tech-affiliated tribe of elite “grays” — distinct from the “blue” of liberals and “red” of conservatives — could retake San Francisco, neighborhood by neighborhood. As with the network state, this “gray” tribe will forge its tribal identity on the cloud before purchasing real estate. Srinivasan emphasized that “grays” must form alliances with “red” police, who in turn will act on their behalf to protect “gray” neighborhoods from the “blue”-enabled anarchy of homelessness, drug abuse and crime. 

During a talk at Srinivasan’s network state conference in Amsterdam last year, Y Combinator CEO Gary Tan, who is leading the charge to moderate the city’s liberal politics, emphasized the need to create a parallel media network online before seizing power in the real world, citing Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter in 2022 as a victory for their tribe. The logic of the network state, in other words, can be used to create new states, but it might also be applied to taking over existing ones.

The same crowd has also set their sights on other parts of the Bay Area. Last year, the New York Times revealed that a group of Silicon Valley tycoons were behind a company called Flannery Associates that had bought farmland to build a city for some 400,000 new residents in Solano County. The investors, including luminaries like LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Marc Andreessen and Steve Jobs’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, had purchased 62,000 acres, or an area roughly the size of Sacramento.

The name of the project, along with the real estate development corporation behind it, is “California Forever,” though according to CEO Jan Sramek, this is just a placeholder name. Many reports have panned the project as a billionaire “tech utopia,” a characterization Sramek rejects. He says he wants to build “a city of yesterday,” free of the pathologies that plague contemporary California.

Srinivasan considers the Solano County development a part of his network-state idea. He alluded to it in a podcast interview last year. “What I’m really calling for is something like Tech Zionism,” he said. “And there [are] different versions of that, which are ‘reform in place’ and ‘emigrate.’ And the network state — the book — is about the bare land version of it — right? — which is already being tried. You’re seeing it in Northern California, you know, this thing, this project. You’re seeing it with Creator Cabins and Próspera and Culdesac and Praxis. You know, there’s like 50 of these projects now around the world.”

But the road to a California tech utopia has been paved with many stumbling blocks and barricades. First, California Forever requires voters’ consent before it can be built. An orderly growth ordinance enacted in 1980 forbids sprawl development on agricultural lands in Solano. California Forever is therefore seeking to modify the land-use designation through a ballot initiative in November 2024. At the end of April, California Forever submitted the requisite signatures to get it on the ballot.

Meanwhile, there have also been myriad concerns about the project itself. Some are worried about the potential strain on the county’s already scarce water supply and the destruction of habitat for several protected endangered species. Nearby Travis Air Force Base has also objected to the project, saying that the development could interfere with its flight operations. In response, earlier this year, California Forever filed an amended proposal ostensibly resolving those concerns.

“‘What I’m really calling for is something like Tech Zionism.’”
— Balaji Srinivasan

Still others have decried California Forever’s aggressive tactics. Last May, Flannery Associates filed a federal lawsuit against several dozen entities, including individual farmers and ranches, some of whom had refused to sell their land for the project. The firm has accused the landowners of violating antitrust laws by seeking to “conspire, collude, price fix, and illegally overcharge Flannery” and forming “a secret conspiracy to drive up prices.”  Flannery is seeking damages of $510 million. Earlier this spring, some landowners started settling claims.

Liberty & Loneliness

Other more modest endeavors exist in the same “archipelago” as the full-blown network state. Among these are the “pop-up city,” which is exactly what it sounds like: cities that exist for a few weeks or months at a time. Vitalik Buterin, founder of the cryptocurrency platform Ethereum, established perhaps the best known of these: Zuzalu, which was first held on the coast in Montenegro for two months in the spring of 2023. 

According to Buterin, this length of time is ideal and addresses some of the problems wrought by the post-pandemic rise of remote work. Former office dwellers have lamented that there is simply no substitute for real-life workplace interactions, no casual and spontaneous face-to-face engagements that can yield innovative breakthroughs. This year, Zuzalu will host a two-month pop-up village for up to 500 “truth seekers, builders, and sovereign individuals” in the country of Georgia.

Pop-up cities also aim to attract digital nomads. In an article for Palladium Magazine titled “Why I Built Zuzalu,” Buterin wrote that roughly a third of attendees at last year’s Zuzalu were among the approximately 17 million American workers now identifying as digital nomads. According to UN Tourism, dozens of major tourism locales offered a digital nomad visa as of November 2023. 

