Monthly Archives: September 2009

Aside from my food book, the project that has consumed most of my mental bandwidth this year has been my special report on telecoms in emerging markets, which is published in The Economist today, and is on the cover everywhere except Britain. The accompanying cover article highlights what I think is the most exciting aspect of the report: the potential for mobile money to trigger a second wave of economic development in poor countries, as big as the one caused by the initial introduction of mobile phones. In addition to the cover leader and the 14-page report, there’s also an audio interview in which I summarise the main themes, and a videographic that picks out some of the figures about telecommunications technologies and their impact on development. Yup, it’s a multimedia extravaganza.

You have to fight your way through to the end of the report before you get to the inevitable telegraph reference; it’s actually in the last paragraph. My point: that the project to connect everyone on earth to a single communications network, which began with the invention of the telegraph in 1791, is on the verge of completion. Within a decade, it’s likely that everyone who wants a mobile phone will have one. The next step will be to make access to the internet just as universal.

Being able to write a special report like this is one of the best things about working at The Economist. We usually get five weeks off to do it, a generous travel budget, and 14 pages in which to lay out our arguments. (It’s also the only time we get a byline.) I took three weeks off to do this report — one was spent doing reporting in Uganda, and the other two were spent writing at home — but I’ve actually been researching it pretty intensively since the start of the year. It’s like doing a small book. And as with a book, it’s great to see it finally emerge into the world.


In his book “The Wealth of Nations”, first published in 1776, Adam Smith famously likened the unseen influence of market forces, acting on participants who are all looking out for their own best interests, to an invisible hand. In “An Edible History of Humanity”, I liken food’s influence on history to an invisible fork that has, at several crucial points in history, prodded humanity and altered its destiny, even though people were generally unaware of its influence at the time. And I have just learned (rather belatedly, because I have something of a New Yorker backlog at the moment) of Peter Leeson’s new book “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates” which, according to this New Yorker review, explains pirate customs and behaviour using economic analysis. (It’s based on an academic paper from 2007 on pirate economics.) It sounds great.

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