June 19, 2018

Last week I wrote about the demographics of America’s Amish community – a religious and linguistic minority whose numbers double every generation.

The Amish are better known for their rejection of modern technology than their large families (though the latter follows from the former, if you catch my drift). What’s less understood is why they choose to live without cars, televisions and many of the other things that we take for granted. It’s not out of a fundamentalist belief that things invented after a certain date are sinful. Nor is it because the Amish are simple-minded hicks unable to cope with new-fangled gadgetry. In fact, the opposite is true – the Amish are among the most sophisticated users of technology on the planet.

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It’s a point that becomes apparent in Michael J Coren’s interview with Jameson Wetmore for Quartz:

“…the Amish [do not] view technology as inherently evil. No rules prohibit them from using new inventions. But they carefully consider how each one will change their culture before embracing it. And the best clue as to what will happen comes from watching their neighbors.

“‘The Amish use us as an experiment,’ says Jameson Wetmore, an engineer turned social researcher at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. ‘They watch what happens when we adopt new technology, and then they decide whether that’s something they want to adopt themselves.’”

Within the Amish community, there are different sub-denominations of various degrees of strictness. Then there are ‘para-Amish’ groups, like the Mennonites, who come from the same Anabaptist tradition as the Amish, but are more accommodating of modernity. And, of course, when the Amish ride their horse-and-buggies into town, they share the same spaces as ordinary Americans.

Therefore, they can observe a wide range of lifestyles from that of the Swartzentrubers (the most conservative of the Amish) all the way through to the completely secular.

It’s a broad spectrum, but not one without clear dividing lines between Amish and non-Amish:

“It’s interesting that the Amish have different districts, and each district has different rules about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Yet it’s very clear there are two technologies that, as soon as the community accepts them, they are no longer Amish. Those technologies are the television and the automobile.”

Many of the Amish do use telephones, but they ban them from the home – confining them to phone shanties at the edge of the community. (Mobile phones, however, have confused matters somewhat.)

The Amish relationship with technology, therefore, is negotiable – but, crucially, they have developed (retained?) the ability to make the big decisions at a community level – i.e. collectively and locally:

“For the Amish, there are no rules prohibiting new technologies. So typically what will happen is one member of the community will say, ‘You know, I’m fed up with axes. I’m using the chainsaw.’

“So maybe he goes out and begins to use a chainsaw. You might get some stern looks from neighbors, but officially it’s not prohibited. Every six months, the [Amish district councils] sit down and discuss. People are beginning to use chainsaws in our communities: Is this what we want? And then they have a conversation about it.”

In the ‘English’ (i.e. non-Amish) world, we make decisions about technology at the level of the individual and, in some cases, the family. In practice, however, our autonomy is limited. New technology, and the social change that comes with it, is something that just happens to us.

Wetmore mentions the social impact of the motorcar. Streets used to be for people – a playground for children, a meeting place for adults. With the coming of the car, that changed – children were literally driven out, and adults have to watch their step. It was a profound alteration to the everyday life of our communities, but how many of them ever made a deliberate decision whether to accept it or not?

Wetmore quotes the motto of 1933 Chicago World Fair: “Science finds. Industry applies. Man conforms.”

In Amish society, however, man doesn’t conform.

The rest of us need to become technological non-conformists too. The implications of advances in artificial intelligence, robotics and genetic engineering are too big for us to continue as passive recipients of change.

In the end this is not about our machines; it’s about us.

The Amish make conscious decisions about which technologies enable them to remain Amish. Before long, we will need to decide which technologies allow us to remain human.