Date: Wed, 04 Aug 1999 20:26:24 +0100
From: Stephanie Stauffer <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: thoughful deliberations on technology
[Forwarded to Humanist with thanks. --WM]
>From the Jan issue of Wired Magazine, available online at:
Look Who's Talking
The Amish are famous for shunning technology. But their secret love
affair with the cell phone is causing an uproar.
By Howard Rheingold
Technology is my native tongue. I'm online six hours a day. I have a
cell phone, voicemail, fax, laptop, and palmtop. I'm connected - and
lately, I've been wondering where all this equipment is leading me.
I've found myself asking a question that's both disquieting and
intriguing: What kind of person am I becoming as a result of all this
Of course, I'm not the only one asking. And a while ago it occurred to
me that, in addition to measuring my reactions against those of others
in comparable circumstances, I might learn something entirely new by
looking at a civilization of which I am not a member. The Amish
communities of Pennsylvania, despite the retro image of horse-drawn
buggies and straw hats, have long been engaged in a productive debate
about the consequences of technology. So I turned to them for a
glimpse of the future.
Amish settlements have become a cliche for refusing technology. Tens
of thousands of people wear identical, plain, homemade clothing,
cultivate their rich fields with horse-drawn machinery, and live in
houses lacking that basic modern spirit called electricity. But the
Amish do use such 20th-century consumer technologies as disposable
diapers, in-line skates, and gas barbecue grills. Some might call this
combination paradoxical, even contradictory. But it could also be
called sophisticated, because the Amish have an elaborate system by
which they evaluate the tools they use; their tentative, at times
reluctant use of technology is more complex than a simple rejection or
a whole-hearted embrace. What if modern Americans could possibly agree
upon criteria for acceptance, as the Amish have? Might we find better
ways to wield technological power, other than simply unleashing it and
seeing what happens? What can we learn from a culture that habitually
negotiates the rules for new tools?
Last summer, armed with these questions and in the company of an
acquaintance with Amish contacts, I traveled around the countryside of
Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Everywhere, there were freshly planted
fields, farmhouses with handsome, immaculate barns and outbuildings.
At one farm we passed, a woman was sitting a hundred yards from her
house on the edge of a kitchen garden. She wore the traditional garb
of the conservative Old Order - a long, unadorned dress sheathed by an
apron, her hair covered by a prayer bonnet. She was sitting in the
middle of the garden, alone, the very image of technology-free
simplicity. But she was holding her hand up to her ear. She appeared
to be intent on something, strangely engaged.
"Whenever you see an Amish woman sitting in the field like that," my
guide said, "she's probably talking on a cell phone."
"It's a controversy in the making," he continued. A rather large one,
it turns out - yet part of the continuum of determining whether a
particular technology belongs in Amish life. They've adopted horses,
kerosene lamps, and propane refrigerators; should they add cell
Collective negotiations over the use of telephones have ignited
intense controversies in the Amish community since the beginning of
the 20th century. In fact, a dispute over the role of the phone was
the principal issue behind the 1920s division of the Amish church,
wherein one-fifth of the membership broke away to form their own
Eventually, certain Amish communities accepted the telephone for its
aid in summoning doctors and veterinarians, and in calling suppliers.
But even these Amish did not allow the telephone into the home.
Rather, they required that phones be used communally. Typically, a
neighborhood of two or three extended families shares a telephone
housed in a wooden shanty, located either at the intersection of
several fields or at the end of a common lane. These structures look
like small bus shelters or privies; indeed, some phones are in
outhouses. Sometimes the telephone shanties have answering machines in
them. (After all, who wants to wait in the privy on the off chance
someone will call?)
The first Amish person I contacted, I reached by answering machine. He
was a woodworker who, unlike some of his brethren, occasionally talked
to outsiders. I left a message on his phone, which I later learned was
located in a shanty in his neighbor's pasture. The next day the man,
whom I'll call Amos, returned my call. We agreed to meet at his
farmstead a few days later.
