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Let's say you had a world much like Tolkien's Middle Earth. Elves, dwarves, orcs, and the like. Now let's say that against all odds, evil sorcerers, heroic blunders, and such that that world managed to achieve a level of technology and civilization equivalent to our own. How would Elves, specifically (in the interest of keeping the question narrow), adapt to modern society?

Assumptions:

  • Elves. The "Platonic", "archetypical", or "ideal" Elves. What comes to mind immediately when you think of Elves? These are those Elves.
  • Elves make up a mere 5% of the global population, while humans make up 85%. (The remaining 10% encompasses all other sentient races)
  • Elvish society is fragmented into enclaves that hold themselves separate from human society, normally in wilderness areas (see Rivendell and Lorien)
  • The Elves hold themselves above the affairs of "younger" races.
  • Magic is rare and restricted to extra-planar beings (see Istari in LoTR)
  • Tech is at or about 2014 standards
  • Elves are vaguely respected by humans but otherwise ignored, due to few humans ever having cause to interact with them

Given these assumptions (many of which, thanks to Mr Tolkien, are common to most elves in fiction), would they withdraw from technology? Embrace it? A mixture of both?

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    $\begingroup$ What proportion of the population would be elves/humans? $\endgroup$ – Liath Oct 9 '14 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ This is bordering on "too opinion based" I think. Whether the elves would embrace or withdraw from the technology is very much an editorial choice for the person creating the world. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 9 '14 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ I think if you work on the assumption that they are elves as defined by Tolkien this could work. It's the ISH which makes me nervous... $\endgroup$ – Liath Oct 9 '14 at 12:46
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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps if you define their attitude towards technology that then narrows it down. It's still going to be very speculative/hypothetical but at least if people know whether the elves are actively participating or rejecting that gives a framework to build things on. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 9 '14 at 12:47
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    $\begingroup$ I typed a longer response before noticing this got put on hold. The gist of it was: how does society react, throughout history, to having Elves as a culturally distinct minority? It's likely to be an ongoing cycle of adaptation and reaction between both cultures, probably involving some combination of the following: trade, exploitation, suspicion, fear, racism, war, slavery, resentment, and cultural blending. Real life analogues can be found in (mis)treatments of Basque, Romani, European Jews, Native Americans, African American slaves, South American tribes. $\endgroup$ – Caleb Hines Oct 10 '14 at 5:17
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There's actually two questions here: one is a big-picture view, about how Elves would "adapt to modern society", the second is more specific: "would they withdraw from technology?" I will mostly explore the first question, because (1) it matches the title and (2) the second question (technology adoption) can only be answered as it relates to the larger context of the first (socioeconomic adaption). So: How will a proud and long-lived, but small and fragmented, minority group of Elves adapt to modern (mostly human) culture?

To answer this question, one really needs to take a historical perspective. Unless the Elves were suddenly scooped up from Old "Middle Earth", and suddenly dropped off into Modern "Middle Earth", they will not be adapting to "modern" society all at once. They will, instead, be constantly re-adapting to a society that is changing faster (or at least differently) than they are. This adaptation will be an on-going process, and will also be a two-way street. As Elves are adapting to a changing society, that changing society is adapting to their adaptations. So an important corollary question is, how does human society (throughout history) react to Elves. Because then you can ask how the Elves adpat to this reaction, and what the counter-reaction to that is.

Sidenote: Since I've written this, you've added a stipulation that humans generally respect the Elves, and largely don't come into contact with them. I think that at a modern tech-level, with satellites and global transportation and communication networks, the later will be relatively difficult to justify. Especially if they comprise as much as 5% of the world's population (roughly equivalent to the entire U.S. population). It's true that there are still uncontacted people groups in the world today, but these are rapidly disappearing, and all are extremely tiny (on the order of a few hundred people) and incredibly remote (mostly in South America, South East Asia, and Papua New Guinea). While some people believe we should let them be, others (such as missionaries, anthropologists, business developers, or tourist guides) will seek out these people.

