Paul Krugman On The Problems Of Turning Broadswords Into BlackBerrys

Economist Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize laureate and columnist for the <i>New York Times</i>, <a href="">takes a look</a> at the Merchant Princes series of science-fiction novels by Charles Stross, finding in them powerful parallels to real-world economics -- the problems of moving medieval societies into modernity.

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

January 28, 2009

4 Min Read

Economist Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize laureate and columnist for the New York Times, takes a look at the Merchant Princes series of science-fiction novels by Charles Stross, finding in them powerful parallels to real-world economics -- the problems of moving medieval societies into modernity.The books by Stross are twisty science-fiction fun. They tell the story of Miriam Beckstein, a thirty-something tech journalist from post-9/11 Boston, who finds herself transported to an alternate universe ruled by a medieval society, the Gruinmarkt, complete with armored knights on horseback and filth-covered peasants. But these knights carry AK-47s -- because a powerful family, the Clan, has the power to travel between their world and our own. The clan has been making vast amounts of money by engaging in criminal enterprises in our world, where they can enjoy the rewards of their ability to simply disappear from one place, and appear later somewhere else.

As Krugman notes, the novels are thrilling adventures and lots of fun, with plot twists on every page. But they're also serious discussions of problems that America and other developed nations face in the real world.

Stross is telling a very old kind of science fiction story here, the story of the person from the present-day high-tech society who travels to a low-tech society and tries to modernize it. Mark Twain told that story a century and a half ago in his Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. L. Sprague de Camp told it again in the Depression-era Lest Darkness Fall; his hero was a 20th century historian transported back in time to the late Roman Empire. Even the original Star Trek told the story several times (Kirk's solution to the problem was usually to make out with one of the native princesses).

Krugman writes:

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.

Stross is quite explicit in the parallels between his science-fiction world and real-life America. At one point, the heroine Miriam thinks that the medieval world she's fallen into reminds her of Saudi Arabia. As John Quiggin, someone commenting on Krugman's post, puts it: "[T]he ruling elite gets access to first-world education, goods and services, while maintaining the absolute power over others of a medieval aristocracy. It's not surprising they don't want to change."

I thought about whether to post this on my personal blog (where I occasionally drift into non-technology-related science fiction natterings), but decided to post it here because these are issues related to doing business internationally -- and IT issues in particular. At the InformationWeek 500 conference in September, we heard from CIOs who described the challenges of doing business in developing countries, having to upgrade the national cellular and wireless networks themselves to take advantage of infrastructure we take for granted in the developed world. Likewise, they had to deal with cultural issues and barriers in doing business.

The Krugman essay is part of a package on the blog Crooked Timber, get an overview and links to all the essays here. I'll be reading the package over the course of the next several days, and expect to find more nuggets that might be interesting to InformationWeek readers; Stross often returns to the themes of technology, economics, and politics.

I love it that Krugman, a Nobel Prize laureate, is a big science fiction geek.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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