I couldn't help thinking it was awfully complicated to have a phone
you used only for calling back - from a booth in a meadow. Why not
make life easier and just put one in the house?
"What would that lead to?" another Amish man asked me. "We don't want
to be the kind of people who will interrupt a conversation at home to
answer a telephone. It's not just how you use the technology that
concerns us. We're also concerned about what kind of person you become
when you use it."
Far from knee-jerk technophobes, these are very adaptive
techno-selectives who devise remarkable technologies that fit within
their self-imposed limits.
The Amish are famously shy. Their commitment to "plain" living is most
obvious in their unadorned clothing - Old Order Amish even eschew
buttons, requiring humble hooks instead. Any sign of individuality is
cause for concern. Until fairly recently, Amish teachers would
reprimand the student who raised his or her hand as being too
individualistic. Calling attention to oneself, or being "prideful," is
one of the cardinal Amish worries. Having your name or photo in the
papers, even talking to the press, is almost a sin.
Like most modern Americans, I assume individuality is not only a
fundamental value, but a goal in life, an art form. The garish
technicolor shirts and hand-painted shoes I usually wear sometimes
startle business audiences who show up for my speaking engagements. My
reasoning: If I think for myself, why not dress for myself? Dye
technology has given us all these colors, so let's use 'em! Still, I
didn't want to make my idiosyncrasies the focus of my visit to Amish
country. So I bought a plain blue work shirt, dark blue gabardine
pants, and brown shoes. I hadn't traveled so drably in many years.
Amos runs a factory of sorts in the vicinity of three memorably named
Pennsylvania towns: Bird-in-Hand, Paradise, and Intercourse. The sun
was setting as I drove slowly down his unpaved driveway. I found
myself inside a tableau that must have looked almost exactly the same
200 years ago. Several men and young boys in identical black trousers,
suspenders, and straw hats were operating horse-drawn equipment in the
fields beyond. One of Amos's grandsons pointed me to a plain wooden
building beside the barn.
The aroma of cows gave way to the pungent smell of diesel fuel and
wood chips as I entered the workshop. The whine of a wood-milling
machine made it futile to talk. This was not the serene place the
words "Amish woodshop" conjure up. My host finished cutting a
12-foot-long plank before we greeted each other. He then lit a
kerosene lamp in the small office next to his workshop and invited me
in. The office had no modern technology in it, but railroad posters
were tacked on the walls, and wooden locomotive models sat on the
Amos had sawdust and hydraulic fluid in his beard. His blue-gray eyes
fastened on me as he bounced back his own questions in reply to my
queries. He had received the same eighth-grade education that all
Amish youth are given, but it was obvious that Amos did some outside
reading. When I asked him to describe his sense of community, he
started out, "Hmm, how do you pronounce s-c-e-n-a-r-i-o?"
Amos runs a successful business crafting wooden furniture, which he
sells throughout Pennsylvania and beyond - primarily to the "English"
(the Amish term for non-Amish). It's a trade more and more Amish are
getting into. Inside Amos's home there are no telephones, radios,
televisions, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, or other electrical
appliances. In his shop, routers, mills, and sanders are powered by
specially adapted hydraulic mechanisms connected to a diesel engine
located near a large open door, exhausting outside the building.
This was a good case study in Amish reasoning: Far from knee-jerk
technophobes, these are very adaptive techno-selectives who devise
remarkable technologies that fit within their self-imposed limits. The
price of good farmland and the number of Amish families are both
increasing so rapidly that in recent decades they have adopted
nonagricultural enterprises for livelihood - woodworking,
construction, light factory work. This, in turn, has forced the Amish
to adopt technologies that can enhance their productivity. And the
interface with the English brings its own set of demands: When the
State of Pennsylvania refused to certify Amish-produced milk unless it
was stirred mechanically and refrigerated according to state health
codes, the Amish installed stirring machines and refrigeration -
operated by batteries or propane gas.
