of Ben Makuh


Book Reviews


Amish Technology

For a long while now the vision of an "Amish vision" of technology has been rolling around in my head. The pop culture stereotype of the Amish is this weird group of people who stubbornly refuse any kind of modern convenience out of a kind of almost-superstitious belief that it is evil in some way. As such, the concept of an "Amish" technology might seem like a contradiction-in-terms. This stereotype is only vaguely representative of reality, however. In fact of matter, there is a spectrum of technological acceptance and use among the Amish. While there certainly are some who would hew fairly close to the caricature, others are happy to use modern vehicles, internal electricity, heating, and plumbing, and even cellphones and computers. There is an entire gradient of technological comfort zones, some more skeptical of the role of technology in life than others.

Even those who are much more accepting of technology nevertheless hold a fairly different posture toward it than mainstream American attitudes. Though they might own a cellphone, it might be tightly restricted with content blockers and timed use of apps. Outsiders like you and I might be tempted to see this as mere prudishness, but I'm convinced that there's something else there. For instance, "prudishness" doesn't explain a hesitance to own a modern vehicle, or why some Amish are quite happy to use electricity from a solar-charged battery but not electricity from public utility companies.

While many in my circles are eager to buy another Smart Home device the moment a new one comes out, the glacial pace of technological adoption in Amish communities looks almost comical. It is far from the headlong rush toward whatever is new, but neither is it a rejection of innovation as such. The best word I can think of to describe it is "cautious." The anxiety about owning vehicles stems from a belief in the goodness of embodied, local community, and the fear that a society ordered around long-distance vehicles would necessarily disturb the health of that community. The wariness of in-home electricity stems from the observance of the goodness of living in harmony with the rhythms of nature, including the natural rising and setting of the sun.

With a bit of irony, I observe that plenty of progressive modern individuals want these things, too, but rather than foregoing technology, they immediately begin searching Wirecutter for a new gadget to purchase off of Amazon to solve that problem. We notice that our vehicles are upsetting the natural balance of the world's ecosystem, but rather than trying to live more locally and drive less, we go out and purchase a fully-loaded Tesla with maximum range. We notice that the blue light from our cellphones is disrupting our sleep, but rather than setting them aside when the sun goes down, we invent Night Shift and Dark Mode. I'm not pointing fingers here: a couple of years ago I bought a new alarm clock for my wife and I that uses light to mimic the color of the sunrise to try to help you wake up more naturally than just a sudden, loud beeping. it was definitely nicer than the sound of the old alarm clock, but it wasn't some kind of magical panacea that makes me wake up every. single. morning. feeling refreshed and well-slept. So my temptation is to wonder if maybe I just didn't get a good enough one. Or maybe there's some other sleep hack I need. Maybe if I just use a weighted blanket and use my phone to play some quiet tunes on a timer until after I fall asleep, then I'll finally get that coveted good night's sleep.

Like I said, I'm not pointing fingers at "those people" out there. This is a work of introspection, and I'm trying to identify this pattern of how technology promises to solve our problems but instead just creates new problems and begets more technology. For instance, I sometimes think about the fact that WiFi and a cellphone are now considered basic utilities when neither of them existed when I was born, and neither of them were even that common until I was in late high school.

Is technology all bad, then? I build it all day long for a living as a software engineer, so I obviously don't think so. But I do think some of it is bad. Maybe even a lot of it. I think about the sheer and utter meltdown of NFTs and cryptocurrency last year and how this thing that was supposed to revolutionize the concept of money instead turned out to be a massive scheme. I think about things like Airbnb that were supposed to disrupt the hotel industry by letting people stay with people have instead disrupted neighborhoods by letting hospitality companies manage properties on tree-lined streets. I think about something as basic as the cellphone, something that was pitched as enabling us to break out of the office, has instead turned into something that nearly all of our society is hopelessly addicted to 24/7. We cannot look up from a looping TikTok long enough even to cross a street.

And you know what? This is exactly why the Amish are suspicious of the new and the innovative. It's not that they never adopt anything new, but that they give it a healthy time to bake and prove itself before cautiously being willing to integrate it into their lives, and even then in a constrained way. The tech industry has operated for the past couple decades on the principle of "Move fast and break things," but it seems that we're coming to the realization that the things that we're breaking are neighborhoods, traditional institutions, and human bodies. Maybe this cost does not warrant such a speed of innovation. Maybe we should slow down and move wisely. Maybe a more principled speed of innovation wouldn't require such a high body count.

Such an "Amish" vision of technology is not just something that individuals could adopt as a personal credo, but is something that could be incorporated into teams and structures and companies. In my career so far, it's often the case that we're moving so fast that we ship a new feature before we even really think about it, and it causes us to have to take twice as much time to go back and fix it than it would've taken to just think about it for a couple minutes ahead of time and do it well in the first place.

The corporate world is famous for its bottom-line greed. Startups want to move fast so that they can IPO or sell for a huge amount of money. And it's not that money is and only ever can be about greed—I have to acknowledge that I draw a paycheck from the tech industry and that I am deeply grateful for the ability to pay for groceries and a home—but by and large the corporate world is mostly about making as much money as is humanly possible, often for the status and self-aggrandizement it buys.

I look at the Amish who maintain subsistence farms and who are a long shot away from anything that could be described as "upward mobility," and yet are their lives really so much more miserable than those in the big world of business micro-dosing speed so that they can keep pushing their bodies to do more, earn more, be more so that they can end up at the top of the cutthroat pile of competitors? Maybe the Amish are sometimes skeptical of our modern technological innovations because many of them haven't made life better, actually, and instead have made it into a sort of waking hell. Perhaps rather than building software tools to garner ourselves a big fat exit, it might be better to think of ourselves like the village blacksmith who makes excellent tools for the community. Not looking to exit, but to stay.

The image above by Ad Meskens is used gratefully under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.

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