The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

Amish Technology

Last year, I decided to take the train to visit my grandmother 12 hours away. It was my first time on something other than a commuter train. I wanted to try train travel for the novelty of it, and also for the nostalgia of it. The train was part of the experience, not just the means for getting to my destination. It's not the most efficient way to travel, but that's not the point. Obsolescence does that. It's why we still have horses and carriages.

Among the novelties of my experience, I was surprised to see some Amish on the train. They were unmistakable—sturdy clothing, straw hats, bad haircuts.

Seeing them on the train presented me with a paradox. The Amish are known for not using cars, telephones, or electricity, so how could they be okay traveling by trains? It didn't seem to make sense.

Until recently, I believed that the Amish had simply decided one day in the 19th century to cease all progress—to draw the line and go no further. The line seemed quite arbitrary to me. Why the 19th century instead of the 16th, the 12th, or the 1st? But while their appearance and lifestyle appears to be a 19th-century agrarian one, I was more or less completely wrong about everything else.

The Amish were once technophiles. One leading scholar on the Amish said that until the 1920s, "the Amish were often the first ones in a community to buy the new inventions as they came on the market" (Kraybill 1989:173). This is not the reputation they have today. Today, the Amish do not own cars, but they will hire drivers to take them places. They do not have phones in their homes, but many Amish families share "phone shanties" (think, wooden phonebooths). They do not use electricity, but they have refrigerators, generators, and flashlights. We think of the Amish as epitomizing the Luddite philosophy, so how do we reconcile that with their use of these 20th-century innovations?

To many, these paradoxes seem erratic, illogical, or plain hypocritical. Some outsiders may simply shrug and pity the Amish for such apparent flawed logic. The truth is that "the Amish have an elaborate system by which they evaluate the tools they use" ("Look Who's Talking," Wired). The Amish approach to technology is not a carte blanche rejection of technology, nor is it unconditional acceptance.

The key to understanding the Amish paradox is through something called "Gelassenheit." Roughly translated, the term means submission. In the Amish context, it specifically refers to yielding absolutely to a higher authority.

Gelassenheit isn't just this single value though—it is a constellation of principles that the Amish community has defined and been defined by. Gelassenheit has produced the picture we have of the Amish today. Donald Kraybill (1989:26) identified five dimensions to Gelassenheit, each with defining characteristics: (1) Personality is reserved, modest, calm, and quiet. (2) Values include submission, obedience, humility, and simplicity. (3) Symbols include dress, horse, carriage, and lantern. (4) Ritual involves baptism, confession, ordination, and foot-washing. (5) And structure is intended to be small, informal, local, and decentralized.

The Gelassenheit posture toward technology could probably best be summed up with this question: "Does it bring us together, or draw us apart?" The Amish have a radical commitment to community. "Their selective use of technology, thus, hinges on an implicit assessment of [technology's] long-term impact on community life" (Kraybill and Nolt, 1995). Technology is evaluated by the community for the community.

I would call this type of approach "limited adoption." The Amish use technology but limit how and where they use it. The Amish, as you will see, have proven adept at creating limits that allow them to maintain conscious, overt control over the technologies they use while also harnessing their benefits.

So what does "limited adoption" mean for cars, telephones, and electricity?

Cars. For the Amish, limited adoption of the automobile has meant drawing the line between use and ownership (Kraybill 1989:168). The Amish will use cars, but not own them. Neither will they drive them nor get driver’s licenses. Instead they will hire drivers to transport them as needed.

By not owning vehicles, the Amish fulfill numerous dimensions of Gelassenheit. They maintain humility by not being caught up in the status-seeking of what kind of car they drive. They maintain the interdependence of a close community and resist the independence afforded by automatic mobility. They retain the human scale of living instead of the automotive scale. Thus, they have walkable communities instead of driveable suburbs. They maintain greater separateness from the world by being limited in their capacity to go beyond the community. They maintain their modest and reserved character by resisting the fast, free-wheeling attitude intrinsic to car culture.

Telephones. For telephones, the road to limited adoption was harder to navigate. The phone's perceived purpose is to "bring people together." But first, phones expect people to be separated. Then, they make separation seem palatable (in concert with the automobile). "In a highly mobile society, the phone connects people separated by thousands of miles, and yet, for the Amish, bonded by face-to-face interaction, [the telephone] was a separator" (Kraybill 1989:145). Face-to-face communication is important to the Amish, but the phone erodes it almost imperceptibly by offering approximate communication. Thus, in their approach to the telephone, "Amish leaders have tried to maintain the primacy of communication in the context of community" (Kraybill and Olshan 1994:105).

For the Amish, limited adoption resulted in "phone shanties." The Amish rejected installing phones in their homes because phones interrupt and demand priority when they are ringing. Instead, the Amish have built small buildings that look a lot like outhouses. Then they put the phone inside, often with an answering machine. These shanties serve numerous nearby households. "The Amish believe that a home phone separates but that a community phone integrates" (Kraybill 1989:148). The shanties also provide a nearby means for calling in case of emergency (the Amish have adopted most medical technology). Phone shanties reap the benefits of the telephone while also upholding Gelassenheit values of community and separateness from the world. The Amish retain conscious control and use the telephone on their own terms. The Amish don’t abibe by the telephone’s expectations. Instead, the telephone defers to their values.

Electricity. With electricity, the Amish have limited its adoption but also invented alternatives that maintain their values. Unlike the car and the phone, electricity doesn't have one single intended use. Instead, it’s tranformed into all sorts of uses. Thus, rejecting electricity means rejecting everything that is powered by electricity from furnaces and fridges to power tools and electric fences. Rejecting electricity has many consequences that can hardly be foreseen. But the Amish have proven adept at resolving such problems in creative ways.

Electricity's multiple uses has resulted in multiple solutions on the part of the Amish. Essentially, the Amish have alternative means for powering everything except light bulbs and electronics. They've practiced limited adoption by using 12-volt batteries, fuel, air power, and hydraulic power. Batteries and fuel generators require consistent monitoring, so the Amish retain conscious, overt control, not passive awareness of their electrical consumption. Using these types of power sources instead of electricity maintains separateness from the world—from electronic media like TVs, radios, and the Internet, and from national power grids.

Perhaps, to our way of thinking, this "limited adoption" seems arbitrary. But this posture is grounded in Gelassenheit, not impulse. It's not arbitrary. It's intentional.

The Amish approach to technology and other aspects of life has its faults. However, I think their Gelassenheit and practice can inform our thinking. It can help us think about how we could approach technology with predetermined values instead of uncritical adoption, which characterizes much of American technologism.

In some ways, the truth is that the Amish are still at the cutting edge of technology. They are probably more thoughtfully engaged with technological development than most Americans are—even if it doesn't include Apple. They think seriously about the long-term effects of technology, and about what technology does to them. "Although the Amish may not enjoy all the conveniences of modern life, they are in control of their technology and intuitively grasp its long-term social impact" (Kraybill 1989: 164). In contrast to the American love affair with technology, the Amish have opted for conscientious engagement.

If we are to learn from the Amish and their "limited adoption" approach, we too need a sort of Gelassenheit of our own. We need to have predetermined values that inform our attitudes toward new technologies. If you were putting together your own Gelassenheit, what would you include?

Your mom taught you well