Amos, like many other Amish craftsmen, uses electricity in his
workshop for certain tools. But the electricity does not come from
public utility lines. Amos runs a diesel generator to charge a bank of
12-volt batteries. The batteries' DC charge is then sent through a
converter to create homegrown 110-volt "Amish electricity." To
generate more, he has to haul the diesel fuel in from town on his
To the obvious question why allow Amish electricity but not public
electricity, Amos answered slowly and deliberately, "The Bible teaches
us not to conform to the world, to keep a separation. Connecting to
the electric lines would make too many things too easy. Pretty soon,
people would start plugging in radios and televisions, and that's like
a hot line to the modern world. We use batteries and generators
because you can use the batteries for only a short time and because
you have to fuel and maintain the generator yourself. It's a way of
controlling our use of electricity. We try to restrict things that
would lead to us losing that sense of being separate, to put the
brakes on how fast we change."
"Does it bring us together, or draw us apart?" is the question bishops
ask in considering whether to permit or put away a technology.
Despite the reputation today's Amish have as old-fashioned diehards,
their departure from Europe several centuries ago was driven by their
success as innovators. They started out as radical religious
libertarians - at a time when the price of religious radicalism was
martyrdom. Catholics and Protestants were killing each other in a
major religious war, but both sides took a serious dislike to these
defiant theological purists, known at the time as Anabaptists, for
their emphasis on adult baptism. (Today, every Amish household has a
copy of Martyrs' Mirror, a text of more than 1,000 pages that details
the excruciating and humiliating public executions suffered by
Anabaptist martyrs in Switzerland, Germany, and Holland.) The
Anabaptists developed a soil technology based on crop rotation,
planting clover in their pastures, and sweetening their earth with
lime and gypsum; they dramatically increased the yield of their land,
and some of them became wealthy.
Ironically, those same Anabaptists helped set the stage for the
fast-paced changes of modern life that today's Amish reject. It was
the widespread adoption of Anabaptist practices that eventually
produced enough food to free other agricultural laborers, creating the
workforce that would be needed for the industrial revolution.
Toward the end of the 17th century, one of the Anabaptist leaders,
Jakob Ammann, decided that his Swiss brethren had not been radical
enough. Ammann and his followers, who came to be known as "Amish,"
broke with traditional Anabaptists, moved to the New World, and
started farming in Lancaster County in 1710.
In today's Pennsylvania Amish country, a group of 20 to 30 families
who live near one another constitute a "district." Each district has a
bishop, and the bishops get together twice a year to discuss church
matters. This includes raising the recurring questions about which
technologies should be permitted in the community, and which banned or
While the say of the bishops is binding, the Amish come to their
decisions quite consensually. New things are not outright forbidden,
nor is there a rush to judgment. Rather, technologies filter in when
one of the more daring members of the community starts to use, or even
purchases, something new. Then others try it. Then reports circulate
about the results. What happens with daily use? Does it bring people
together? Or have the opposite effect?
Despite the almost organic ebb and flow of this evaluation process,
the common goal is constant submission to the judgment of one's peers.
On my visit, I was constantly struck by what seemed an alien
conception of community. As a kid I was encouraged to "do my thing"
while being nice to others; I've lived in five states and dozens of
neighborhoods. Amish communities are not just tightly knit and
immobile, they're authoritarian.
Yet there is some room for disagreement; consider how the bishops
judged the automobile in the 1960s. Typically, the Amish have large
extended families; most have dozens of cousins within walking or buggy
distance. Every other Sunday, instead of attending church, the Amish
are encouraged to visit relatives and the sick. Over time, it was felt
that the automobile was enlarging people's traveling radius too far
beyond their extended family, to diversions and recreations not
related to the community, decreasing the social cohesion and personal
connection the Amish so cherish. Some bishops accepted the use of the
automobile under certain conditions, while others rejected it
outright. The Amish are now split into traditional "Old Order" Amish
who still stick to horse and buggy, "New Order" Amish who approve use
of telephones and powered farm equipment but shun public electricity,
and "Beachy Amish," named for the '20s liberal leader Moses Beachy,
who permit both public electricity and automobiles.
