At first glance, it may be easy to regard the Amish as backward, even foolish for their avoidance of many comforts and conveniences the rest of us take for granted. But it takes more than a glance to truly know a person — what they feel, what they believe, and why. After taking more than a glance at the Amish — their beliefs and way of life — I think there’s a lot they can teach me about using technology.
The Amish are a people who have managed to preserve a religion and rich cultural heritage very different from the rest of us for hundreds of years — since long before the United States of America existed.
One reason they have been so effective in preserving their way of life — despite having no central church authority — is because each district (congregation) has its own set of unwritten rules for Amish living. This set of rules, called an Ordnung, is maintained and administered by the members of the district. Due to the aforementioned decentralized church governance, these rules can vary between districts. For example, one district may allow the use of bicycles while another may forbid them.
Though the rules may vary across districts, the Amish believe the existence of and obedience to the Ordnung is vital to the preservation of their community, cultural identity, and faith. It is also important for the protection of the family.
The Amish don’t believe technology is evil in and of itself. In fact, they make use of many modern technologies such as batteries, electric lights, farm equipment, and landline telephones (although they usually do not have a phone inside their home, but in a small shed somewhere on their property).
What concerns the Amish is that, unchecked or used improperly, technology can negatively impact, even destroy the things they hold most dear — the things the Ordnung is intended to protect and preserve. For example, they do not own automobiles because they believe that the ability to more quickly travel longer distances would cause them to move further apart from each other, separating families and eroding their tight-knit community. Using a horse-and-buggy to travel helps to keep everyone closer together and tied to a smaller geographic area.
When it comes to technology, the Amish seek to be its master rather than allow it to master them. They are selective about the things they allow into their lives and use those things intentionally to help them live in harmony with their values.
I think the Amish are wise to be cautious about technology. They have problems like everyone else, but not problems like these:
- The World Health Organization has added “gaming disorder” —video game addiction — to a recent draft of their International Classification of Diseases. There is concern among many medical professionals that video games can be just as addictive as gambling or drugs.
- The average American spends more than 10 hours per day looking at a screen.
- A recent study found that blue light emitted from digital device screens accelerates blindness.
- Heavy use of social media has been linked to feelings of social isolation.
- There were 1,579 data breach incidents in 2017 — an increase of 44.7% from 2016. In addition to compromising other personally identifiable and sensitive information, these breaches resulted in exposing nearly 158 million Social Security numbers. In addition to not using computers, smartphones, or the Internet, the Amish do not participate in Social Security and, therefore, do not have Social Security numbers.
I’m not intending to trade my car in for a horse-and-buggy, nor am I intending to cut myself off from the Internet or get rid of my gadgets. After all, it’s Internet-connected devices that have allowed me to quickly and easily learn more about the Amish in the first place.
But this example of selective and intentional use of technology has caused me to deeply reflect on questions such as:
What are the most important things in my life? What are my values?
Is the technology I use helping me or hindering me in living my life according to my values?
If I knew that a certain technology was negatively impacting what’s important to me or had the potential to do so, would I limit my use of that technology or give it up altogether? Why or why not?
What changes will I make now to better align my use of technology with my values?
I recently watched American Experience: The Amish, a PBS documentary. Near the end of the program, an Amish man relates the following story:
There was a tour bus. [A common sight in Amish communities as people become increasingly fascinated by them and their ways.]
An Amish man got on and they asked him: “what’s the difference between you and us?”
“Well,” he said, “how many of you have television?”
All the hands went up.
“How many of you, if you have a family, think you’d be better off without television?”
Practically all the hands went up.
“How many of you are going to go home and get rid of it?”
No hands went up.
“That’s the difference between you and the Amish. Because we will do it. If it’s bad for the family, we will not have it.”