The Technium

Amish Hackers


[Translations: Japanese]

The Amish have the undeserved reputation of being luddites, of people who refuse to employ new technology. It’s well known the strictest of them don’t use electricity, or automobiles, but rather farm with manual tools and ride in a horse and buggy.  In any debate about the merits of embracing new technology, the Amish stand out as offering an honorable alternative of refusal. Yet Amish lives are anything but anti-technological. In fact on my several visits with them, I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers and surprisingly pro technology.

Gas-Saw

Homebuilt gas powered ice cutter to make ice for non-electric icebox.

First, the Amish are not a monolithic group. Their practices vary parish by parish. What one group does in Ohio, another church in New York may not do, or a parish in Iowa may do more-so. Secondly, their relationship to technology is uneven.  On close inspection, most Amish use a mixture of old and very new stuff. Thirdly, Amish practices are ultimately driven by religious belief: the technological, environmental, social, and cultural consequences are secondary. They often don’t have logical reasons for their policies. Lastly, Amish practices change over time, and are, at this moment, adapting to the world at their own rate. In many ways the view of the Amish as old-fashioned luddites is an urban myth.

Like all legends, the Amish myth is based on some facts. The Amish, particular the Old Order Amish — the stereotypical Amish depicted on calendars – really are slow to adopt new things. In contemporary society our default is set to say “yes” to new things, and in Old Order Amish societies the default is set to “no.” When new things come around, the Amish automatically start by refusing them.  Thus many Old Order Amish have never said yes to automobiles, a policy established when automobiles were new. Instead, they travel around in a buggy hauled by a horse. Some orders require the buggy to be an open carriage (so riders – teenagers, say – are not tempted with a private place to fool around); others will permit closed carriages. Some orders allow tractors on the farm, if the tractors have steel wheels; that way a tractor can’t be “cheated” to drive on the road like a car. Some groups allow farmers to power their combine or threshers with diesel engines, if the engine only drives the threshers but is not self-propelled, so the whole smoking, noisy contraption is pulled by horses. Some sects allow cars, if they are painted entirely black (no chrome) to ease the temptation to upgrade to the latest model.

Amish Thresher

Horse-drawn diesel baler, from Old Order Amish

Behind all of these variations is the Amish motivation to strengthen their communities. When cars first appeared at the turn of last century the Amish noticed that drivers would leave the community to go shopping or sight-seeing in other towns, instead of shopping local and visiting friends, family or the sick on Sundays. Therefore the ban on unbridled mobility was aimed to make it hard to travel far, and to keep energy focused in the local community. Some parishes did this with more strictness than others.

A similar communal motivation lies behind the Old Order Amish practice of living without electricity. The Amish noticed that when their homes were electrified with wires from a generator in town, they became more tied to the rhythms, policies and concerns of the town. Amish religious belief is founded on the principle that they should remain “in the world, not of it” and so they should remain separate in as many ways possible. Being tied to electricity tied them into the world, so they surrendered its benefits in order to stay outside the world. For many Amish households even today, you’ll see no power lines weaving toward their homes. They live off the grid.

To live without electricity or cars eliminates most of what we expect from modernity. No electricity means no internet, TV, or phones as well, so suddenly the Amish life stands in stark contrast to our complex modern lives.

Klein Amish Skater Scharf

Going home after school.

But when you visit an Amish farm, that simplicity vanishes. The simplicity vanishes even before you get to the farm. Cruising down the road you may see an Amish kid in a straw hat and suspenders zipping by on roller blades. In front of one school house I spied a flock of parked scooters, which is how the kids arrived there. Not Razors, but hefty Amish varieties.  But on the same street a constant stream of grimy mini-vans paraded past the school. Each was packed with full-bearded Amish men sitting in the back. What was that about?

Turns out the Amish make a distinction between using something and owning it. The Old Order won’t own a pickup truck, but they will ride in one. They won’t get a license, purchase an automobile, pay insurance, and become dependent on the automobile and the industrial-car complex, but they will call a taxi. Since there are more Amish men than farms, many men work at small factories and these guys will hire vans driven by outsiders to take them to and from work. So even the horse and buggy folk will use cars – under their own terms. (Very thrifty, too.)

The Amish also make a distinction between technology they have at work and technology they have at home. I remember an early visit to an Amish man who ran a woodworking shop near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most of the interior of the dark building was lit naturally from windows, but hanging over the wooden meeting table in a very cluttered room was a single electrical light bulb. The host saw me staring at it, and when I looked at him, he just shrugged and said that it was for the benefit of visitors like myself.