As for the idea that humans will generally respect the (largely unknown) Elves, I think this is difficult to justify from a historical perspective. One has only to look at real-life history to see analogues for how minority groups who retain a unique cultural identity are treated. Sadly, it is rarely positive, and is often filled with suspicion, fear, and even outright violence. As a disclaimer: I hope I don't inadvertently offend anyone with this post; these can be sensitive topics, and I'm painting with an overly-broad brush, and without expert knowledge on the topic.

Given your parameters, it seems inevitable that, at least at some point in history, there will have been an "us vs. them" mentality between Men and Elves (this is even present to an extent in Tolkien). It's quite probably that at least some Men would even view Elves as less-than-human (and almost certain that many Elves view Men similarly). That may still be prevalent in your present, or folks may be trying to move past that. But cultural and racial grudges seem to last a very long time -- easily multiple centuries, even with our puny human lifespans (look at the Middle East conflict). With longer Elven lifespans, these grudges will probably be longer-lived. However, it's also important to remember that an individual's decisions are not bound by their race, nationality, or culture. That is while a majority of Elves (or Men) may act in a certain way towards the other, there will, of course, always be exceptions (to suggest otherwise could be construed as being racist!).

Assuming your Elves want to stay withdrawn, it may not actually be their choice. At some point, the pride of Men will probably drive them to seek physical resources that the Elves have -- timber, ranching lands, oil reserves... If the two are on roughly equal terms, they may be able to trade (as between Mirkwood and Lake-Town), but if that fails, there may be war between them. However, if the sides are too vastly mismatched (because the Elves have not adopted the latest technologies as quickly, or have a substantially smaller population, or are to politically fragmented) than the weaker side may be forced to retreat. Consider the deforestation, ranching, and mining in South American rainforests, but replace the indiginous peoples being displaced with Elves. How many will choose to fight to keep the forest (possibly being labeled terrorists, radicals, or nationalists), vs. withdrawing further into it (and being called isolationists). How many will grow tired of the conflict, and move to the human cities, looking for better jobs? A similar example was the United States' expansion, and the shameful mistreating of Native Americans in wars and forced relocations into reservations. In Europe, we can look at the mistreatment of minority groups such as Cagots, Romani, and Jews, which, on the bad side, can range from general social stigma, to disreagard and contempt, to outright Holocaust.

And then there's the question of manual labor. At some point, your society will have gone through a population boom and an Industrial Revolution. But before machinery becomes widespread, cheap manual labor may well have been an important commodity. In the real world, this led to utilizing slave labor, sometimes from indigenous people groups, and sometimes imported -- most famously in the form of African slaves. This has had widespread and long-lasting effects on the U.S., not just in terms of raical tensions, which still exist, but also in terms of cultural development. For example, in music, gospel spirituals, ragtime, jazz, blues, latin-american, hip-hop, and rap have all come to some extent from this blending of Western and African cultures. If your Elves are incapable of defending themselves, they may be similarly exploited as slave labor. But there may also be a corresponding cultural blending that occurs Interestingly, this slavery option is an approach that Dragon Age explores with its Elves, essentially placing them in urban slums, and having them be treated as sub-human..

Another question is economics. Third world nations aren't usually third world because they shun technology (even if they may have initially done so), but rather because they are stuck in poverty and can't afford all the high-tech trappings of a modern life. If your small groups of Elves are successful at remaining isolated like some South American tribes, they likely won't have the means or standard of living to afford much technology. If they become only partially integrated, as a despised subculture in slums, they might be able to afford an old TV and a used clunker of a car. If they become fully integrated into an advanced west-like society, they may well have a close-to-equal standard of living and access to technology. In other words, the level of social integration may be the largest determiner of economic means.

