Globalism generates odd effects. One of these is the recent proliferation of extraterritorial sites outside of the conventional system of laws, borders, and territories. They exist as bubbles or islands within the legal framework of globalism – generating radical new forms of urbanism that commingle physical and digital infrastructures at a pace that outstrips our ability to regulate, or even to fully comprehend them. Some, such as Special Economic Zones and free ports, are sanctioned by the world system of governments. Others, such as the darknet and the infrastructure of data havens that support it, are unsanctioned and often illegal.
Extraterritorial urbanisms built on information networks have always existed. The earliest global ‘internet’ arguably appeared in the form of a fifteenth century spice trade network tethering together Brazil, Europe, Africa, and Asia, carrying goods but also information to a diverse constellation of cities – each with its own localized juridical system. Yet then, as now, the very information network that gave rise to global trade cities acted as a destabilizing force on local state apparatuses. Codified local laws arose in some sense to secure the modern nation-state against the transgressive influence of the information network. Therefore, extraterritorial islands appeared within this global hub-and-spoke network that were free from such laws. Later extraterritorial urbanisms followed this same pattern, from the free ports of the fifteenth century Hanseatic League; to the pirate utopias of the eighteenth century Barbary Coast; to West Berlin during the Cold War; to the now-demolished Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong; to the red light districts in Amsterdam, Hamburg, Bangkok and elsewhere; to temporary autonomous urbanisms such as Burning Man; to drop-out villages and seasteads around the globe. These are spaces of freedom unencumbered by conventional laws.
Many of these conditions can be explained through Michel Foucault’s concept of a heterotopia, a space of otherness that exists primarily as a counterpoint to normal spaces. For without the presence of heavily territorialized or even homotopic spaces (generic, normal, law-bound) these extraterritorialized zones could not exist. Foucault, working as an historian, cites the colony and the brothel as extreme examples of heterotopias.1 But the former colonies have all dried up and been replaced, one might argue, by global Special Economic Zones, instant cities in the developing world that are attempting to create a frictionless space through which money can move. In former colonies such as Hong Kong or Macau in China or Hyderabad in India, this new type of legal (but extraterritorial) economic free zone has emerged as the central space of global capitalism – articulately described by Keller Easterling in her recent work.2 If many colonies (e.g. the Belgian Congo or British Nigeria) were organized in order to maximize output of productive resources, then these new SEZs work in the same way: tax-free havens through which corporations can maximize profit. Foucault’s brothels, on the other hand, have largely moved online. They flourish in digital red light districts or illegal encrypted dens.
What has complicated our picture of extraterritoriality is precisely this sudden entanglement of physical and digital spaces of freedom: real-life tax havens for electronic currency, digital darknets for paraphilic sexual acts, encrypted videos of black ops massacres. Though they are housed in physical sites around the globe, these data are literally extraterritorial, distributed in such a way that they have no physical territory.
The entanglement of the digital and physical has paralleled the rise of the surveillance state and the sudden awareness that, through PRISM, Xkeyscore and other insidious technologies, the government was watching us all along. If the old pirate utopias and physical autonomous zones are no longer safe from the government’s gorgon-eyed surveillance systems, then perhaps these holes and hideouts can be distributed over the internet. This may be why the recent news stories about Julian Assange and Edward Snowden appear so legally murky. The ‘crime’ is already out there, and spreading like oil on water, whether its perpetrators are in custody or not. We all saw the strange images of Assange waving from the balcony of a political extraterritoriality (the Ecuadorian Embassy in London) while under threat of incarceration prompted by his activities around an information extraterritoriality (Wikileaks’ encrypted information time-bomb hidden in pockets throughout the darknet.) A second, related image is of Edward Snowden trapped for five weeks in the pre-customs area of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Snowden was ensnared in a political extraterritoriality because of his activities in an information extraterritoriality. Like Assange, he had distributed his trove of encrypted information in various havens within the darknet. In these cases, the digital pollutes the physical, or vice versa. The world system of governments’ response to Assange, Snowden, and Bradley Manning’s insurrections was to imprison them physically – to physically shrink their world to the size of an embassy, a customs area, a cell – as if such an act would stuff the leaked data-bomb genie back into the bottle. But there is no gathering back of spilled information.