While all orders now allow diesel engines in the barn to blow silage,
their use is still resisted in the fields - the bishops don't want
increased efficiency to interfere with the practice of fathers and
sons, mothers and daughters, working together with horse-drawn
machinery and handheld implements. Notably, some Old Order Amish allow
some diesel-powered equipment in the fields - if it's hauled by
animals. "Does it bring us together, or draw us apart?" is the primary
question the bishops ask in considering whether to permit or put away
The bishops' rulings can take decades. In daily life, the Amish take
their directions in dress, thought, behavior, and custom from a body
of unwritten but detailed rules known as the "Ordnung." Individuals
and communities maintain a separation from the world (by not
connecting their houses to telephones or electricity), a closeness to
one another (through regular meetings), and an attitude of humility so
specific they have a name for it ("Gelassenheit"). Decisions about
technology hinge on these collective criteria. If a telephone in the
home interferes with face-to-face visiting, or an electrical hookup
fosters unthinking dependence on the outside world, or a new pickup
truck in the driveway elevates one person above his neighbors, then
people start to talk about it. The talk reaches the bishops' ears.
In the middle of Amish country, it occurs to me that Internet culture
itself grew out of a kind of virtual Ordnung - the norms of
cooperation, information-sharing, and netiquette taught to newbies by
the first generations of users. The celebrated "anarchy" of the early
days was possible only because of the near-universal adherence to
largely unwritten rules. But the Internet population has grown fast -
so fast that the sudden influx of tens of millions of newbies has
overwhelmed the capacity of the old-timers to pass on the Ordnung. In
the process, the Internet loses its unique hallmarks, coming to
resemble and reflect the rest of contemporary culture.
"Instead of a telephone shanty, some Old Order Amish leave their cell
phone overnight with an English neighbor, who recharges it."
"The Amish employ an intuitive sense about what will build solidarity
and what will pull them apart," says Donald Kraybill, author of The
Riddle of Amish Culture. "You find state-of-the-art barbecues on some
Amish porches. Here is a tool they see as increasing family coherence:
Barbecues bring people together." Asked what kinds of questions the
bishops will likely raise about cell phones, Kraybill replies, "Are
cell phones being used 'to make a living' or just for gossip and
frivolous chatter? Will permitting cell phones lead to having phones
in homes, and where will that lead ... to fax machines and the
"We don't want to stop progress, we just want to slow it down,"
several Amish told me. Conversations about technology often turn on
where to "hold the line" against the too-rapid advance of innovation.
Riding in automobiles to work, but not owning them, putting telephone
shanties in fields, requiring battery power instead of electrical
lines are all ways of holding the line.
And clearly a lot could be learned about the Amish hold-the-line
philosophy by looking at those who either crossed the line or pushed
it further out. So I sought out several of the more boldly
experimental members of the greater Plain community (Amish and
Mennonites and other religious groups sharing a kindred commitment to
plain living). In ranging from farmers who ran small enterprises in
barnside sheds to well-equipped machine workshops and
multimillion-dollar crafts factories, I soon was directed to Moses
Smucker, who runs a harness shop in Churchtown, Pennsylvania.
Moses is an early adopter. He didn't mind if I used his real name, a
liberty that has made him the subject of a few other journalists'
stories. When I arrived at his manufacturing headquarters, I took a
look at some of the harnesses on display - one of them had a price tag
of $12,000. If you've ever seen the Budweiser Clydesdales Christmas
commercials, you've seen harness bells from Moses Smucker's Churchtown
In the back of the store, more than a dozen young Amish men were
working at modern machinery powered by hydraulics and diesel-generated
electricity. Upstairs, I saw a woman in traditional plain clothing
seated in front of a PC.
Moses Smucker might look like Abe Lincoln, in his black suit and
mustache-free beard, but he bore the same time-is-money air of any
factory manager taking a few minutes out of a busy day to talk to the
press. Where Amos was rough hewn and wry, Moses seemed shrewd and
slick. His office was certainly in a different century from Amos's. An
electronic rolodex and an electric calculator sat atop an old roll-top
desk. I noticed a clock in the shape of a horse and buggy. The whip
ticked back and forth.
