Charlie Stross and Paul Krugman talk science fiction and economics at the WorldCon

One of the highlights of this year's World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal was sf writer Charlie Stross chatting with sf fan and Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman. Charlie's work touches on many economic themes, and Krugman's reputation for finding economic lessons in everyday life is well deserved; the combination was dynamite.
Krugman: Let me show my age here. What you came out believing if you went to the New York's World Fair in 1964 was that we were going to have this enormously enhanced mastery of the physical universe. That we were going to have undersea cities and supersonic transports everywhere. And there hasn't been that kind of dramatic change. It's not just that airplanes are no faster. My favorite test, which shows something about me, is the kitchen. If you walked into a kitchen from the 1950's it would look a little pokey, but you'd know what to do. It wouldn't be that difficult. If someone from the 1950's walked into a kitchen from 1909 they'd be pretty unhappy - they might just be able to manage. If someone from 1909 went to one from 1859, you would actually be hopeless. The big change was really between 1840 and the 1920's, in terms of what the physical nature of modern life is like. There's been nothing like that since. So we can do fancy information searches in a way that no one envisioned 30 years ago - as one of my colleagues at the Times, Gail Collins, likes to say all the time where are the flying cars?
A fireside chat




  1. Thank you very much for this!
    Specially for the transcript, it is hard for me to understand non-American accents.

  2. The “futurists” just don’t seem to get it about flying cars. “Flying cars” isn’t really a technological prediction, its a political and economic prediction of a future where the middle class can afford helicopters(and, typically, one where most everyone is middle class).

    We’ve had “flying cars” for years; but you probably never will.

  3. It’s a practicality problem, too. Anyone who’s ever had anything to do with cars or roads has likely complained about the large number of drivers of less than ideal competence. Do we want millions of crappy pilots buzzing over our heads on unplanned, complicated, low-altitude flights? The technical problem is not how to make a “flying car,” but how to coordinate them so they don’t kill us all.

  4. Worldcon was great. In addition to Krugman & Stross (a buddy cop movie in the making), I attended presentations by people from NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. I’m so glad I went!

  5. Honestly, Krugman is a brilliant economist, but I think he’s pretty off-base in discounting our advances in mass communication, a field that has grown by leaps and bounds since the 50’s and in ways that dwarf his “kitchen test”. The Internet is very much something out of some of the more far-fetched science fiction of the middle of the century, and its impact much more profound. You needn’t even go back 50 years; take a teenager today and send them back to the 70’s, and look at the impact difference in communication has on their lives.

    I also think that, looking back on Western history, and the cultural impact the development of movable type had on such far-flung matters as religion, nationhood, the disemination of scientific knowledge, and so forth, it’s pretty clear that mass communication advances in this sort of vein are rather the engine that drives further technological and cultural development. Discounting something like this seems erroneous, at best.

  6. Of course it seems likely to me that improvements in processor power will, like transportation speed, turn out to be a sphygmoid curve. The idea that Moore’s law will continue forever unabated flies in the face of physics.

  7. Does anyone have video of Krugman’s talk at Worldcon where he mused about how Foundation led him to economics (through history)? It was really enlightening and I forgot my video camera. Thank you.

  8. It looks like Charlie is about to pick up the water bottle and smack someone upside the head with it.

  9. The kitchen analogy is stupid.

    Until about 1950 everyone would know how to cook, lighting the fire with wood. After that, if you didn’t have gas or electricity, you’d have no idea what to do. Today, we assume energy is available 24/7. We would have no way to cook unless we were hooked up to some kind of grid.

  10. Perhaps one just needs to pick different rooms in different era.

    I think a person from the 50’s could function well enough in an office from 1909, but would have a lot more trouble in 2009.

    The 1909 office would have crude versions of most of the important equipment in the 1950’s office, but in the 2009 office is centered around a device who’s ancient ancestors were just lumbering into existence in the 50’s. And there wouldn’t be nearly as many secretaries, but there would be just as many or more women.

    A gardener from 2009 could probably function reasonably well in a vegetable garden from 5000bc.

    Once tech is good enough it stops changing so fast.

    Can’t wait for those replicators though.

  11. “Happy Slapping” as a secondary effect is a good example for something that’s hard to forsee, but which is really unsurprising in retrospect.

    Kids and teenagers did bully others before the advent of video camera cellphones, beat peers up, bashed eggs on their victims heads, etc and of course bragged about it.

    Cellphone tech just gives them trophies and a wider audience.

  12. I thought it was a terrific talk, although I have to take issue with two points:

    Paul Krugman said that kitchens haven’t changed much in the last 50 years. Well, how about the microwave oven?

    Even if you don’t think the microwave was as big change, the hypothetical traveler from 1950 will be startled at one change in the kitchen—how little it was used. We eat a lot more take-out and processed foods than we did in 1950. So it’s just the microwave that represents a big change in the kitchen, but also what we put in the microwave.

    Another change to the kitchen: Who’s in it. Families don’t eat together as much anymore.

    Charlie and Paul Krugman both talked about how there’s been very little change in daily life in most recent decades compared with the early part of the century. I have to disagree strongly with that: Civil rights, the election of an African-American U.S. president, acceptance of mixed-race and same-sex relationships, and the sexualizaton of popular culture and clothing standards are huge changes. They’re just not technology-driven, as were the changes of earlier decades.

    I’m U.S.-centric in these statements, of course, but from what I gather then U.K. is also a very diverse culture, far moreso than it was a few decades ago.

    Overall, great talk though—thanks for giving it and thanks to whoever-it-was who posted it.

  13. Are you allowed to claim the world isn’t changing in a conversation that is beamed instantly around the world for viewing & commenting? I call bogus.

  14. Thanks for posting this! I was kind of disappointed that I couldn’t really pay attention when I was actually AT the talk, since I was on tech crew.

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