While there’s no common term for the diversity of extraterritorial spaces, the word freezone seems to apply to all of these conditions. Such freezones come in several ‘flavors’ – economic, informational, and hedonistic. Many of the extraterritorial conditions predicted in the 1980s by cyberpunk authors such as Bruce Sterling (Islands in the Net), William Gibson (Neuromancer), and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon) appear to have come true, though with little of the ontological angst that one would expect when science fiction suddenly merges with reality. As JG Ballard said, “the future has been annexed to the present.”3 In some ways, this is an old story: the media’s obsession with cyberspace and the virtual in the 1990s gave way to taking cyberspace for granted in the 2000s. But as real and digital life have become more and more fully enmeshed, the complications of this relationship are ever more pronounced. These spaces are also heavily contested and even masked from view, since they automatically work against the state’s need for order and control. Architects and urbanists have always toyed with the possibilities for extraterritoriality: how to stretch and manipulate space so that it works around laws, codes, and regulations. But with the acceleration of culture and the widening of extraterritoriality, these questions have become both broader and more specific. How to hide the physical architecture that runs an illegal digital site? How to carve out a space of freedom from within the bounds of law? How to build a utopian enclave within the bounds of everyday life? And in fact, the discourse surrounding utopia could be described in another way as a discourse on freedom through extraterritoriality. The rise of the internet has extended the domain of utopia beyond the physical.
Economic Freezone: Radical Offshoring
Shenzhen/Hong Kong Megalopolis. As the infrastructure of global commerce increases in volume – in the form of big box retail, shipping centers, pastoral office parks, dense business districts, shopping malls – so too does its dependence on the intangible realms of data and information. Marc Augé made distinctions in an anthropological sense between places and non-places, between zones of identity and localization versus zones of anonymization. The space of globalism is largely the latter. As such, it naturally resists stabilizing, localizing forces such as borders, instead operating according to the lubricated fluencies of circulation, speed, and instantaneity.
In places like the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, entirely new forms of urbanism have sprung up merely to serve as conduits for these flows of global capital and data. These are zero- or low-tax enclaves designed to be attractive to global business. Economic freezones such as these are arguably the most important nuclei in our global network of trade. These city-enclaves are hyper-economic but appear on the face to be apolitical – aesthetic cityscapes dedicated to a future that is sleek, abundant, and free. Yet, despite the conceit of freedom, they exert control on citizens in myriad ways (subverting the possibilities for both hedonistic and information freedom). For instance, Singapore’s seeming economic openness is a veneer pulled over an extreme carceral and surveillance state, where even chewing bubble gum can get you arrested.4 Dubai allows for limited access to Western vices such as alcohol and pornography, but is otherwise bounded by a strict Sharia law.
Keller Easterling has described this evolving global system as the Zone, and the tangled political/economic processes that influence and direct it as Extrastatecraft – literally, statecraft applied to extraterritoriality, but more figuratively, the process of crafting extraterritorial states.5 Each day, new cities, new sectors of cities, and new buildings appear as hubs in this reticulated system – though one could argue that the vectors connecting this system are more important than its hubs. The lines of air travel, maritime shipping, rail, and car transport are central to the making of sites of global capital. When seen in the proper light as a time-lapse image, these lines nearly cover the globe in its entirety.
These Special Economic Zones are premised on a new global condition of instant digital data and its physical counterpart – just-in-time production strategies – which rely heavily on data systems for controlling inventory and fabrication. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries were dedicated to the conquest of space and territory, both in the form of colonialism and resource extraction. But the conquest of time appears as the socio-spatial-economic problem for the twenty-first century, as we move closer and closer to an instantaneousness of action, a perpetual kinetic life that tries to arrive before it left; to get it there – as the phrase goes – yesterday. With the rise of Easterling’s Extrastatecraft as a new description of urbanism, the resistances of space are dissolving, along with their accompanying technologies. Is it possible that as the world nears the threshold of its speed of transaction, the moment of limitless escape will have been achieved in a miraculous flash of light – the second carved to infinity?
