The Technium

Identity From What-is-Not


The Anga tribesmen of Papua New Guinea have hunted wild pigs for thousands of years. To kill a wild pig, which may weigh as much as a man, the Anga construct a trap using little more than sticks, vines, rocks and gravity. Over time the Anga have refined and modified trap technology to fit their terrain. They have devised three general styles. One is a trench lined with sharp stakes camouflaged under leaves and branches; one is row of sharpened stakes hidden behind a low barrier protecting bait, and one is a dead-fall – a heavy weight suspended above a path which is tripped and released by a passing pig.

Images-3-1Technical know-how of this sort passes easily from village to village in the highlands. What one knows, all know. You have to travel many days before variation in knowledge is felt. Most groups of Anga can set any of the three varieties of traps as needed. However a one particular group, the Langimar, ignore the common knowledge of the deadfall trap. According to anthropologist Pierre Lemonnier “members of this group can name without difficulty the ten pieces that make up the dead-fall trap, they can describe its functioning, and they can even make a rough sketch; but they do not use the device.” Right across the river the houses of the neighboring Menye tribe can be seen; they use the trap. Two hours walk away, the Kapau tribe uses the dead-fall, yet the Langimar choose not to. As Lemonnier notes, sometimes “a perfectly understood technology is voluntarily ignored.”

The Langimar get by (thank you) with only two types of pig traps. Further north, some Anga tribes make their arrow tips barbless, selectively ignoring the critical technology of injurious barbs, despite the fact they “have had many occasions to note the superiority of the barbed arrows shot at them by their enemies.” Neither the availability of wood type, nor available type of game hunted explains this dismissal.

When technology expands opportunities, we choose. A clan will pick, choose and refuse certain technologies in order to distinguish themselves among similar tribes, to provide themselves an identity. These tribesmen are an early version of the Amish, because this is why the Amish refuse certain technologies – to provide them with an identity.

The Amish seem to be a bundle of contradictions. They ride rollerblades but not automobiles. They use disposable diapers but not washing machines. They eagerly plant genetically modified crops but refuse to vaccinate themselves. They renounce zippers but not solar panels. Out in their fields, they’ll pull their noisy smelly diesel-powered combine with natural draft horses instead of a tractor. So what is going on?

It’s obvious they cannot be against all technology, nor even modern technology. But why one thing and not another? Why reject a proven technology (like a dead-fall trap, or milking machines) that clearly works for everyone else around them? It’s not for lack of knowledge. One of the strangest aspects of the Amish is their legendary ability to fix anything. Their own machine shops located in their backlots away from the farmhouse can repair the entire world of stuff for sale, including motors, vehicles, and automobiles — which they won’t use.

Amish use technology to set themselves apart from non-Amish – from what they call the “world.” When the Amish ancestors first arrived from religious persecutions in Europe and settled in the spiritual haven of Pennsylvania their lifestyles were no different from the farmers around them. They had a language (old German) and a faith (a variant of Anabaptism) to bind them into strong communities. They were more fervent, but no more backward than the average horse drawn family. Everyone was amish-like in lifestyle back then: Barefoot kids, no electricity, draft horses, home-sewn clothes. In fact the Amish were more technically advanced than most farmers, and often among the first to adopt new technology at the turn of the last century. The first telephone companies were run by Amish. But as they began to use the tide of new-fangled things they had second thoughts. The Amish were further alarmed as they watched their neighbors adopt electrification and cars, and saw how it quickly altered their community.

Images-3To maintain their close knit families and tight communities, groups of Amish began to refuse innovations. They rejected technologies they believed would harm the unquestionable priority of their families and the intense bonds of local communities. Cars were banned because the Amish elders noticed that when folks had cars they left the community on a whim, shopping where prices were lowest, or driving away and not visiting the sick or their neighbors on Sunday. Their solution was to require the community to use horse carriages, which would give them some mobility, but not allow them to go far, keeping them aware and focused on family and neighbors.

Electricity and phones they perceived to have similar effects. Both required constant monthly payments to non-believers, a dependency they found unhealthy. Electricity gave people idle time, and the desire to be entertained, and the cost of this was a need for cash, at a time when cash was scarce. The Amish detected a type of bondage to the world flowing out of Amish homes wired up to the grid, and worse they detected all kinds of unsavory influences flowing into the homes along those wires. Although each local or “church” made their own choices as to what they would not embrace, almost all Amish churches rejected electricity. As the electrification of western culture proceeded to explode so that modern life became unthinkable without it, the Amish rejection of electrons shifted to emphasize the destabilizing effect of expensive labor-saving gadgets and the relentless messages of permissiveness, sexuality, violence, consumerism, greed, and egoism that the Amish found coming into their homes via electricity.

Images-1-1This was a battle of identities. It had little to do with electronic power because in fact the Amish had their own “amish electricity.” Nearly every Amish farm today has a diesel generator near the barn which powers a compressor. They run pneumatic hoses from the compressor to power a table saw in their shop, maybe some milking machines in the barn, and more and more often, the air hoses will power a sewing machine and maybe a washing machine in the home. The Amish have become extremely clever with pneumatics, hacking all kinds of electrical equivalents like wall switches, relays, and feedback control loops. Several Amish entrepreneurs have started small businesses specializing in converting all kinds of electrical appliances and tools to run on pneumatic pressure. I saw one shop that was modifying a kitchen blender to run on compressed air.

Images-2-1These days the Amish aren’t so opposed to batteries or solar power either. They use huge batteries in their horse carriages to power the headlights and taillights, which are more often hi-tech LEDs. Solar panels to charge batteries for flashlights and other small devices can be seen on Amish rooftops. What the Amish gain in keeping out electricity from the grid is their identity. They are slowly accumulating many of the functions of electrified gadgets, but on their terms: no monthly bills, no off-the-shelf gadgets, no infinite supply, and with new ways to say no to the next new thing. If they want to use electricity it is a lot of trouble, although possible for small items (no air conditioners). This alternative way allows them to maintain a separateness, a distance from “the world,” and a way to say to themselves and their children, “We are different. We have different priorities.”




Comments
  • Berend Schotanus

    This kind of choices induce diversity, which is the driving power behind evolution.

    Common wisdom might challenge us to say the Amish make silly choices. But who can predict what the world of tomorrow will look like? An unexpected event or twist of perspective might turn a silly solution today into a brilliant one tomorrow. Because we have millions of “tribes” throughout the earth, all having their own appropriate amount of stubbornness, who knows what might turn up. That’s the beauty of it all.

  • Tom Buckner

    I have noting to add to this wonderful essay, but allow me a small copy edit: The last paragraph says

    “They are slowly accumulating many of the functions of electrified gadgets, but on their terms: no monthly bills, no off-the-shelf gadgets, no infinite supply, no way to say no to the next new thing.”

    You obviously mean something closer to this:

    “They are slowly accumulating many of the functions of electrified gadgets, but on their terms: no monthly bills, no off-the-shelf gadgets, no infinite supply, the opportunity to say no to the next new thing.”

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @ Tom: You are right. I’ll fix it.