However while the rest of his large workshop lacked electricity beyond that naked bulb, it did not lack power machines. The place was vibrating with an ear-cracking racket of power sanders, power saws, power planers, power drills and so on. Everywhere I turned there were bearded men covered in saw dust pushing wood through screaming machines. This was not a circle of Renaissance craftsman hand tooling masterpieces. This was a small-time factory cranking out wooden furniture with machine power. But where was the power coming from? Not from windmills.

The boss, Amos (not his real name: the Amish prefer not to call attention to themselves), takes me around to the back where a huge dump-truck-sized diesel generator sits. It’s massive. In addition to a gas engine there is a very large tank, which I learn, stores compressed air. The diesel engine burns fuel to drive the compressor that fills the reservoir with pressure. From the tank a series of high-pressure pipes snake off toward every corner of the factory. A hard rubber flexible hose connects each tool to a pipe. The entire shop runs on compressed air. Every piece of machine is running on pneumatic power. Amos even shows me a pneumatic switch, which you can flick like a light switch, to turn on some paint-drying fans.

The Amish call this pneumatic system “Amish electricity.” At first pneumatics were devised for Amish workshops, but it was seen as so useful that air-power migrated to Amish households. In fact there is an entire cottage industry in retrofitting tools and appliances to Amish electricity. The retrofitters buy a heavy-duty blender, say, and yank out the electrical motor. They then substitute an air-powered motor of appropriate size, add pneumatic connectors, and bingo, your Amish mom now has a blender in her electrical-less kitchen. You can get a pneumatic sewing machine, and a pneumatic washer/dryer (with propane heat). In a display of pure steam-punk nerdiness, Amish hackers try to outdo each other in building pneumatic versions of electrified contraptions. Their mechanical skill is quite impressive, particularly since none went beyond the 8th grade. They love to show off this air-punk geekiness. And every tinkerer I met claimed that pneumatics were superior to electrical devices because air was more powerful and durable, outlasting motors which burned out after a few years hard labor. I don’t know if this is true, or just justification, but it was a constant refrain.

I visited one retrofit workshop run by a strict Mennonite. Marlin was a short beardless man (no beards for the Mennonites). He uses a horse and buggy, has no phone, but electricity runs in the shop behind his home. They use electricity to make pneumatic parts. Like most of his community, his kids work along side him. A few of his boys use a propane powered fork lift with metal wheels (no rubber so you can’t drive it on the road) to cart around stacks of heavy metal as they manufacture very precise milled metal parts for pneumatic motors and for kerosene cooking stoves, an Amish favorite. The tolerances needed are a thousand of an inch. So a few years ago they installed a massive, $400,000 computer-controlled milling (CNC) machine in his backyard, behind the horse stable. This massive half-million dollar tool is about the dimensions of a delivery truck. It is operated by his 14-year old daughter, in a bonnet. With this computer controlled machine she makes parts for grid-free horse and buggy living.

One can’t say “electricity-free” because I kept finding electricity in Amish homes. Once you have a huge diesel generator running behind your barn to power the refrigeration units that store the milk (the main cash crop for the Amish), it’s a small thing to stick on a small electrical generator.  For re-charging batteries, say. You can find battery-powered calculators, flashlights, electric fences, and generator-powered electric welders on Amish farms. The Amish also use batteries to run a radio or phone (outside in the barn or shop), or to power the required headlights and turn signals on their horse buggies. One clever Amish fellow spent a half hour telling me the ingenious way he hacked up a mechanism to make a buggy turn signal automatically turn off when the turn was finished, just as it does in your car.

Nowadays solar panels are becoming popular among the Amish. With these they can get electricity without being tied to the grid, which was their main worry. Solar is used primarily for utilitarian chores like pumping water, but it will slowly leak into the household. As do most innovations.