Oil Rigs and Junk Barges. At the same time that corporations migrate their headquarters to these special economic zones, the global superelites (the one percent of the one percent) are attempting to create individualized extraterritorial bubbles around themselves. Already, many of these elites travel on private jets that are allowed streamlined customs checks at national borders. They stash fortunes in tax havens (21 trillion dollars by current estimates) whose names we’re all familiar with: the Cayman Islands, Andorra, Liechtenstein, and many others.6 They are buying, in some sense, extralegality.
The logical next step is for elites to form their own nations with bespoke legal systems. And in fact the notion of offshoring new nations has become a real transhumanist libertarian project of late. Peter Thiel, the radical libertarian venture capitalist who funded Facebook, has invested heavily in the idea of seasteading, whereby corporations or individuals would move to mobile platforms or repurposed barges in international waters, beyond the reach of both national laws and taxes. There already exists a market for decommissioned oil rigs and platforms that can be converted to private micronations, free from all laws. The most famous of these is Sealand, an old British sea fort in the North Sea, which may or may not be its own principality. When it was occupied by Paddy Roy Bates in 1967 (by overthrowing a rival pirate radio station), it existed outside of UK territorial waters. But in 1987 the UK simply voted to extend their territorial waters to include it. Extraterritory becomes territory in an instant. But Thiel’s project is to create mobile extraterritorial seasteads that could be moved as international borders shift.
Along the same lines, Blueseed is a startup that Thiel is partly funding, dedicated to creating an offshore Silicon Valley on a repurposed barge. Blueseed would float twelve nautical miles from the mouth of San Francisco Bay, outside US territorial waters. International citizens could work on the Blueseed barge without need for a US visa, forming as it were their own cruise-ship micronation. A thirty-minute ferry would shuttle from Half Moon Bay to the ship. In theory, seasteads such as these would be free from taxes, intellectual property law, drug laws, and sexual prohibitions, allowing for a perfect triumvirate of economic, political, and bodily freedom.
What Thiel and others are proposing is an escape from what they see as overreaching national laws – the possibility for a new social experiment using a physical architecture that is wholly unregulated. It recalls the Michel Foucault quote about heterotopias: “The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.”7 Oil rigs, abandoned sea forts, repurposed cruise ships, junk barges in international waters: these could be the sites of future political struggle between state governments and radical libertarians.
The Honduran Jungle. Patri Friedman, the grandson of libertarian economist Milton Friedman, has proposed a potentially more radical idea. For several years, he has scoured the globe asking developing nations for permission to build a new charter city with, as he says, a “cutting-edge legal system”. Having been rejected by a number of African and Asian nations, he finally arrived in Honduras, which showed interest. The country has set aside a thousand square kilometers of coastal jungle in order for a group of libertarian economists and urbanists to create an experimental urban enclave with its own codes, laws, and architecture.8 Imagine the landscapes of the Honduran coast overlaid with the urbanism of Hong Kong and the legal system of the Netherlands.
Such extraterritorial charter cities would act as hyper-Shenzhens: radically deregulated economic enclaves meant to attract global capital to otherwise unappealing locales. As an ancillary, quasi-humanitarian effect, the theory is that underdeveloped host nations would benefit economically from the presence of these new charter cities.
Biotech Islands. Along the same lines, Google founder Larry Page recently hinted at his interest in building new sites for radical techno-social experimentation. We might call these biotech freezones, places where morally gray or even extralegal scientific research could occur. One might imagine enclaves where cloning, tailored genetic mutations, advanced robotics, or even weaponry could be experimented with. As Page said at a recent conference, “we don’t want our world to change too fast. But maybe we could set apart a piece of the world…an environment where people can try new things. I think as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society. What’s the effect on people, without having to deploy it to the whole world.”9 What Page is proposing is essentially an updating of the Island of Dr. Moreau, a place where companies could test out cutting-edge ideas unfettered by laws.