"When I started this business in 1970," Moses said, "it wasn't
accepted to have a telephone in the building, even in a business. But
the telephone began to be accepted through popular disobedience. More
businesses put them in and the bishops didn't stop them."
Will the bishops also eventually allow phones in the home? I asked.
"When the telephone first came out here, people put them in their
homes," explained Moses. "But they were party lines. One time a woman
overheard two other women gossiping about her. She objected. That
wasn't what we wanted for our families or our community, so the
bishops met and home telephones were banned."
Is the family meal enhanced by a beeper? Who exactly benefits from
call waiting? Is automated voicemail a hint about how institutions
value human life?
I had heard the same story from several other Amish - in fact, this
story seemed to be a key part of community mythology. A writer named
Diane Zimmerman Umble, who grew up in Lancaster County and had family
roots in the Plain orders, traced the story to its origin, a 1986
memoir written by an Old Order Amishman born in 1897. As a graduate
student, Zimmerman Umble started investigating Amish community
telephones for a course on contemporary social theory, and ended up
writing a book on the subject, Holding the Line: The Telephone in Old
Order Mennonite and Amish Life. Among her findings was the power of
anecdote in the Amish decisionmaking process.
Anecdote, of course, is a key currency on the Internet, so I asked
Moses if he'd heard stories about it. Although he used a computer in
his business, he didn't believe the Internet as currently constituted
would ever be permitted. Based on anecdotal evidence, he said, "It's
too unregulated, there's too much trash, and there's a worry people
will use it for purposes unrelated to work."
I asked another Amish workshop owner whom I'll call Caleb what he
thought about technology. He pulled some papers out of a file cabinet,
handed them to me, and said, "I share some of this fellow's opinions,"
pointing to a magazine interview with virtual reality pioneer Jaron
Lanier. Asked for an opinion he shared with the
dreadlocked-and-dashikied Jaron, he replied, "I agree with his
statement that you can't design foolproof machines, because fools are
Caleb also discussed the Amish resistance to becoming "modern."
They're not worried about becoming people without religion or people
who use lots of technology, he explained; rather, the Amish fear
assimilating the far more dangerous ideas that "progress" and new
technologies are usually beneficial, that individuality is a precious
value, that the goal of life is to "get ahead." This mind-set, not
specific technologies, is what the Amish most object to.
"The thing I noticed about the telephone is the way it invades who you
are," Caleb said. "We're all losing who we are because of the
telephone and other machines - not just the Amish."
In Holding the Line, Zimmerman Umble writes: "Some Old Order people
feel that relaxation of telephone rules reflects a movement toward an
'uncontrollable drift' which must be halted. Others see these steps as
pragmatic choices necessary to hold the community together
economically. The paradox in the Old Order story is that the telephone
does both: It holds people together by making communication among
community members possible, and it separates them from the world and
from each other. The telephone is both evil and good."
Donald Kraybill, who is also provost of Messiah College, on the
outskirts of Amish country, believes taboos about telephones are "a
symbolic way of keeping the technology at a distance and making it
your servant, rather than the other way around."
Can they make the cell phone a servant? My questions on this score
were answered mostly with anecdote. I heard of one Amish man who was
going to be late to a chiropractor appointment, so he pulled out his
cell phone and called the receptionist from the bus he was on.
Zimmerman Umble heard of a Plain order businessman who called his
stockbroker from his company car phone, pushing three taboos at once
past their boundaries.
Zimmerman Umble pointed out that part of what makes cell phones so
handy - the lack of a wire - also poses a special challenge for the
Amish. "In the early part of the community discussion, electrical and
telephone lines carried substantial symbolic freight," she said. The
wires meant that anyone in the community could easily see who was
using electricity and phones. "But now, in the absence of the line,
behavior can't be monitored in the same way. It is harder to maintain
separation between home and business when you have a cell phone in
your pocket. In that sense it tests the community consensus about what
Calling around cell phone outlets in the Lancaster area, I found a
merchant who has been selling cell phones to Plain folk for years. "A
great percentage of my customer base is Amish and Mennonite," the
merchant told me. "More Amish than Mennonite. We opened our cellular
system 12 years ago. Within the first year, I had an Amish customer.