The Amish use disposable diapers (why not?), chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and are big boosters of genetically modified corn. In Europe this stuff is called Frankenfood. I asked a few of the Amish elders about that last one. Why plant GMOs? Well, they reply, corn is susceptible to the corn borer which nibbles away at the bottom of the stem, and occasionally topples over the stalk. Modern 500 horsepower harvesters don’t notice this fall; they just suck up all the material, and spit out the corn into a bin. The Amish harvest their corn semi-manually. It’s cut by a chopper device and then pitched into a thresher. But if there are a lot of stalks that are broken, they have to be pitched by hand. That is a lot of very hard sweaty work. So they plant Bt corn. This genetic mutant carries the genes of the corn borer’s enemy, Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin deadly to the corn borer. Fewer stalks are broken, the harvest can be semi-mechanized, and yields are up as well. One elder Amishman whose sons run his farm told me that he’d only help his sons harvest if they planted Bt corn. He said he told them he was too old to be pitching heavy broken corn stalks. The alternative was to purchase expensive, modern harvesting equipment. Which none of them want. So the technology of genetically modified crops allowed the Amish to continue using old, well-proven, debt-free equipment, which accomplished their main goal of keeping the family farm together. They did not use these words, but they considered genetically modified crops as appropriate technology for family farms.

Artificial insemination, solar power, and the web are technologies that Amish are still debating. They use the web at libraries (using but not owning). From cubicles in public libraries Amish sometimes set up a website for their business. So while Amish websites seem like a joke, there’s quite a few of them. What about post-modern innovations like credit cards? A few Amish got them, presumably for their businesses at first. But over time the bishops noticed problems of overspending, and the resultant crippling interest rates. Farmers got into debt, which impacted not only them but the community since their families had to help them recover (that’s what community and families are for). So, after a trial period, the elders ruled against credit cards.

One Amish-man told me that the problem with phones, pagers, and PDAs (yes he knew about them) was that “you got messages rather than conversations.” That’s about as an accurate summation of our times as any. Henry, his long white beard contrasting with his young bright eyes told me, “If I had a TV, I’d watch it.” What could be simpler?

Holmes County Ohio Amish Phone Box

Amish solar-powered phone shanty in Holmes County, OH.

But no looming decision is riveting the Amish themselves as much as the question of whether they should accept cell phones. Previously, Amish would build a shanty at the end of their driveway that housed an answering machine and phone, to be shared by neighbors. The shanty sheltered the caller in rain and cold, and kept the grid away from the house, but the long walk outside reduced use to essential calls rather than gossip and chatting. Cell phones were a new twist. You got a phone without wires. You could take business calls without being wired to the world. As one Amish guy told me, “What is the difference if I stand in my phone booth with a wireless phone or stand outside with a cell phone. There’s no difference.” Further cell phones were embraced by women who could keep in touch with their far-flung family since they didn’t drive. But the bishops also noticed that the cell phone was so small it could be kept hidden, which was a concern for a people dedicated to discouraging individualism. Ten years ago when I was editing Wired I sent Howard Rheingold to investigate the Amish take on cell phones. His report published in January 1999 makes it clear that the Amish had not decided on cell phones yet. Ten years later they are still deciding, still trying it out. This is how the Amish determine whether technology works for them. Rather than employ the precautionary principle, which says, unless you can prove there is no harm, don’t use new technology, the Amish rely on the enthusiasm of Amish early adopters to try stuff out until they prove harm.

For being off the grid, without TV, internet, or books, the Amish are perplexingly well-informed. There’s not much I could tell them that they didn’t know about, and already had an opinion on. And surprisingly, there’s not much new that at least one person in their church has not tried to use. The typical adoption pattern went like this:

Ivan is an Amish alpha-geek. He is always the first to try a new gadget or technique. He gets in his head that the new flowbitzmodulator would be really useful. He comes up with a justification of how it fits into the Amish orientation. So he goes to his bishop with this proposal: “I like to try this out.” Bishop says to Ivan, “Okay Ivan, do whatever you want with this. But you have to be ready to give it up, if we decide it is not helping you or hurting others.” So Ivan acquires the tech and ramps it up, while his neighbors, family, and bishops watch intently. They weigh the benefits and drawbacks. What is it doing to the community?  Cell phone use in the Amish began that way. According to anecdote, the first Amish alpha geeks to request permission to use cell phones were two ministers who were also contractors. The bishops were reluctant to give permission but suggested a compromise: keep the cell phones in the vans of the drivers. The van would be a mobile phone shanty.  Then the community would  watch the contractors. It seemed to work so others early adopters picked it up. But still at any time, even years later, the bishops can say no.

I visited a shop that built the Amish’s famous buggies. From the outside the carts look simple and old fashioned. But inspecting the process in the shop, they are quite high tech and surprisingly complicated rigs. Made of lightweight fiberglass, they are hand cast, and outfitted with stainless steel hardware and cool LED lights. The owner’s teenage son, David, worked at the shop. Like a lot of Amish who work along side their parents from an early age, he was incredibly poised and mature. I asked him what he thought the Amish would do about cell phones. He snuck his hand into his overalls and pulled one out. “They’ll probably accept them,” he said and smiled. He then quickly added that he worked for the local volunteer fire department, which was why he had one. (Sure!) But, his dad chimed in, if cell phones are accepted “there won’t be wires running down the street to our homes.”