Yet another factor to consider is that, when a group decides to stay withdrawn, a recurring theme is a generational gap. Each individual of each new generation has to make an individual choice (often during adolescence to young adulthood) to stay loyal to the "old ways", or join the "new ways". Often you hear about tribes shrinking as the youth move away and rejecting their parents ways, in pursuit of what is perceived to be a "better" life, or at least a better "potential" (compare this with Arwen's decision to stay with Aragorn). Granted, with longer-lived elves, this process will likely be much slower, but I see no reason it would not occur eventually. However, this can also lead to a feeling of not fitting into the new culture, or being stuck between worlds, as it were, or even looking for unique ways to integrate the old and new aspects of their culture.

There is a surprising counter-example to the above, however, to be found in the Amish. You would expect them to be shrinking as the younger generation moves away, but that is not necessarily the case. However, many Amish communities have apparently become somewhat more tolerant of technologies (it's up to each community to decide), even while still lagging the mainstream. Furthermore, I'll speculate that for whatever reason, the Amish seem to project a certain idealized, idyllic image that allows us to see them somehow as a "wholesomely eccentric self" rather "threateningly different other". Perhaps this is a niche your Elves could fill, although I tend to think their differences would make that difficult.

So when it comes to technology for the Elves, the question isn't so much "will they adopt new technologies" -- it's "will they adopt them fast enough to keep pace with human society." Because if they don't at least try to keep up, it seems likely that they would be destined to become a repressed and mistreated subculture, swallowed up within that larger society, at which point they gradually become assimilated, and eventually end up using that technology anyway.

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  • $\begingroup$ But am I sensing it's not quite what you're looking for? $\endgroup$ – Caleb Hines Oct 12 '14 at 5:56
  • $\begingroup$ Well i can only upvote it once. You did throw out some assumptions, but you seemed to do so for good reason. I was hoping for more discussion from the other commenters, but i think this question is past its time. Accepted, for detail and thought. $\endgroup$ – Danny Reagan Oct 12 '14 at 11:42
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Given that it's hard to base an answer on interracial relations, the distribution of the other races, the treatment of elves etc. since all of those can have many kinds of effects, I'm going to base my argument on the elves themselves.

For the hasty, I'm going to argue that they will not reject technology at all.

The "facts"

From what we know of them definitively:

  • They live really long lives (practically immortal unless killed)
  • They're proud and contemptuous of the accomplishments of other races
  • They can't really use magic, unless they beg or ask for it

I think that it's pretty clear that they would not only embrace technology, they would create new technology sometimes before humans and other races, despite the knack for it that, for example, dwarves have, or the motivation for it that humans have.

Considering that, if we're going by the common portrayal here, in stories:

  • They use technology contemporary to the other races
  • They're known for great craftsmanship in some technological areas (armor, swords, bows)
  • They take great pride in doing this well

I see no reason why they will lag behind, refuse technology or not have knowledge of it.

Immortal engineers

In fact, I think it's more likely that given their long life span, they might have some of the greatest experts in some fields - certainly not because they're cleverer, but because they have more time to learn things (and learn many disciplines well, which is an advantage) and less of their experts will die of old age, leading to having many of their accomplished engineers and scientists alive centuries after their breakthroughs.

They might not really be much better than humans, dwarves or others in inventing new technology or engineering it well, but they do inherit a great amount of cultural pride, which, due to their lifespans, is unlikely to change much and doesn't really get in the way in terms of population evolution, simply because of the enormous amount of experience individuals aggregate over the course of their lives. This pride will surely get hurt if mere humans and especially dwarves (again, if elves are stereotypical) have amazing technology and they're still dependent on breastplates and swords.

Survival

Also, technology is unavoidable - without it, they won't be able to defend themselves from a point and on. Would they really trust what they see as violent humans, greedy dwarves, animalistic orcs with muskets, tanks, rockets, machine guns and nukes, without making sure they can protect themselves and fight back? While having an extra-dimensional island to escape to might not be part of every setting, even if they do have such a means of escaping danger, it won't always be available wherever they are and, since it's part of the universe, other races can and eventually will find ways to access it. Would the cautious and un-trusting elves allow themselves to be caught off guard? They might let humans fight their own wars and not intervene, but they won't let them march against their own lands uncontested.

