Last week, the techies were out in force when Kevin Kelly — a founding editor of Wired and currently the magazine’s “chief maverick” — came to the New York Public Library to talk about his new book, “What Technology Wants.” (See video of the event here.) There were plenty of smart phones and iPads in the audience, but the thing I was really looking for was some Amish beards. Beards? Yes. As Kelly’s book reveals, he is that rare high-technologist to engage with America’s most famous community of Luddites.
Except that the Amish aren’t Luddites at all, or at least not according to Kelly. In a fascinating chapter of “What Technology Wants” (to be reviewed in the Nov. 7 Book Review) called “Lessons of Amish Hackers,” Kelly pokes his head into the barns of Lancaster County and finds a lot of very weird machines, as well as a highly deliberate approach to technology that has a lot to teach the rest of us about how to get along better with our own proliferating gadgets.
Amish country, in Kelly’s telling, is a version of the hippie-nerd Maker Faire without the colorful clothing. The Amish may not have cars or buttons, but they do have “alpha-geeks,” “early adopters” and enough clever retro-futuristic contraptions to do any steampunk proud. Behind one electricity-free farmhouse, Kelly finds a workshop vibrating with “an ear-cracking racket of power sanders, power saws, power planers, power drills and so on,” all powered by a diesel generator driving a compressed-air system known locally as “Amish electricity.” Everywhere he goes, Amish D.I.Y.-ers show off “their geekiest hacks.”
The Amish, Kelly says, are the ones who stand athwart technological history and shout “Maybe!” They reject cars and credit cards but are enthusiastic users of disposable diapers, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Different sects, like the ultra-strict Old Order Amish, take different approaches. But in general they make a distinction between technologies that will strengthen the community — like genetically modified corn, which is easier to harvest using older equipment, and thus helps keeps family farms together — and those that might weaken it, like cellphones, which, along with artificial insemination and solar power, are still being debated.
The Amish distinguish between using technology and owning it, and between having technology at home and having it at work (which means I must be a little Amish too, at least when it comes to e-mail). They don’t own trucks, but they will ride in them. They don’t have Internet service on their farms, but may use it at the public library.
“For people who live off the grid, without TV, Internet or books beyond one Bible, the Amish are perplexingly well informed,” Kelly writes. “And surprisingly, there’s not much new that at least one person in their church has not tried to use. In fact, the Amish rely on the enthusiasm of those early adopters to try stuff out until it proves harmful.”
Not that Kelly thinks we should all trade our cars for buggies. (Though the typical Amish ride, it turns out, is a high-tech affair involving lightweight fiberglass, stainless-steel hardware and “cool LED lights.”) The intimacy and community of Amish life, Kelly says, comes at the cost of options. Good luck to a would-be scientist or composer in a place where everyone is pulled out of school after eighth grade to do “useful” work, or to the Amish girl who wants to be something other than a homemaker.
What’s more, their self-reliant lifestyle is dependent on the greater technological landscape surrounding them. The Amish do not mine the metal they use to build their tools, weave the cotton their clothes are made from, educate the doctors who treat them or build the solar panels an increasing number are putting on their roofs. They represent, in Kelly’s view, an important choice: the choice to say no. But in a larger sense, they are hitching a ride on the buggy driven by the rest of us.
As Kelly, an ardent techno-libertarian, puts it,
I may not tweet, watch TV or use a laptop, but I certainly benefit from the effect of others who do. In that way I am not that different from the Amish, who benefit from the outsiders around them fully engaged with electricity, phones and cars. But unlike individuals who opt out of individual technologies, Amish society indirectly constrains others as well as themselves. If we apply the ubiquity test — what happens if everyone does it? — to the Amish way, the optimization of choice collapses. By constraining the suite of acceptable occupations and narrowing education, the Amish are holding back possibilities not just for their children but indirectly for all.(Bonus: These days, the Amish don’t just have romance novels. They also have Web sites! For an interesting inside take on Amish life, check out A Joyful Chaos, a blog by a former Amishwoman.)
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