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Approach Technology Like the Amish

September 18th, 2017 · 26 comments

Kevin Kelly and the Amish

Eight years after dropping out of college to wander Asia, Kevin Kelly returned home to America, bought an inexpensive bike, and made a meandering 5,000 mile journey across the country. As he recalls in his original and insightful 2010 book, What Technology Wants, the “highlight” of the bike tour was “gliding through the tidy farmland of the Amish in eastern Pennsylvania.”

Kelly ended up returning to the Amish on multiple occasions during the years that followed his first encounter, allowing him to develop a nuanced understanding of how these communities approach technology. As he reveals in Chapter 11 of his book, the common idea that the Amish reject all modern technology is a myth. The reality is not only more interesting, but it also has important implications for our current culture.

As Kelly puts it: “In any discussion about the merits of avoiding the addictive grasp of technology, the Amish stand out as offering an honorable alternative.”

Given such a strong endorsement, it seems worthwhile to briefly summarize what Kelly uncovered during these visits to rural Pennsylvania…

The Amish and Technology

“Amish lives are anything but anti-technological,” Kelly writes. “I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselvers. They are often, surprisingly, pro-technology.”

He explains that the simple notion of the Amish as Luddites vanishes as soon as you approach a standard Amish farm. “Cruising down the road you may see an Amish kid in a straw hat and suspenders zipping by on Rollerblades.”

Some Amish communities use tractors, but only with metal wheels so they cannot drive on roads like cars. Some allow a gas-powered wheat thresher but require horses to pull the “smoking contraption.” Personal phones (cellular or household) are almost always prohibited, but many communities maintain a community phone booth.

Almost no Amish communities allow automobile ownership, but it’s common for Amish to travel in cars driven by others.

Kelly reports that both solar panels and diesel electric generators are common, but it’s usually forbidden to connect to the larger municipal power grid.

Disposable diapers are popular as are chemical fertilizers.

In one memorable passage, Kelly talks about visiting a family that uses a $400,000 computer-controlled precision milling machine to produce pneumatic parts needed by the community. The machine is run by the family’s bonnet-wearing, 10-year old daughter. It’s housed behind their horse stable.

These observations dismiss the common belief that the Amish reject any technology invented after the 19th century. So what’s really going on here?

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.

As Kelly explains, when a new technology rolls around, there’s typically an “alpha geek” in any given Amish community that will ask the parish bishops permission to try it out. Usually the bishops will agree. The whole community will then observe this first adopter “intently,” trying to discern the ultimate impact of the technology on the things the community values most.

If this impact is deemed more negative than helpful the technology is prohibited. Otherwise it’s allowed, but usually with caveats on its use that optimize its positives and minimize its negatives.

The reason most Amish are prohibited to own cars, for example, has to do with their impact on the social fabric of the community. As Kelly explains:

“When cars first appeared at the turn of the last century, the Amish noticed that drivers would leave the community to go picnicking or sightseeing in other towns, instead of visiting family or the sick on Sundays, or patronizing local shops on Saturday. Therefore the ban on unbridled mobility was intended to make it hard to travel far and to keep energy focused in the local community. Some parishes did this with more strictness than others.”

This also explains why an Amish farmer can own a solar panel but not connect to the power grid. The problem is not electricity, it’s the fact that the grid connects them too strongly to the world outside of their local community, violating the Amish commandment to “be in the world, but not of it.”

The Original Digital Minimalists

I titled this post: Approach Technology Like the Amish. To be clear, I don’t mean that you should adopt the specific values of Amish life, as these are based primarily on their often illiberal and admittedly esoteric religious beliefs.

What I do mean, however, is that you should consider adopting their same thoughtfulness in approaching technology. The Amish are clear about what they value, and new technologies are evaluated by their impact on these values. The key is building a good life — not fretting about missing out on some minor short term pleasure or interesting diversion.

(If we held ourselves to this same standard, I suspect, many fewer people would own Apple watches.)

Later in this chapter, Kelly asks the key question: “This method works for the Amish, but can it work for the rest of us?”

He then answers: “I don’t know.”

I’m more confident than Kelly. I think something like this method can work for the rest of us, especially once you replace Amish values with your personal values, and the decree of your parish bishops with your own honest self-assessment.

In fact, I even have a name for such a philosophy: digital minimalism.

(Photo by frankieleon)

26 thoughts on “Approach Technology Like the Amish

  1. Amir says:

    Couldn’t agree more, In the end, we must ponder how the newly adopted technology is going to alter our brain in the long run. Technology comes with the promise of aid and comfort but if you look closely enough, people often become slaves to those techs.

  2. Thomas says:

    “Amish communities are not relics of a bygone era. Rather, they are demonstrations of a different form of modernity.”
    (John Hostetler, Amish Society)

    Great chapter on Amish Law: http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Course_Pages/legal_systems_very_different_12/Book_Draft/Systems/AmishChapter.html

  3. Well written post, Mr. Newport. As William James pithily quipped, “The art of being wise, is the art of knowing what to overlook.” One begins to both tap into, as well as master this fine art, when – just as you wrote in your above post – they are thoughtful and purposeful as to what they value.
    Thank you for the priceless, pragmatic wisdom. Keep up the good (and deep) work.

  4. J. El Omri says:

    What is good is easy to get. Thank you Cal !

  5. Spencer says:

    Just a minor correction; the phrase is “in the world, not of the world,” not “of the world, not in the world.”

  6. Travis Carr says:

    “be of the world, but not in it.” Strike that, reverse it. “be in the world, but not of it”

  7. Paul says:

    “If we held ourselves to this same standard, I suspect, many fewer people would own Apple watches”

    Not surprisingly, an another excellent piece. However, I do feel it is marred by that one sentence.