But the life of the unencumbered nomad dreamed of by libertarians and Silicon Valley philosophers has exacerbated another problem: loneliness. As author Oliver Burkeman wrote

‘Digital nomad’ is a misnomer — and an instructive one. Traditional nomads aren’t solitary wanderers who just happen to lack laptops; they’re intensely group-focused people who, if anything, have less personal freedom than members of settled tribes, since their survival depends on their working together successfully. … In their more candid moments, digital nomads will admit that the chief problem with their lifestyle is the acute loneliness.

Burkeman explained that the limitless freedom to work from a laptop on a Thai beach or a bar in Medellín comes with a steep cost. He recounted the story of one nomad bursting into tears while watching a family ride bikes together in a small city in Japan: His unfettered lifestyle had placed such simple joys beyond his reach. “Every gain in personal temporal freedom entails a corresponding loss in how easy it is to coordinate your time with other people’s,” he wrote. “The digital nomad’s lifestyle lacks the shared rhythms required for deep relationships to take root.”

Network states and pop-up cities are attempting to address this problem of loneliness. Próspera is joining up with North Carolina-based company, Nomad Nation to build a shared living and working “village” for remote workers. According to the Nomad Nation website, the company“live[s] at the intersection of real estate, technology and community.” The company’s Próspera project will offer digital nomads a transient social world to live in for a month or two rather than an Airbnb.

Never Die

Tech secessionists see other opportunities in the network state. They are interested in the potential of doing experimental medical research beyond the reach of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates medical products, drugs, food and cosmetics. Próspera already hosts a clinic for a start-up called Minicircle, which is focused on experimental gene therapies. In addition, the pop-up city of Vitalia, organized for the first time in Próspera this year, is now a permanent district focused exclusively on longevity.

Vitalia has been described by its organizers as an emergent “experimental biotech startup hub, crypto-augmented Special Economic Zone, and nuclear reactor of liberal governance, big brains, and disruptive ideas.” According to the Vitalia website, the Roatan hub “harbors 500+ scientists, biotech engineers, and entrepreneurs who love life and don’t want it to end.” 

Unfettered by FDA regulations, Vitalia is free of cumbersome impediments to fast-paced research like the high cost of human trials because Próspera has its own legal architecture and is a free economic zone. Vitalia can offer therapies to clients after just an initial phase of research that solely establishes safety, rather than going through the second phase, which establishes efficacy. Such lax regulations have led some to worry that Vitalia might churn out “snake oil” therapies of questionable benefit.

“‘It would have been better if ISIS came to us than the crypto community.’”
— Milan Knezevic

Bryan Johnson, the tech millionaire who spends $2 million a year on a health regime to reverse the process of aging, appeared in Vitalia this spring. Wearing a t-shirt with the slogan “never die,” Johnson told an audience that humanity was on the cusp of an “exogenous shock” and that they should “never underestimate how fast things can change.” 

This yearning for breakneck speed in innovation recalled Thiel’s idea that outside of the “narrow cone of progress around the world of bits,” scientific progress has been stalled for the past half-century. Thiel blamed what he calls “the zombie center-left establishment” for this, suggesting that they fear scientific advancement, especially technologies that have both civilian and military applications.

Crypto Colonialists

In April 2023, then-President Milo Ðjukanović of Montenegro lost a major election after decades in power, ushering in a hopeful new era for the tiny Balkan state. A new centrist party, the Europe Now Movement, took the presidency and embraced the crypto enthusiasts in their midst. Europe Now leader Milojko Spajić attended Zuzalu and had been pushing for the country to get into the business of cryptocurrency since he served as Montenegro’s finance minister in 2021. In the buildup to his big win, Spajić even convinced former prime minister Zdravko Krivokapić to grant Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin Montenegrin citizenship. 

But Montenegro’s young leadership would come to regret opening its arms to the crypto community with such unrestrained zeal. “It would be better to meet the fighters of the Islamic State — with them, at least you know what you’re in for. But you have no idea what these people are doing with cryptocurrencies,” Milan Knežević, the chairperson of the Montenegrin parliament’s Security and Defense Committee, told reporters last year. The problem wasn’t Zuzalu exactly, but the so-called king of cryptocurrency Do Kwon. 

