The Tech-Savvy Amish

It would be impossible to find human cultures that were not also tool-using cultures. For as long as there have been human beings there has also been technology. This is undeniable – it is also a rather banal observation too often deployed to undermine any critical discussion of specific technologies.

Since humans have always been technological creatures, cyborgs as it is fashionable to say, then we shouldn’t bother with critical reflection—or so the implicit argument goes. Making this sort of claim is a symptom of what I’ve called the Borg Complex: “Resistance is futile, Luddite.” Used in this way, the Luddite label is handy shorthand for “backward, hypocritical, ignorant reactionary.”

Excepting the Unabomber, however, most critics of technology are not interested in abolishing “technology”; nor are they so unsophisticated as to not recognize the necessary entanglement of the human and the technological. They are, however, searching for an elusive harmony or equilibrium between the technological and their vision of the life well lived. This vision will vary from person to person and from community to community, and so the elusive harmony is elusive in part because there is no default configuration that is timelessly and universally applicable.

In earlier times when technological change proceeded at a less frenetic pace, equilibrium might have been achieved and sustained by a particular society for the span of several generations. In such cases, it would not have been incumbent on each individual to work out their relationship to technology for themselves. In fact, they could hardly have conceived of the need to do so. It would have been for them as taken for granted a facet of life as the rising and setting of the sun. There would have been no experience of future shock.

But when the pace of technological change precludes the possibility of arriving at a settled social-technical configuration that may be passed down from one generation to the next, then technology becomes a thing to be thought of and fretted over. It presents itself as a problem to be addressed. We wonder about its consequences and we worry about it effects. And this is as one would expect. It is a symptom of the liquidity of modern life.

Even the Amish, often and mistakenly taken to be Luddites par excellence, are not exempt from this state of perpetual negotiation. In fact, the Amish are paradigmatically modern in that they have made the need to think about technology a defining feature of their culture. That they do so with extreme deliberateness and with so strong a preference for the conservation of their way of life only superficially distinguishes them from the rest of American society. In their consciousness of technology and its consequences, the Amish have more in common with the rest of us than any of us do with members of pre-modern society.

What does distinguish the Amish from the rest of American society is their unwillingness to refuse responsibility for the deployment of technology and their willingness to pay the necessary costs required to realize their vision of human flourishing. Members of their community that we might think of as designated early adopters sample all manner of new technology to judge whether or not it can be adopted without undermining their values or disrupting their communal life. Based on these criteria, the community decides which technology to adopt, under what circumstances, and within which parameters.

The Amish live in the same world that we do and are as aware of new technologies as the rest of us. But while technological momentum has taken root within most of American culture rendering the notion of technological determinism plausible, the Amish have succeeded in creating philosophical momentum. That is, they have institutionalized technological criticism which has substituted for the absence of change as a stabilizing factor. And it seems to me that this makes the Amish just about the most tech-savvy group of people around.

Update: By the way, “Nearly 250,000 Amish live in the U.S. and Canada, and the population is expected to exceed 1 million around 2050.”

Image via Wikicommons

21 thoughts on “The Tech-Savvy Amish

  1. Great post. The Amish definitely know how to make technology work for them within the limits that are set by their community ordnung. Each community sets their own standards for which technologies can be used, and also how they are implemented. The end goal is to not disrupt the family and community relationships.

  2. In what ways have the Amish created the need the, “extreme deliberateness and…strong a preference for the conservation of their way of life”? Are you referring to the Rumspringa or is there a similar technology-related period of decision making?

          1. Fair enough. What was your motivation for writing about the Amish? Are you musing about technology or have you always had a curiosity about them that lead you to write on the topic. Or was it because of Kevin Kelly’s post? Forgive the inquisitiveness I’ve just come out of an intensive residency for my Masters and I have been “rewired” to ask why all the time.

        1. Well, as sometimes happens the post I began to write is not the post I ended up writing. I began with the intention of writing the third part of the Smart Phone in the Garden series, but the momentum of my thoughts/writing took me elsewhere. The writing on here is almost always about technology and having read Kelly’s post long ago, the Amish kick around occasionally in my thinking. I take them to be a good model for not subordinating the rest of life to the demands of technology.

  3. The institutionalized criticism that you mention is quite unique to the Amish, I think. Eric Brende’s “Better Off” shows how the Amish deliberate on some of these matters. Regarding a meeting about how the community should use telephones, Brende writes, “Here were members of an obscure sect in a prayerful meeting – rationally evaluating the implications of a technology that the rest of us accept on faith.” Really, for most of us, technology adoption comes down to a personal choice. Perhaps a family might discuss whether they should buy a new tablet computer or a new snow blower, but beyond that you don’t see this type of thing happening. I’ve wondered in the past if my local church could have discussions like this regarding computers, cell phones, automobiles, lawn mowers, etc. and come up with some shared rules about these things but I think it would be extremely unlikely to happen.

    One issue I do have with the way many Amish interact with some technologies is that it doesn’t seem like it would work on a larger scale. To take one example, many Amish won’t own cars but they have no problem calling a taxi to take them where they need to go. For whatever reasons they’ve decided to do this, it obviously isn’t something that could work on, say, a national level because it would require at least some people to own cars and drive them. You couldn’t have a nation full of taxi passengers with no taxi drivers. In other words, the ways in which many Amish interact with technologies often requires other people to interact with technologies in ways the Amish wouldn’t.

    1. That line from Brende nicely sums it up. Thanks for posting that, I’ll have to look up “Better Off.” I think such conversations would be very unlikely in most churches. There’s too strong a commitment to individual autonomy, it would seem, for such robust communal practice to even seem plausible … sadly, I would add. On the second count, it is a fair point.

  4. It seems the Amish are so deliberate and thoughtful about how they incorporate technology into their lives because they are deliberate and thoughtful about their way of life in general. I’m wondering if Amish-style care in the adoption and use of technology is possible without paying such close attention to all of the decisions that constitute the living of a life. Huh. Now I’m thinking that the answer to many of the questions I have about the roles of technologies in culture is “mindfulness.”

  5. This was actually meant to be a response to Eric above. Hit the wrong button. Not very mindful about my use of technology, shamefully.

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