    In fact, you may find it’s the opposite. As I fight for my independence in a world of distractions I am, in fact, purchasing an Apple watch with the intent of distancing myself from my iPhone.

    No browser. No email. Just the time, task reminders, and fitness motivation (deep work is great but don’t forget to get up and move!)

    The lack of phone will, IMO, remove many more distractions than the watch brings. Of course, I will need some discipline in what I install on the device but becoming untethered from my phone and not worrying that I’ve left it behind will be a nice release.

    I’d encourage us not not demonize one instance of technology but rather focus the importance of the overall message and strategy.

    An avid reader.

  8. Remco Zwetsloot says:

    You might be interested in this recent NYT article: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/15/business/amish-technology.html

  9. Most interesting post! Thank you!

    I do have one comment about Apple Watches. I have seen it happen more than once, that a person enslaved to his smartphone got a coupled smartwatch, resulting in a far weaker dependence on the smartphone. Why was that? Because the man set up his notifications carefully to be only the ones he wanted. Then he was sure of not missing important notifications. Without noticing it, he started checking his smartphone a lot less.

    Now, w.r.t. deep work, I’d still take off the smartwatch. But I found it fascinating that another highly advanced technology allowed someone to take back control of their life!

    Cheers.

  10. Akram Ahmad says:

    – Wow, this essay is an eye-opener! Right up to this point in time, pretty much all I knew about the Amish was from an awesome movie I saw ages ago (“Witness”, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis) and occasionally running into an Amish furniture shop here or there in Austin (Texas) 🙂

    – But oh boy! Did I get myself an education in what the Amish mindset has to offer after reading this essay… This is exacty the sort of thing I need to share with my readers after posting an essay on the pursuit of the “Deep Learning” area in Artificial Intelligence (AI) just a day ago!

    1. Grace says:

      Thanks! Really nice article!

  11. Scott says:

    I now have another subject to research ..Amish!
    I like what I hear, alot
    As a firm believer in “just because you can so something – dosent mean you SHOULD”.
    I used to question the enslavement effect of most mosern technology.
    I no longer question it. Its here. Its on main st USA…and its not healthy.
    We were never “designed” to know everything, instantly fro mall over the globe. too much ti handle.
    https://scottsthoughts12.wordpress.com/

    Wonderful article.

  12. MG says:

    A book along the same lines is BETTER OFF by Eric Brende, an MIT student who spent eighteen months living in a quasi-Amish community and learning a lot about the impact of technology.

    https://www.amazon.com/Better-Off-Flipping-Switch-Technology/dp/0060570059

    A few years after reading his book, I actually met him when he was dropping his daughter off to go to college at the same time as my daughter. He still didn’t own a car.

  13. I happened to grow up on a family farm in Lancaster, PA, home of the Amish. We are not Amish, no, as I write this post from my iPhone 7 Plus. We did have Amish neighbors however, and I grew up working alongside them. They are the epitome of focusing on the things that matter, namely family and spending quality time with friends and neighbors. We should all be so fortunate! Being “lost in time” is a worthy endeavor, indeed, so long as it is time well spent!

  14. Skeptic says:

    The rising heroin epidemic, the lack of education after 8th grade, the deeply rooted sexism, the rise of genetic issues in an insulated population… I’m not convinced that this is a great example that we should model ourselves after.

    The general attitude of doing a cost-benefit analysis on technology is good. The Amish, in particular, seem more prone to being stuck in the way things are despite the overall benefit of adopting the new (whether technology, cultural practices, medicine, etc). This is nearly the opposite of what many do in the US, which is to adopt new technology as soon as it exists, without much thought to the cost. One side fixates more on the costs, the other side fixates more on the benefits.

    Balance is needed.

  15. Grace says:

    Sometimes, I miss the 1990’s. Or, at least, the 2000’s. Like, well, this: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/DJ2jK2bUQAUObKN.jpg

    1. Grace says:

      Just to add:
      Yesterday I watched “Columbus”, by Kogonada, and I thought it could interest you and/or readers of your blog. It has some interesting reflections about connection, attention, smartphones, the effects of architecture on us (it reminded me of “open office” posts). It is a nice movie.

  16. Much yes to this! Once again, Cal, you and I find ourselves writing from similar angles. I wrote about using an Amish approach to technology back in 2016: http://patrickrhone.com/2016/09/09/an-amish-approach-to-technology/

    I’ve practiced this approach for years and it has never failed me.

  17. Chris says:

    Long term studies of shift workers suggests we should probably be using more cautionary approach to light up technology and other forms of artificial light. They found over exposure affected hormone levels, cancer rates, obesity, even the ability to recover after a heart attack. See “Lights Out!” documentary. Part of solution is having proper light filters available for screens and eyewear, and producing lights that emit less blue light. Documentary may be viewable on PBS site in US, or on CBC Nature of Things site in Canada.

  18. Philip Moser says:

    I really want a branded “‘Deep Work’ in Progress” door hanger for my office door! You could sell a boatload of those to modular deep workers!

  19. Kenneth Ambrose says:

    LOL, unfortunately, this is the ostrich syndrome applied to humans.
    Sure, let’s discard all our technology and see how long it takes Kim Jun Un or Putin to turn the Amish countryside into a nuclear wasteland.
    The Amish simply let other people do their dirty work for them. If we didn’t protect them, their women and children would be turned into toys by the brutes of the world and their so called “men” turned into boot-lickers.

  20. Greg says:

    >the Amish commandment to “be in the world, but not of it.”

    That is a general Christian tenet, not specific to the Amish:

    https://duckduckgo.com/?q=in+the+world+not+of+the+world&t=hb&ia=web

  21. Ernilie says:

    Amazing how different cultures can teach us about our own.
    Thanks, Cal !

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