There are little more than two hundred thousand people around the world, but there is no collective, group or community that better symbolizes the rejection of technology and modern life than the Amish with their beards, their cars and those old-fashioned clothes. at least one hundred and fifty years.
Or, at least, that’s the image we have of them. But to tell the truth, the Amish have a somewhat unwarranted reputation as Luddites. As soon as we investigate, we realize that, under that nineteenth century appearance, we can find a very interesting way of approaching technology and a handful of hackers determined to get on the bandwagon of progress in their own way.
What are the Amish?
The Amish are an ethno-religious group typical of North America. That is, they are a set of Anabaptist communities descended from German and Swiss immigrants who arrived in America in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They are known for their simple lifestyle and their refusal to embrace modern comforts and technologies.
Few things are more technological than an Amish community
They are not a monolithic block, far from it. The practices and norms are different depending on the community we are looking at. And there are Amish communities in Canada, Mexico, and in various US states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana. But even so, the cultural unity of the Amish communities is very strong.
And yes, it is true that Amish villages and towns look remarkably anachronistic, but we must admit that the idea of portraying the Amish as old-fashioned Luddites is still an urban myth. An urban myth that, like everyone else, is based on a half truth. Faced with our predisposition to embrace technological developments with enthusiasm, the old Amish order often says ‘no’. And yet, there are few things more technological than a community of Germans in Pennsylvania.
The Amish relationship with technology
To get an idea of the complexity of the Amish relationship with technology, we can look at cars. Normally, cars are not used in the communities, but small horse-drawn carts: the famous buggies that appear in the movies. These cars have nothing to do with the car my great-uncle used: they are state of the art.
The Amish are not trying to stay in the 17th century, but to preserve and strengthen their communities
But the combustion engine ban is unclear. In many communities they are allowed in agricultural work if the tractors do not have steel wheels and cannot be driven on the road (“as if they were cars”); others allow the use of motors in threshing machines as long as they are not self-propelled; There are even those that directly allow cars, but only if the bodywork is black.
In a now classic article, Kevin Kelly explained to us that the intention of the Amish is not to remain in the seventeenth century as they say, but to preserve and strengthen their communities. When cars appeared in the early 20th century, communities realized that cars made it easier for people to spend their free time away (shopping or sightseeing) rather than shopping in the community or visiting friends and family.
Technology is useful if it helps the real community and brings us closer to it
It was not a technological rejection per se, but the expression of the conviction that “efforts should be focused as much as possible on the local community and that these efforts should not be allowed to go to waste.” Eric Brende, a PhD student at MIT, explained that the debate on the mobile phone remains the same.
During the first third of the 20th century, many Amish communities rejected electricity, the telephone, and radio for exactly the same thing: to make the minds of the members away from the real community. After all, one of his driving ideas is that “you should be in the world, but not of it.” In other words, one must live in the world, yes, but we must not get carried away by its logic, fashions or trends.
If we look closely, we find more surprises. For example, the Amish tradition very clearly differentiates between ‘owning something’ and ‘wearing something’. Or, put another way, not having a car does not mean that you cannot get a taxi. Or even hire people to drive Amish workers to factories in small vans. Nor can the internet be used in many communities, although no one prohibits using computers and the connection of public libraries to set up a web page.
Another clear distinction is between technology at home and technology at work. The home is off-limits, but it is not uncommon to find dairies with refrigerators, farms with computer-controlled technology, or workshops full of standard tools. Well, not standard.
There is a very curious cottage industry that is dedicated to modifying electrical appliances so that they use compressed air instead of batteries. Many call pneumatic systems Amish electricity. There’s a huge offering of air-powered blenders, sewing machines, or washers in what looks almost like a ‘steampunk’ novel.
In addition, driven by the autonomy that solar panels allow, electricity begins to be introduced little by little, driving calculators, welders or compressors with which to fill compressed air cylinders. And they don’t stop there.
On the cutting edge of technology
Eric Brende lived for a year in different Amish communities to study what this curious process of “technology selection” was like. There are hundreds of examples. The Amish have been one of the fastest growing communities to introduce GMOs. Mainly, because genetically modified varieties (such as, for example, shorter-stemmed wheat or tobacco) make it possible to maintain traditional working methods, increasing productivity.
On the other hand, credit cards, although they were used a lot at the beginning, were eventually rejected when it was seen that they generated problems of excess spending and indebtedness (a very serious problem in the US). Other technologies such as artificial insemination or mobile telephony have been debated for years.
The mobile phone, without going any further, is a tremendously controversial topic. A few years ago, communities used to have community telephones in relatively isolated booths. An emergency was an emergency, but when it comes to mobiles it is different. In 1999, Howard Rheingold went to investigate how mobiles were being integrated into Amish culture. At that time they had not made up their minds and to this day they still have not.
The Amish way of relating to technology
In Neal Stephenson’s latest book, there is a quote that says “it was a matter of friendship, a term coined eons ago by a Moran anthropologist to refer to the choices that different cultures made as to what technologies would be part of their lives and which ones did not. The word went back to the Amish of America, who had chosen to use certain modern technologies, such as skates, but not others, such as internal combustion engines. All cultures did so, frequently, without being aware that they had made a collective decision. “
Their way of adopting technologies is a rarity: they are selective, they are goal-oriented and the debate is not individual but community
The most curious thing about the Amish is that they are not anti-technological communities, they are not even collectives with a very strict interpretation of the precautionary principle (that of not using something new until we know for sure that it causes harm). On the contrary, the Amish are constantly adopting new technologies. As one Amish elder told Howard Rheingold, “We don’t want to stop progress, we just want it to slow down.”
In fact, they are quite a group open to innovations. There are always early adopters in the communities. The big difference is that, as Kevin Kelly explained, they are very clear that if they end up deciding that this technology does not contribute anything to the community, they will abandon it. Or, as Stephenson would say, the big difference is that they do it consciously and voluntarily.