Without magic, how would they solve any of these problems?

Elves often embody the "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" thing in stories - swords crafted so well they can cut anything, bread made so well it fills you up after a bite, armor both flexible, comfortable, light and still stronger than any other armor. These are not always the result of magic but often the product of incredible craftsmanship.

Why do they give such a technophobic impression though?

I think this lies at the heart of how they're contrasted with humans. Elves are ancient, cautious, proud, contemptuous of younger races, believe in established and old ideals: they're portrayed no different than wise elderly people, without the "elderly" and without having to be likable.

This naturally is linked, in our heads, with technophobia and the rejection of new things: because old people tend to be like that.

But Elves are not old people that just have automatic plastic surgery and you can't get rid of them. They're a race, perhaps a species even, with a successful civilization and, from all the ways they're portrayed in classic fantasy fiction, a healthy technological understanding, often ahead of that of other races. If they really were technophobes, they certainly would not be known for their craftsmanship and skills.

Another parallelism is perhaps to comfortable aristocracy, which I think is reflected in the dislike other races may have for elves in some settings - they see elves as incapable of understanding the threat of aging, hunger, illness etc. . This is unlikely to have an impact on technological progress I think - if this is nothing more than how they're perceived, it's not a characteristic - but if it is, comfort and lifestyle take work; if that work can be done for you, without having to depend on others, why reject it?

I would like to remind that they wouldn't just get placed in modern society out of nowhere - they would live, for milennia, in a world growing and changing, with new technology arising all the time.

They may be reclusive, sure - tucked away in their forests, sure. But even with that trait, I can't see them having virtually no contact with the rest of the world and certainly can't see them abstaining from technology. Because that's not how elves work and because they couldn't afford it.

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    $\begingroup$ Well reasoned, a potential counter argument though is that people tend to "rest on their laurels". Once someone has a theory and it is established they will defend it to the bitter end even when it starts to unravel as new theories come along. This could lead to a lot of stagnation as all the good research spots are filled with people who already think they know it all. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 10 '14 at 20:22
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB true, but I find it hard to imagine people who stay physically young enough to not be inhibited by health and live forever, to not eventually develop psychological and cultural mechanisms around this. If they managed to be contemporary during the narrated times, they should manage it later as well - they didn't become immortal at that point, they where always. Also, there are pressures that can get most stubborn and conservative people to break from their mindset - how likely is it than someone living centuries would not have to do this multiple times? $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 10 '14 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ I think this ignores Tolkien's attitude of technology. Saruman, and his metal and wheels motif was something Tolkien looked down on. Even if the elves did embrace technology, I think having them around would have changed the trajectory of science, and kept it much more green. $\endgroup$ – Vulcronos Oct 12 '14 at 0:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Vulcronos yeah but green doesn't mean non-advanced. Also, while Tolkien is responsible for elves being more than just goblins and gnomes, there has been a lot of interpretation and addition to his portrayal of elves. He is famous for disliking that people read more into his stories than he intended - and while he probably was somewhat anti-tech, I don't think we can interpret elves, as a storytelling archetype today, going just by how Tolkien thought of technology. Simply put, no matter what he though, his elves did use technology and where good at it too. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx Oct 12 '14 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ The anti-tech attitude may come from a greater sense of responsibility brought about by a longer life span and slower, more meticulous education. Reference: in the computer game "Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura" the technologically-adept humans are criticized by Elves (and/or Dwarves) for making foolish decisions with respect to advancement of technology because the Humans' life spans are so short they never live to see the consequences. As a thought experiment: consider how modern elves might react to the dessication of the Aral Sea. $\endgroup$ – nothingisnecessary Mar 4 '15 at 5:21
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I believe if Tolkien's elves were in our world today they would be very withdrawn.

Location

In the books you can see the elves took a lot of convincing to get involved in what they thought of as the troubles of men, they tended to keep to themselves in their last strongholds of Mirkwood, Rivendell and Lorien.

