(Or: when fiction comes true, part 93.)
I'm used to "Halting State" moments, when something I invented in a work of near-future SF slides disturbingly close to reality a few years later. I'm a lot less used to that happening in my more far-out/speculative fiction, though.
I'd classify the Merchant Princes series (including the forthcoming "Empire Games" trilogy) firmly in that category, even though chunks of it are set in a world so close to ours that even the folks in the headlines are familiar—it invokes parallel universes, after all, some of which exhibit rather less familiar takes on historical progress. One of the things I do in this series is to play with the history of development economics, very much in the non-quantitative SF tradition of asking "what would be the consequences if X happened instead of Y".
In the case of one of the parallel universes I explored in the first series, the X I picked was "suffocate the 18th century British industrial revolution in its crib by having England invaded by France in 1760 and subjected to internal tariff barriers managed by the Ferme générale in order to pay off the war debt" (which as you know, Bob, was the debt that in our history triggered the American War of Independence). And the conclusion I came to in my bumbling non-quantitative way was that you can suppress industrialization some of the time but not all of the time, and the same cultural, demographic, and resource-availability preconditions that gave rise to it in the North of England and the Scottish Lowlands were also emergent in Appalachia and Pennsylvania, so that the industrial revolution would probably kick off about a century later and on the other side of the Atlantic.
Anyway, the holy Crap moment for the Merchant Princes series has now arrived: economist Brad DeLong just did some interesting numerical analysis that suggests the scenario I came up with for time line three, the New British Empire, which underwent a late industrial revolution and demographic transition about 100-150 years after the British innovations of the 18th century stalled out holds up.
He started out by exploring the proposition that there was a high-level pre-industrialization local minimum, the so-called "gunpowder empire" stage, beyond which progress was unlikely: but concluded that such systems don't exist in a steady state—they're unstable. Once population exceeds a certain level they undergo a step change, beyond which the accelerating development of technology drives productivity and breaks the culture out of the previous Malthusian trap, leading in due course to wage growth, and ultimately demographic transition to a technologically innovative, wealthy, but low/zero population growth society (which is roughly where we are now). The basis for this exercise was extrapolation from an earlier paper by Michael Kremer which postulated that because technology is non-rivalrous high population spurs technological change; there's a feedback loop between agricultural productivity and a large enough work force to support the innovators who invent the machines with which to raise your productivity, so that once you exceed a critical threshold the process of development is bound to turn runaway. And using some very simple assumptions about long-term initial rates of population growth and productivity growth, the time-to-breakthrough that his model coughed up matches the New British Empire.
I confess: when I first started writing the series I pantsed the development of time line three. Initially it was a wheeze: how could I rig it to produce a pseudo-steampunk world for the original "A Family Trade"? But then I got caught up in the development model and realized that it's not a steampunk environment, or a gunpowder-and-sail empire: Miriam just happens to encounter it at a particular point in its development sprint, and doesn't recognize the applicability of Gibson's Rule -- "the future is already here: it's just unevenly distributed". But I'm really tickled to now have a solid, if speculative, numerical basis for the changes I needed for the new Merchant Princes trilogy.
There are a couple of corollaries, of course. One is that steampunk settings in the science fictional mode (as opposed to gaslight fantasy) are inherently unstable; unless you do what Rod Duncan did in The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter and add a deus ex machina (or a creepy secret police) that suppresses inovation, developing nation's gonna develop.