Hedonist Freezone: Red Light Districts
De Wallen and Soi-Cowboy. The classic image of an extraterritorial zone is a red light district where one can realize all manner of physical pleasures: sex, drugs, transgression. Such sites are dedicated to the liberation not of information or money, but of the body. Picture William Burrough’s Interzone from Naked Lunch. But with the rise of SEZs, data havens, and other extraterritorial spaces of global capital, the old idea of a red light district seems almost quaint, a Gothic artifact from the early information age. When the internet can supply all manner of paraphilias instantaneously, of what use is a traditional prostitute’s red-lit cabin? The most notorious of these seedy enclaves – Bangkok’s Soi-Cowboy, Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, and perhaps especially Amsterdam’s De Wallen – have to some extent become novelty zones or even sites of slum tourism. Though they still supply the public with a legal form of prostitution, recent crackdowns and redevelopment plans are attempting to transform De Wallen into an upscale fashion area. Haute couture with a veneer of sex tourism: global capital piggybacks on extreme hedonism. Elsewhere, physical red light districts are updating their delivery models. Zurich has initiated new drive-in sex boxes – ostensibly to protect both prostitutes and clients – crafted out of homey rough timber and lit in theme park multicolor.
Yet the idea of a digital red light district is flourishing, even as real world ones are under threat. In three years, the online drug market Silk Road grew from a small peer-to-peer drug-trading network into a multi-billion dollar darknet industry. And the internet, as moralists like to say, is awash in pornography, both legal and illegal. The illegal stuff is, much like the Silk Road, anonymized and hidden from view in various corners of the darknet. These hidden zones of the darknet are not extraterritorial in the traditional sense, since the whole internet is deterritorialized. But they are extralegal. And this is perhaps where a distinction can be made between real and digital life.
Despite, however, the seeming impenetrability of anonymized spaces on the darket, it is possible to be found. In September of this year, Silk Road was shut down. Its owner turned out not to be a larger-than-life drug lord, but an unassuming 29-year old software engineer named Ross Ulbricht. His operation was so low-key, so hidden from view that his two San Francisco roommates had no idea he was running a business worth 1.6 billion dollars out of his small subleased bedroom. His profits were exclusively in the deterritorialized cryptocurrency called Bitcoin, which is not tethered to a state or central bank.
Information Freezones: Data Havens and Darknets
The White Mountain. Embedded in the White Mountains outside of Stockholm is a cave containing an old nuclear defense bunker. In 2008, the space was redesigned as a data haven in the image of an old Bond villain lair by Albert France-Lanord Architects, complete with interior waterfalls, moody lighting, ferns, and even a low-lying fog suffusing the space. But its main feature are the hundreds of server boxes containing mirror sites for Wikileaks and the Pirate Bay, among others – encrypted data that could bring down governments or destabilize corporations.
In light of the recent disclosures that the NSA is monitoring a huge percentage of global communication, it makes sense that such protected digital enclaves would appear. Hidden back-alleys and hideouts within the internet, where illegal markets such as Silk Road for drugs or the Armory for weapons operate using deterritorialized currencies like Bitcoin. Yet Data Havens require physical architectures to exist, most often with an appearance of impenetrability. White Mountain is protected by a forty-centimeter thick steel door capable of withstanding a hydrogen bomb, enshrining Wikileaks’ data in a physical blast shelter. Similarly, the Cyberbunker in the Netherlands, a Cold War concrete bunker painted jet black, was converted into a mirror site for Wikileaks and the Pirate Bay (after a fire in 2002, an Ecstacy/MDMA lab was also discovered in the facility). Other mirror sites are scattered around the globe, some known, some unknown. Much of this informational freespace also exists on private hard drives in private households – domestic micro-freezones in beige boxes.