He first called from his neighbor's house. He owned a painting
business and told me he wasn't allowed to have a cell phone
personally, but his bishop said he could buy one for his foreman to
use in the company truck. It didn't take too long before I started
getting quite a lot of telephone calls from the Amish."
This raised quite a few interesting consumer technology questions.
Ordinarily, for example, one needs a credit card (and good credit) to
secure a cell phone. "The Amish pay in cash," explained the merchant,
who, along with most Amish-friendly shopkeepers, didn't want his name
used. "We normally ask for a driver's license for the purpose of
identification when we activate cellular service - of course, the
Amish don't have driver's licenses. They weren't able to get phones
for several months, since we weren't allowed to open accounts without
driver's licenses. So we had to make a policy change to accommodate
them. We ended up asking for another form of identification. But the
Amish don't believe in photography, so we couldn't get a photo ID.
Eventually we told them to get Pennsylvania state IDs without
"I've sold hundreds of cell phones to them, primarily business
phones," the merchant continued, adding a few details about how the
phones were used. "Some Old Order Amish leave their cell phones in
their shanty. Some leave the phone overnight with an English neighbor,
who recharges it for them; then the Amish pick up the phone in the
It's a pretty safe prediction that when the bishops get around to
their formal ruling, cell phones will not be deemed appropriate for
personal use. In the 1910s, when the telephone was only beginning to
change the world at large, the Old Order Amish recognized that the
caller at the other end of the line was an interloper, someone who
presumed to take precedence over the family's normal, sacred,
communications. Keeping the telephone in an unheated shanty in a
field, or even an outhouse, was keeping the phone in its proper place.
Though the Amish determination to allow phones at work but ban them at
home might seem hard to accept, I appreciate the deliberation put into
their decision. In fact, similar reflection might highlight conflicts
between our own practices and values. How often do we interrupt a
conversation with someone who is physically present in order to answer
the telephone? Is the family meal enhanced by a beeper? Who exactly is
benefiting from call waiting? Is automated voicemail a dark hint about
the way our institutions value human time and life? Can pagers and
cell phones that vibrate instead of ring solve the problem? Does the
enjoyment of virtual communities by growing numbers of people enhance
or erode citizen participation in the civic life of geographic
"What does the Old Order story have to say to members of postmodern
society?" asks Diane Zimmerman Umble. "The struggle of Old Order
groups to mold technology in the service of community provides a
provocative model of resistance for those who have come to recognize
that technology brings both benefits and costs.... Their example
invites reflection on a modern dilemma: how to balance the rights of
the individual with the needs of the community. For them, community
Indeed, what does one's use of a tool say to other people,
particularly loved ones, about where they stand in our priorities? In
my own house, we decided to get a rollover to voicemail instead of
call waiting - experiences on the receiving end of call waiting
convinced us that both parties on the other end of the line get pissed
off when you interrupt the conversation. No matter how absorbing the
flame war of the moment might be, I make a point of suspending online
communication when someone in my presence attempts to talk with me.
And I've come to believe that face-to-face conversation should outrank
disembodied conversation via cell phone or email.
I never expected the Amish to provide precise philosophical yardsticks
that could guide the use of technological power. What drew me in was
their long conversation with their tools. We technology-enmeshed
"English" don't have much of this sort of discussion. And yet we'll
need many such conversations, because a modern heterogeneous society
is going to have different values, different trade-offs, and different
discourses. It's time we start talking about the most important
influence on our lives today.
I came away from my journey with a question to contribute to these
conversations: If we decided that community came first, how would we
use our tools differently?
Howard Rheingold (email@example.com) is the author of Virtual Reality and
The Virtual Community and editor of The Millennium Whole Earth
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