Sunday, June 10, 2012

Lessons From the Amish

Having grown up near Pennsylvania Dutch country, I know surprisingly little about the Amish. The extent of my knowledge includes only the great variety of delicious deserts they make. So, I have to take the word of Kevin Kelly, who has spent much time with the Amish, in order to understand their approach to technology.

According to Kelly's research, there are very few examples of any cultures prohibiting the use of technology. Of course, many people decide not to drive, watch TV, or pay for data plans, but it's not often that we as a nation, culture, or society say 'No' to technology. The Amish, however, do this all the time.

Amish love their scooters

I had always thought that the Amish were anti-technology and lived in an unchanging world. In fact, they are obsessed with technology. Early adopters try out new technologies and the community sees what happens. Right now, for example, they're experimenting with solar power and cell phones. Standard land-line phones are typically housed in shacks far away from homes. Cell phones will likely be limited to areas outside the home, such as vans, if they are adopted.

That's right--the Amish use electricity, automobiles, refrigeration, genetically modified crops, and many other modern conveniences. But they use them in their own, deliberate ways. Kelly notes that:
  • They are selective.
  • They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory.
  • They have criteria by which to make choices.
  • The choices are not individual but communal.
What is the problem that the Amish have found with many new technologies? They disrupt the strong familial and communal life that they cherish. These values are so important that the Amish make sure everyone who is a part of the community wants to be there--young adults are free to live like non-Amish for a few years during a period they call Rumspringa before they freely choose to be Amish.

Amish solar paneling--look carefully

For us non-Amish, it is very difficult to make choices about technology for society at large, since it is not clear what criteria we all share. Even individually, it is hard to resist the push of smartphones, automobiles, or running shoes.

Even if we agree on what we want from technology (a pretty big 'if' in today's political climate), it's very hard to know what a technology really is until is has gained widespread adoption. Edison only considered the phonograph as a vehicle for music as an afterthought. Ford couldn't have imagined the drive-through's, cruisin' music, or urban sprawl made possible by automobiles. These 'second-order' effects happen because technologies are constantly being adapted for new uses and being combined with other technologies. For this reason, it's impossible to decide that a technology is bad a priori.

Based on the principles of Amish experimentation, Kelly suggests that we adopt the following goals:
  • Anticipation
  • Continual assessment
  • Prioritization of risks, including natural ones
  • Rapid correction of harm
  • Redirection, not prohibition
These are still a tall order, but they're more reasonable than trying to achieve Amish-like levels of consensus. The principles are the same: open discussion, experimentation, observation, and risk-assessment.  Let's try it out and then talk about it.


  1. Nice post. I don't know a whole lot about the Amish, but I can't imagine these decisions are very democratic. I imagine that its a council of elder men who make the decisions about how THEY believe a technology will affect the community. Hardly fair to the rest. Also, this is perhaps the same attitude they have toward information, letting it in selectively for what they perceive to be the good of the community. On a country level I would call it a theocracy.

  2. I have to go by what Kelly says, as few non-Amish have been part of these decisions. He doesn't go into a lot of detail about the decision-making process but focuses on the criteria by which they make decisions. According to Kelly, these decisions aren't made in advance of experimentation, so there is evidence of a technology's effects on a community. These effects are shared with other Amish communities via periodicals and word of mouth. Also note that different communities may decide differently. For instance, some allow tractors, others don't.

    Anyway, my point here isn't to idolize the Amish. Instead, it's to examine how one group (one of the few groups in history) has made decisions about technology. This involves having criteria to judge the effects of technology and it involves actually letting these effects play out. How this could be done in a modern, highly-complex, and pluralistic democracy will be answered in a later post! ;)

  3. I like that you've drawn attention to this. Like you, I didn't know why or how some technology was let into some communities. I thought there were some longstanding generally accepted principles among Amish to abstain from any technology invented after 1750 or something. So this is an eye-opener.

    Regarding the effects and criteria by which Amish adopt new technology--this doesn't seem far from what, say, my parents did for my brother and me growing up. When the internet took off, they made what I would say was a careful evaluation of the costs and benefits, and restricted it--until I was old enough to abuse it on my own.

    You get into the question of how deeply a state should involve itself in the lives of its citizens, and the Amish err on the side of greater involvement.

    What we don't do enough of in our society is fully appreciate what we give up with the widespread adoption of new technology.

  4. It's fascinating, isn't it?

    The thing about your last comment is that it's only with the widespread adoption of new technology that we see what it's really for. The Internet was pretty crappy in the early 90's...


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