Another corollary is that development comes with a whole bunch of semi-predictable side-effects. Side-effects like: increasing agricultural productivity means more food and fibers. This means more hands available to work in factories doing things like turning fibers into fabric, as a result of which the price of clothing essentially goes into free fall (to get a handle on what that means, read this explanation of how much a shirt cost in the middle ages, and consider the etymology of the word "spinster"). Cheap clothing doesn't have to be repaired endlessly, so fashions begin to change from year to year instead of decade to decade: wearing clothing a la mode is affluence signaling, like driving a new car today. (A suit of clothes used to cost as much as a car does today, in real terms: and I mean ordinary clothes, not the elaborate court finery of the nobility.) Cheap clothing also frees up labour for other productive work, such as washing machines (and if you think washing machines are trivial consumer goods, watch Hans Rosling explain how wrong you are) and infrastructure projects (roads, railways, harbours, airports, phone networks). Automation is substitutable for labour which means more bodies are available for education which improves the quality of workers and thereby the quality (and utility) of the products they can create. Of course, highly educated and productive children are individually more expensive to raise than large broods of field labourers, so parents preferentially raise fewer of them, and the social and economic advantages of big cities ensures that the cost of living in a metropolis spirals ...
You can hold back some of these tendencies with top-down enforcement driven by some ideological imperative; consider the enforcement of religious dress codes in Iran or Saudi Arabia as examples. But such enforcement measures invariably kneecap some aspect of the developing economy: if you ban women or left-handed people from becoming brain surgeons, that reduces your maximum productivity. In an international setting, the nation-state that abandons arbitrary restrictions on social status or employment first has an advantage (and I'd like to cite the shift in English social attitudes to women working outside the home from about 1816 to 1916 as an example).
Another side-effect of this productivity growth is growth in the complexity of financial arrangements. Money isn't a physical entity like an electron, it's an exchange medium like a current flow. It becomes more useful when there's a lot of it, flowing fast: but you can't afford to let it stop moving and pile up in a vault somewhere, or the economic activity it energizes stops moving. Workers have to be paid and use their pay to buy food and goods, and factories have to sell goods (and farms, food) to generate revenue to pay their workers. Governments kickstart the process by creating debt (in the shape of tax obligations) then issuing currency (to pay for useful stuff governments need, like roads and armies) that people can exchange and use to pay their taxes. As productivity grows, the flows of money required to represent exchanges within the economy also have to grow. But: what I said about allowing hoarding of money? If you don't allow some hoarding you get shocks as disjoint elements of the circulation can't keep up with each other. Savings are needed as a buffer to smooth out flows in the force. And the complexity of financial instruments is a response to noise in the system, as people seek better and more reliable ways to protect their investments against sudden happenstance.
Does this sound familiar? Because it ought to: it's the story of our last two centuries.
Pulling back from the tight-focus shock for a moment, we know that development isn't inevitable. If there are no large reserves of coal and iron to mine you're unlikely to get widespread deployment of steam engines. If it's easier for your second sons to set out and march into unoccupied territory and set up farming than to try and eke more food out of a smaller subdivided family farm, you won't get increases in population density until you butt up against the Malthusian limits. If your political system generates a succession crisis that can only be resolved by a brutal and destructive civil war once every generation, that's not going to be conductive to long-term capital accumulation and investment, or to development of a culture of respect for the rule of law (including observance of any form of property law not enforced at swordpoint). If your religion insists that women are chattel and slaveowning is just fine, then the aristocratic beneficiaries of such a system have little incentive to improve productivity and conditions that benefit their perceived inferiors. But the ability of a pre-industrial empire to enforce social norms globally is hampered by their ability to operate on a worldwide scale: no global system of social control that can block industrialization is possible to a state or agency that hasn't acquired the means of rapid communication and transportation (unless it emerges in the future as an accidental side-effect of resource depletion—if Olduvai theory holds water, then future civilizations won't be able to easily reindustrialize because we'll have consumed the necessary prerequisites. So, if you disregard Olduvai theory and don't rate the possibility of a global hegemonizing anti-technology religion that can exist in the absence of the thing it demonizes, it looks like industrialization somewhere should be the rule rather than the exception in sufficiently long-lasting secondary world fiction/thought experiments.
(Finally, I'm getting a really strange feeling here. It was one thing to be getting Halting State moments from a work of fairly rigorously extrapolitive near-future fiction; it's another thing entirely to be getting them from the Merchant Princes series. Let's just hope we don't suddenly get confirmation that the Many Worlds explanation for quantum mechanics is actually true and we live in an Everett-Wheeler cosmology!)