I would suggest that there are some similarly remote parts of the world which they would withdraw to, some parts of the Himalayas or deep in the Rocky mountains. Elves do not feel cold so the cooler temperatures wouldn't impact them, however they do love growing things, perhaps somewhere like the Boreal Forest.

They would have lived their for millenia so as well as being repetitively quiet many myths and legends would have developed around these places.

Technology

I don't believe the technological world would hold much interest to an elf. As far as I'm aware throughout the books the elves do not make any technological advances. Their culture is very stagnant, they simply remain young for ever (there are some great questions on SciFi.SE about the doom of the elves and Galadriel's ring to slow the impact of time).

I don't envisage science and gadgetry being picked up by their communities, that's not to say the odd rebellious elf wouldn't use carbon fibre arrows but I consider it unlikely they would switch to machine guns or start tweeting their views online.

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    $\begingroup$ I can imagine that some young, eccentric elves could get interested in the world of humans. A bit like the Amish or the wizards in Harry Potter. $\endgroup$ – overactor Oct 9 '14 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, after all there are some elves in the books who get more involved. I was trying to speak generally. $\endgroup$ – Liath Oct 9 '14 at 13:15
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I think the answer here is both. First they would resist, then embrace.

First they would fight against technological change. The most prominent reason that a cultural or racial group rejects technology is that it threatens their way of life and there is generally backlash at the source of the threat. This can come from a variety of sources.

  • Rapid Change
  • Loss of social identity

From Wikipedia: The SIDE model provides an alternative explanation for effects of anonymity and other "deindividuating" factors that classic deindividuation theory1[2] cannot adequately explain. The model suggests that anonymity changes the relative salience of personal vs. social identity, and thereby can have a profound effect on group behavior.

  • Threatening financial well being (They took our jobs)

From Wikipedia: Technophobia began to gain national and international attention as a movement with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. With the development of new machines able to do the work of skilled craftsmen using unskilled, underpaid men, women, and children, those who worked a trade began to fear for their livelihoods. In 1675, a group of weavers destroyed machines that replaced their jobs. By 1727, the destruction had become so prevalent that Parliament made the demolition of machines a capital offense.

  • Relative deprivation compared to other groups. I don't have a source but modern terrorism in many cases capitalizes on this feeling of discontent.

The logical progression of this could follow a few different paths which would be impacted by events in the world around them, but the most likely for the elves would at first resist change. They would not accept modern technology and may in fact have a societal legal ban on the use of modern technology. (There would always be fringe elements interested).

Like isolationism in the 19th-20th centuries, which is similar conceptually, eventually the Elves would come around. The most likely scenario is violent conflict. For example the U.S. and Japan were both pulled out of isolationist policies by World Wars. That said in a more peaceful world, where the other races didn't bother the Elves this is still the likely outcome. The tides of globalization and technological advancement have proven themselves pretty impossible to resist thus far in history, that isn't to say we never go backwards as there is intense push-back against the idea but its hard to hold back the tide for long.

When elves finally do accept technology it would obviously be 'Green' energy.

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    $\begingroup$ I appreciate the inclusion of quotes from sources, but that first wikipedia quote is so full of jargon it might as well be written in Estonian. Perhaps consider a more (average)human-readable quote? $\endgroup$ – Danny Reagan Oct 9 '14 at 14:20
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They could choose to do anything. They have free will and realistically they are most likely to follow the most persuasive leader. Just like any society there are differing opinions and agendas. So when building your world and making decisions they are going to be the result of the lead of a popular and trusted figure.

It is these differences that are used in many worlds to create divisions that lead variations like the moon, wood, and dark elves.

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If elves and the other races existed, society would have evolved into a very different shape from what we know. Specially if we consider the existence of magic. Magic in a given moment may have evolved into a sort of technology supplying many of the functions our technology does.

I assume "Tolkinian" elves with their natural affinity to magic would be in a strong position in this case chances are that a strong caste system had evolved or that the elves (and maybe others) had been able to maneuver themselves into positions of power.

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