Charlie Stross literary salon with Krugman, MacLeod, et al

The Crooked Timber politics blog is holding a literary salon on the works of Charlie Stross, with commentary from a variety of writers and specialists in different disciplines, including Nobel-prizewinning economist Paul Krugman and sf writer Ken Macleod.

But what makes Stross’s version different from everyone else’s is that he’s noticed something: the fantasy thought experiment, in which someone brings modern science and technology to a backward society, isn’t a fantasy. It is, instead, something that’s been tried all across the very real Third World, as businessmen and aid workers fanned out across nations in which the typical person, two generations ago, lived no better than a medieval peasant. And you know what? Modernization turns out to be pretty hard to do.

I may have a better sense of this than most, because I’m an economist of a certain age. When I went to grad school in the mid-70s, I thought about doing development economics – but decided not to, because it was too depressing. Basically, circa 1975 there weren’t any success stories: poor countries remained obstinately poor, despite their access to 20th-century technology.

Since then the success stories have multiplied, with China and India finally emerging as the economic superpowers they ought to be – though if truth be told, we really don’t know why development economics started working better around 1980. Even now, however, there are lots of places that have access to modern technology, and use it – but remain, in the ways that matter most, firmly stuck in the poverty trap. Feudalism with cell phones is still feudalism.

Charles Stross book event

(Thanks, Austin!)