The former magnate was arrested in Montenegro for passport fraud at Podgorica airport in March 2023. Do Kwon was found liable for civil fraud in the U.S. and faces charges in South Korea over the $40 billion crash of cryptocurrencies, Luna and TerraUSD, the so-called “stablecoin” created by his Terraform Labs. While in a Montenegrin prison in June 2023, Do Kwon allegedly wrote a letter to top Montenegrin officials, including outgoing caretaker Prime Minister Dritan Abazović of the rival green-liberal United Reform Action party, describing his “financial and business relationship” with Spajić, the man then poised to become the country’s next premier. 

Media alleged that Spajić had met with Do Kwon in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. Ahead of the 2023 parliamentary elections, Abazović attempted to portray Spajić and Europe Now as involved in shady business dealings with Do Kwon. Spajić denied these allegations, but his political rivals were insistent. As Abazović told one publication, “We cannot become a breeding ground for [global] fraudsters, even if they use blockchain.” These efforts failed to yield the desired result. Europe Now won the election and Spajić became prime minister.


There are some who believe the network-state idea contains some aspects worth salvaging, like the necessity of updating nation-state governance to address pressing problems of the 21st century like climate change. This includes Josh Davila, host and creator of “The Blockchain Socialist” podcast, and legal scholar and internet activist Primavera De Filippi. The two and others dubbed their alternative to the tech secessionist vision of the network state the “coordi-nation,” which they define as a “voluntary interwoven network of communities with aligned values and a shared identity. They mutualize resources to distribute them within the network and to engage in collective action, through participatory governance and interdependency between nodes.” 

The idea behind coordi-nations is to seek to coexist with, rather than exit or replace, existing nation-states. In other words, they are communities or “nations” within states and are not secessionist. The proponents of coordi-nations envision the nation as a far more expansive concept than the traditional kind premised on things like soil, religion and language. Coordi-nations utilize blockchain to create “an extra layer of sovereignty” for their members as a collective: A blockchain infrastructure grants the coordi-nation more independence than if they relied on a server subject to the jurisdiction of a particular nation-state. 

The State & I

For now, it seems that the vast archipelago of start-up societies envisioned by Srinivasan and his cohort of billionaires and tech bros will almost certainly remain a fiction. But already, as Slobodian wrote, there are more than 5,400 zones across the globe that have their own economic and judicial rules, among them “city-states, havens, enclaves, free ports, high-tech parks, duty-free districts, and innovation hubs.”

“The dream of the sovereign individual was never meant for all of us.”

Meanwhile, the U.K., Australia and Italy have used or proposed a kind of opposite to the tech bros’ utopic havens: offshore migrant centers on islands or in third countries that allow states to circumvent international or European Union legal and humanitarian obligations. 

Last June, the sole refugee still held at an offshore migrant processing center on the island country of Nauru was finally taken to Australia. Over the previous decade, the Australian government had forcibly transferred more than 3,000 migrants and asylum seekers — mostly Afghans, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans — to processing centers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru as part of a military-led border security operation. They were held in miserable conditions and subjected to “severe abuse, inhumane treatment, and medical neglect,” according to Human Rights Watch. Australia claimed it lacked jurisdiction to help. But many, including UN human rights consulting agencies Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, disagreed. 

Such offshore processing centers are meant to deter future migrants from making the same journey. As criminologist Jamal Barnes wrote, “Australia has adopted legal strategies and humanitarian arguments to not only deny the occurrence of, and responsibility for, torture and CIDT [cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment], but it has also denied wrongdoing by arguing that any suffering occurring in offshore detention is necessary to deter future boat arrivals and save lives at sea.”

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Nauru, the smallest island nation in the world, has also been eyed by crypto billionaires. Fallen FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for defrauding customers and investors of his firm, reportedly planned to buy the island. His plans for Nauru included developing “sensible regulation around human genetic enhancement” and creating a lab for genetic engineering research.

For the very rich, an island microstate, a floating barge or a cash-strapped developing country can represent a fantasy of boundless liberty, unfettered experimentation and the realization of a sovereign self. For the world’s most poor or desperate, however, such lawless locales are often antithetical to freedom. Silicon Valley billionaires may see the state as an apparatus of repression, but the migrant experience demonstrates that some of the worst abuses flourish in the state’s absence. The dream of the sovereign individual was never meant for all of us. It was only ever meant for those who already had freedom of movement by virtue of their passports or those rich enough to purchase the dream for themselves.