In their goal to remain off the grid, yet modernize, some Amish have installed inverters on their diesel generators linked to batteries to provide them with off-grid 110 volts.  They power specialty appliances at first, like an electric coffee pot. I saw one home with an electric copier in the home office part of their living room. Will the slow acceptance of modern appliances creep along until 100 years hence the Amish have we have now (but have left behind)? What about cars? Will the Old Order ever drive old-fashioned internal combustion clunkers, say when the rest of the world is using personal jet packs? Or will they embrace electric cars? I asked David, the 18-year old Amish, what he expects to use in the future. Much to my surprise he had a ready teenage answer. “If the bishops allow the church to leave behind buggies, I know exactly what I will get: a black Ford 460 V8.”  That’s a 500 hp muscle car. But it is in black! His dad, the carriage maker, again chimed in, “Even if that happens there will always be some horse and carriage Amish.”

David then admitted, “When I was deciding whether to join the church or not, I thought of my future children and whether they would be brought up without restrictions. I could not imagine it.” A common phrase among the Amish is ‘holding the line.” They all recognize the line keeps moving, but a line must remain.

My impression is that the Amish are living about 50 years behind us. They don’t adopt everything new but what new technology they do embrace, they take up about half a century after everyone else does. By that time, the benefits and costs are clear, the technology stable, and it is cheap. Consider this chart I found in the book “Living Without Electricity”. You can see the hint of a delay pattern in Amish adoption.

American-Amish-Tech

The Amish are steadily adopting technology — at their pace. They are slow geeks. As one Amish man told Howard Rheingold, “We don’t want to stop progress, we just want to slow it down,” But their manner of slow adoption is instructive.

  • 1) They are selective. They know how to say “no” and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ban more than they adopt.
  • 2) They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.
  • 3) They have criteria by which to select choices: technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
  • 4) The choices are not individual, but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.

This method works for the Amish, but can it work for the rest of us? I don’t know. It has not really been tried yet. And if the Amish hackers and early adopters teach us anything, it’s that you have to try things first. Try first and relinquish later if need be. We are good at trying first; not good at relinquishing – except as individuals. To fulfill the Amish model we’d have to get better at relinquishing as a group. Social relinquishing. Not merely a large number (as in a movement) but a giving up that relies on mutual support. I have not seen any evidence of that happening, but it would be a telling sign if it did appear.




Comments
  • brian k. d.

    Thanks for the great article. I am a serious geek and love my tech toys.. but I believe the Amish are on to something…If we could manage to get our minds past the outward oddness, we would see something slightly deeper thats really wonderful.

    A good book on for us modern folk is “Margin” Richard Swenson – he looks the reality of “progress” and modern life and what it means to us.

    A funny look at amish life – “For Richer or for Poorer” – movie Tim Allen & Kirsty Alley hide out in an Amish community.. full of stereotypes I’m sure, but made me want to be amish.

  • Scott

    Excellent article! Well done on exposing more of the rich detail of Amish life to those of us who often use the word “Amish” as a punchline to a joke about techno-backwardness.

  • easy

    “However they may well manufacture other stuff as well for outsiders; that seems likely.”

    My point is that the expensive machine is out of place with the economy of their community. Your use of “off the grid” language conveys the sense that they’re happily doing they’re own separate thing, isolated from the burdensome evils of the industrialized world.
    I’m afraid in reality the expensive machine is more likely the source of entrapment into that world, via loan payments, and the demands of clients.

  • Randall Newton

    Kevin, the machine in the first picture above is a bailer, not a combine.

    I lived as a neighbor to Amish for two very interesting years. I grew up on a farm, so I saw their way of live not a quaint, but practical once you get past the idea of no electricity. Where I live to day we have plenty of people in the hills who still live off-the-grid, for reasons that may seem different on the surface, but deeper exploration reveals a common motivation.

  • Lisa Marshall

    The conundrum those of us who live near Amish communities, as I do in central PA, is illuminated in that chart on the lag time of technology adoption. When I was a kid, the Amish truly were a force for conservation, living lightly and respectfully on the land. The dilemma we’re facing now is that Amish farmers around here are adopting the bad practices that started 50 years ago when agriculture was becoming industrialized. Now our community has to figure out how to get the Amish community to take sustainability of environment into their deliberations, along with sustainability of community……..