The Ecuadorian Embassy. Perhaps the central figure in the global fervor over NSA surveillance is Julian Assange – white haired, stark in appearance, a perfectly cast figure for a one man resistance to government spying. As a so-called cypherpunk, Assange believes in the politically liberating abilities of encrypted spaces of freedom within the internet. For a long time Assange seemed to exist everywhere and nowhere at once. Both physically and digitally, he was a nomad. But as the focus of the surveillance state narrowed in on him, his migratory possibilities closed around him. Finally, he ended up trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. This was his extraterritorial bubble from which he could not be extradited even twenty feet into a public London street, where he would be arrested. The furthest he could travel, it seems, was onto a balcony in the embassy’s library, from which he made various statements to the press. Even from within this soft prison, Assange has become an informal spokesperson for like-minded figures around the globe, working to gain Edward Snowden asylum in Ecuador.
Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow. For a month last June, Edward Snowden slept in a capsule hotel in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, trapped as it were in the airport’s pre-customs area. A persona non grata, citizen of nowhere, not able to travel to his birth country, nor able to enter Russian territory. Twenty countries refused him asylum until Russia finally relented. In a strange historical inversion, he became the US’s Solzhenitsyn, seeking refuge in Russia for his dissidence at home. But he doesn’t have possession of the information for which he is now infamous, about PRISM and Xkeyscore. Instead, it’s cached away in various locations on the darknet.
Snowden, Assange, the Silk Road have become emblematic of the world-system’s desire to stamp out unsanctioned extraterritorial zones. When these sites serve the flow and flood of global capital, as is the case with Special Economic Zones and Free Ports, they are both approved and lauded. But when they attempt to promote individual liberty over and against the nation-state, they are constrained, co-opted, crushed, erased. Even temporary autonomous urbanisms such as Burning Man, which started as an underground event, have moved into the broad light of day and become heavily publicized mega-events. For all the rhetoric about autonomy and freedom, such zones are just as heavily policed as a typical city.
As the interpenetrations of the physical and the digital increase, we are likely to see even more contentious battles over physical space – and ever more desperate attempts to carve out clearings within the totality of laws. We may see the rise of new zones of freedom and autonomous spaces beyond state control. As always, laws will struggle to keep up with the elastic evolution of the extraterritorial. In addition to Special Economic Zones such as Shenzhen and Hyderabad, we might witness in the near future new urban types dedicated to pleasures of the body, or of free information, or of radical biotechnological experimentation, or all of these at once: a hyper-Shenzhen in the Honduran jungle?
Matt Johnson is a partner in the Houston-based firm LOJO and an assistant professor at the University of Houston College of Architecture.
The Writings on the Wall is an editorial project developed in collaboration by Volume and Beta – Timișoara Architecture Biennial, about the capacity of loopholes to create exceptional experiences among the laws that produce our urban spaces.
Michel Foucault. ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’, in Neil Leach. Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. (NYC: Routledge. 1997). pp.330-336.
Keller Easterling, ‘Zone: The Spatial Softwares of Extrastatecraft’. In DesignObserver. 06.11.12 http://places.designobserver.com/feature/zone-the-spatial-softwares-of-extrastatecraft/
JG Ballard, In JG Ballard: Quotes. San Francisco: Re/Search Press, 2004. p. 8.
This new kind of quasi-carceral paradise was memorably described by William Gibson in his 1993 essay ‘Disneyland with the Death Penalty’. Wired 1.04, October 1993.
In Keller Easterling, ‘Zone’.
‘Honduras Shrugged’. And ‘Hong Kong in Honduras’. The Economist. Dec 10, 2011.
Greg Kumparak, ‘Larry Page Wants Earth To Have A Mad Scientist Island”, TechCrunch. May 15, 2013. http://techcrunch.com/2013/05/15/larry-page-wants-earth-to-have-a-mad-scientist-land/