Despite growing up within driving distance of Amish Country, I never expected to see the Amish as a source of tech-savvy guidance. A decentralised religious group with roots in Germany and Switzerland, the Amish immigrated to the US in the 1700s – mainly to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where they remain a regular sight, sporting simple outfits, working on family farms, and driving horse-drawn buggies. Many Americans think of them as Luddites who make nice wooden furniture. For years, I viewed them (naively) as a society frozen in time. Had they just picked a year, I wondered, and refused to use any technology invented later than that?
My interest in the Amish began in a way that surprised me. A while ago, I started to feel like my days were too undirected, spent scrolling, scrolling, scrolling through Twitter and news aggregators and apps in a habitual, unfulfilling way. I didn’t have a breaking point, exactly, but I knew something was up when I realised I’d developed a habit of pulling out my phone on the toilet. With fresh eyes, as I started reading up on the business model of addictive technology and the advice for resisting it, I found myself reading about the Amish.
The fear that technology is changing us for the worse – by speeding up the world beyond our ability to cope – has been around for a long time. Decades ago, white-collar workers bemoaned the frenzy of after-hours faxes and the pressure to check their PalmPilots. Even further back, conservative intellectuals fretted over the ‘confusion’ and ‘froth’ unleashed by the printing press. For students of these silicon-induced inquietudes, the Amish have served, quietly, as an intriguing model of resistance.
‘The Amish communities of Pennsylvania, despite the retro image of horse-drawn buggies and straw hats, have long been engaged in a productive debate about the consequences of technology,’ noted Wired magazine in 1999. In 2013, an NPR reporter observed that the ‘Amish community [is] not anti-technology, just more thoughtful’. Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired, spent time geeking out with ‘Amish hackers’ and peeking into workshops whose modern machines are powered by compressed air for his book What Technology Wants (2010). He concluded that: ‘In any discussion about the merits of avoiding the addictive grip of technology, the Amish stand out as offering an honourable alternative.’
The foundation of this ‘honourable alternative’ is to not adopt every single new technology, or use cars, phones and social media as soon as they become the norm. Instead, the Amish make slow and deliberate decisions as a collective. Rather than rushing optimistically or blindly into the future, they move forward cautiously, open but sceptical. [Continue reading…]