  • Timothy Sauder

    @AjmoT: I will help you do a bit of your research by answering a few of your rather captious questions: “What does that philosophy look like to a Christian with an eye for global humanity? Who have the Amish fed and clothed lately? What inventions of theirs are helping to nourish and emancipate the impoverished and enslaved?”

    You could start by asking the hurricane ravaged gulf shore communities for their opinion of the Amish… http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/tx/6268672.html

    Then follow the big river north, and see who the BBC found working alongside the National Guard on the levees…
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/nolpda/ukfs_news/hi/newsid_7460000/7460799.stm

    Oh, but your saying all that doesn’t address world hunger!? I think you should check out the link below on the financial and mission statements of this organization: “Christian Aid Ministries (CAM) was founded in 1981. Our primary purpose is to provide a trustworthy, efficient channel for Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist groups and individuals to minister to physical and spiritual needs around the world. Annually, CAM distributes approximately 15-20 million pounds of food, clothing, medicines, seeds, Bibles and other Christian literature.”
    http://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=search.summary&orgid=3494
    Due to the absence of an official website, I’ll also give you a link to authorized albeit unofficial site that states: “Most of the ministry’s donors are Old Order Amish and conservative Mennonites.” http://www.anabaptists.org/places/cam/

    So please consider these points before dismissing the Plain Communities as egocentric…
    Thanks
    Tim

  • tink

    you said: “To live without electricity or cars”

    Some in our local Amish community hire local boys with cars or trucks to drive them.

    They may not own the vehicles, but they do use them, in a round about way.

  • Ben

    @tink: that is mentioned ~ the 8th paragraph.

  • JohnH

    “Why they don’t use automobiles or tractors on their farms?” ~ mmm

    Actually, some do. One of the things that non-Amish people need to understand is that each Amish Community is locally scrutinized for their behavior and what they are (or are not) “allowed” to do. Local church elders basically determine what is acceptable, based on local needs or environment…and it is slowly evolving.
    So…with regard to tractors, many of my neighbors have tractors…but they don’t use them for plowing, baling, planting, reaping, or any of the other traditional things that you would think tractors are used for.
    Rather, they stick to using the horses to accomplish those types of tasks…because they can. But…if, in the middle of the winter, a car or truck gets stuck in a snow drift on their property, they’ll pull it out with a tractor, rather than rigging up the draft horses…even though the draft horses could accomplish the task in short order.
    Also..if they need to move something large, like a building or something, they will opt to use the tractor. But these instances are rare.
    The Amish view their horses as animals who are “chomping at the bit” to get out there and work. It’s as if the Amish believe that the horses actually enjoy the work. And maybe they’re right.
    But…the bottom line is that I have just described my local environment. The rules may be more lax or more strict 20 miles away…..and completely different 100 miles away.

    There was something else I wanted to say, with regard to an earlier post…”… if you ever see them out..the kids look scared all the time… ”

    I’m sorry but this statement is an interpretation of an observation by one person and not based in fact. The children I see are happy, playful, respectful, and inquisitive. They are encouraged to play…not work. And their wide-eyed facial expressions are not that of fear…but more of facination.
    If you see a small Amish child working, it is because they are trying to emulate their other family members or have jumped at the chance to help out in some way.
    “Scared all the Time?” Not a chance. Just because they aren’t behaving like unruly brats in the grocery store…doesn’t mean they are scared.
    (stepping off the soapbox)

  • Passerby

    regarding “Amish Electricity”

    I attended an Instrument Society of America training – a group that focuses on electrical instrumentation for industrial manufacturing applications – and the instructor said “Why doesn’t the Space Shuttle use pneumatics instead of electrical?”

    His answer – the supply hoses aren’t long enough.

    or fire resistant.

    But, his point was sound – there are pneumatic equivalents to electrical devices.

    Air – is there anything it can’t do?

  • btgiv

    Interesting article, and your closing thoughts were interesting, too. Problem with relinquishing: As someone once said, a luxury once acquired becomes a necessity. The only reason the Amish are able to make it work is because of their strict (very strict) religious adherence. Without that, it’s just not doable on a group level.

  • David

    Very good article, but it lumps Amish and Mennonites together so it’s not always clear who you’re referring to. Mennonites, in Virginia at least, have been comfortable with cars, electricity, and other modern conveniences for decades. They’re devoutly religious, but interact with the rest of the population all the time (and own some very large businesses), unlike the old order Amish. And as for Anabaptist hackers, don’t forget the Amana, who started the company of the same name, which sold the first microwave ovens.

