Norbert Elias: Technology and Momentary Lapses Into Barbarism

In his essay Technization and Civilization, Norbert Elias discusses how technologies can bring about more civilized as well as more barbaric behaviors.

Because societies and technologies are mutually-determining (they shape one another), we cannot draw a simple cause-effect relationship between technization and civilization. According to Elias, technologies regulate behavior, requiring more civilized conduct, but technologies are produced by humans living in civilizations, so neither technization nor civilization can be said to be the first in the process.

But Elias’ more interesting observation is that “it can indeed be observed that a spurt in technization and a spurt in civilization quite often go hand in hand in societies. [But] It quite often happens that a counter-spurt also occurs at the newly-reached stage of technization, a spurt towards de civilization.” (Johan Goudsblom and Stephen Mennell (editors). The Norbert Elias Reader: a biographical selection. 1998: Blackwell Publishers p. 214)

Elias considers the example of the development of motor-vehicle technologies. Nowadays we can all assume, for the most part, that all drivers will adhere to certain civilized behavior (by ‘civilized,’ Elias means a degree of standardization that allows more complex societies to function; he does not mean ‘civilized’ as in ‘nice’) . However, the introduction of this technology did not proceed smoothly. Car accidents and fatalities were much higher (in relation to the number of cars on the road) than today. People got hurt. People abused the new technology. Drivers, passengers, car manufacturers, and civic authorities had to come up with external constraints to correct this ‘uncivilized’ behavior.

The move towards decivilization introduced by new technizations makes me wonder about our experiences with technologies such as the internet. Is the prominent prescence of pornography, or the ease with which people feel they can ‘flame’ others online, or the abandonment to meaningless virtuality, signs of such decivilization?

The following excerpts from Elias are a useful reminder of the opportunities as well as the challenges that we face in the information age:

The advance in technization has brought people all over the globe closer together. But the development of the human habitus is not keeping with the development of technization and its consequences. Technization encourages humankind to move closer together and to unify. The more this happens, the more will the differences in human groups become apparent to human awareness. (ibid, p. 224)

The triumphant advance of the aeroplane [or the internet, for that matter], as a medium for global traffic in peace and war, has decisively contributed to the growing interdependence of all states on the globe and, at the same time, is also its product. It has enormous civilizing influence, by bringing people from all regions closer to each other…. [However,] [n]o group of people is pleased when it realizes that it is now more dependent on others than before. (ibid, p. 225)

This last quote is not really about technization, but I found it very inspirational:

The world in which we live is an emergent world, it is humankind on the move. We obscure our view of the process that we as humankind experience, if instead of accepting the world as it really is, we judge it as if it were an eternally unchanging world… That is what one does when one represents the world as bad or good, as civilized or as barbaric. Humanity is in a great collective learning process… We can see today that the task that lies before us is to work towards the pacification and organized unification of humankind. Let us not be discouraged in this work by the knowledge that this task will not in our lifetime progress to fruition from the experimental period in which it is now. It is certainly worthwhile and highly meaningful to set to work in an unfinished world that will go on beyond oneself. (ibid, pp. 228-229)

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