The Amish are pro-technology—just in a different way…


The Amish are anything but anti-technology.  “I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers and surprisingly pro-technology,” writes Kevin Kelly.


If you know something about Kevin Kelly, he may be the last person you’d expect to write sympathetically about the Amish being pro-technology.  He co-founded Wired magazine in 1993 and currently blogs at The Technium and Lifestream.  He is the author of several books, including What Technology Wants.


“In many ways the view of the Amish as old-fashioned luddites is an urban myth,” according to Kelly in an online article entitled “Amish Hackers.”  And he offers several observations that help us understand how the Amish relationship to technology is more complex—and potentially more helpful—than we might first imagine.


Like all legends, the Amish myth is based on some facts. The Amish, particular the Old Order Amish – the stereotypical Amish depicted on calendars – really are slow to adopt new things. In contemporary society our default is set to say “yes” to new things, and in Old Order Amish societies the default is set to “no.”


From cubicles in public libraries Amish sometimes set up a website for their business.  So while Amish websites seem like a joke, there’s quite a few of them.


On close inspection, most Amish use a mixture of old and very new stuff.


Behind all of these variations is the Amish motivation to strengthen their communities.


The Amish also make a distinction between technology they have at work and technology they have at home.


One Amish man told me that the problem with phones, pagers, and PDAs (yes he knew about them) was that “you got messages rather than conversations.”


The Amish, Kevin Kelly tells us, are steadily but slowly adopting technology, ranging from small generators that provide electricity for the home to half-million dollar computer-controlled milling machines.  And then there’s the compressed air-driven sewing machine.  The Amish are “ingenious hackers and tinkers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers”—they are slow geeks, according to Kelly.  They do adopt technology—but at their own pace. 


These slow geeks have been deciding about cell phones for over ten years.  The process for making this and other decisions is summarized at the end of “Amish Hackers.” There, Kelly provides a summary of “slow adoption” that he thinks may be instructive.


1.       They are selective. They know how to say “no” and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ban more than they adopt.

2.       They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.

3.       They have criteria by which to select choices: technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.

4.       The choices are not individual, but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.


Kevin Kelly is not suggesting—and neither am I—that we become Amish.  But there are valuable lessons that we can learn from them as we ponder the cultural challenges described by Sherry Turkle and Pico Iyer in the two previous posts.


I’d add a couple other considerations.


·         We’ll have to learn to get beyond the “problem of odd”—odd isn’t cool.  It’s odd to not text or have a Twitter account.  It’s very odd to not have a cell phone.  And it is even more odd to have a cell phone and not text, check e-mail, or follow our friends on Facebook.

·         More isn’t necessarily better!  Pico Iyer reminded us that in the 24/7 world of endless internet connections and infinite mounds of information, the essential question is, “What is essential?”  There is much to wrestle with here since “the information revolution came without an instruction manual.”

·         “Those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are.  This lesson from Sherry Turkle should provoke considerable thought as we sort through how we are changed and how these little gadgets shape our relationship to others and the world around us.


As I’ve written this and the previous three posts, a brief phrase from the Apostle Paul has lingered in the back of my mind—don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold (Romans 12:2). 



Photo:  The picture at the top is of an Amish solar-powered phone shanty in Holmes County, Ohio.  This is another way of keeping technology in its place.  It is used for phone calls so the telephone doesn’t interrupt the flow of family activity.


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