  • sparky

    Lest you think these folks are all sweetness and light, Google “Amish puppy mills”. Read about them.

    Not only do they treat the dogs like garbage, but they sell very defective dogs to people – and get lots of bucks for those dogs. They don’t care. They just want your money.

  • LarryH

    Some groups now use electricity around the farm, but not for personal use in the home. So electric milkers and refrigerators are used around the dairy cattle, but there is no refrigerator in the house. This is focused discipline and humility.

  • happy1ga

    I too felt this was a slightly condescending article. My in-laws are Amish, and I have to say that it was almost like you would see a glimmer of respect from you, even if you disagreed, but poof! and it was gone. Could you put a personal thought to the article? Some sort of summation? And the comments here! Most were great, but a few just ignorant. As a people, Amish are just that, people. There will be some who adopt ways that we don’t find acceptable, but then what group doesn’t have ways that someone else finds unacceptable? I realize you were focusing on technology only, but I am always amazed to see how many people don’t understand that the Amish have something that most of us don’t have. A huge support system. For a religious sect, they are some of the most loving, accepting people that I have ever met. As for education, someone here was intimating that they were ignorant due to lack of formal education. Not so. However, I did matriculate through a large university with some of the dumbest people ever to suck air on this planet.

    • bill

      I’m finishing my paper on Amish education. It’s for a grad course here in Connecticut. I lived in Lancaster for 1 year, so I know a little about the Amish. It was great to read some of the comments about their use of technology. They still have shown a great deal of restraint toward modern devices. The Amish education system is a good one. The children score higher than public school children, despite learning from a teacher with an 8th grade education!
      Bill – Ct Yankee

  • debendevan

    Very interesting article. I have had a keen interest in the Amish/Mennonite due to my interest in the Flemish and their impact on history (see http://www.flemishamerican.blogspot.com ). It would be interesting to (a) see more comments from Amish and Mennonites (there were a few here) on their responses to your article; (b) it is surprising to me that there rarely seems to be any evangelical effort by Amish (eg, preachers trying to convert the ‘English’ to their ways); (c) does anyone have a sense of intermarriage between various Amish groups and the outside world?

  • Brian Macker

    The “homebuilt gas powered ice cutter” is suppose to be cutting edge hacking? Thank’s for clearing that up, and here I was confused in thinking they used ninteenth century refrigeration technology.

    What else have they been “hacking”, wind powered buggy whips?

  • Ernie

    Is ‘slow geek’ the new ‘slow food’?

  • Danny Smith

    I have Amish friends, some for 30 years now. We have two settlements just east about 10 miles and just west of where I live.
    I trade with the Amish daily and feel that they can be trusted. I’ve bought sheds, groceries, chickens, eggs, crafts, and this year they put a new roof on my house and built a pole shed for my gardening items.
    We have shared many things about each others life and have grown close to several Amish. They like exchanging jokes, too!
    Why one Amish lady said it was so windy the other day that one of her hens laid the same egg twice. I thought she was a little windy, too!!!

  • messianicdruid

    I drive thirty-two miles every week one way to go to an “Amish” auction. It is run by a small livestock sale. They use the morning to sell eggs, vegtables, plants, baked goods, home canned goods, tools, household items, junk, treasures, anitiques, oddities, just about anything you can think of, if you are willing to wait long enough.

    I’d feel better about some of the “Amish” moving over here closer to me, than me selling out and moving over closer to them. I think every little burg in this country needs a little consignment auction, where people can sell each other there “stuff”, hand-made, retro-fitted with dilithium crystals, or home-grown what-ever, useing whatever “money” they decide works for them, Locally…

  • Erica

    You mention that “the Amish are perplexingly well-informed.” Where do they get their information from?

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Erica: I don’t know where the Amish get all their uptodate info,but I suspect it is an analog form of re-tweeting. None of them spend much time consuming media, but each one hears or sees one little bit in passing and they forward this bit on via gossip until everyone collectively has heard everything.

  • Judith

    interesting! Donald Kraybill’s book “Riddle of Amish Culture” explore some of what is acceptable and what is not within these commnuties. and he has continued to study them in the twenty or so years since it was published.
    I think it important to remember that “technology” is just a word for tool, really, or applied science where material human agency affects the n=vironemtn or circumstances. it’s a tenet of anthropology advanced in the early 20th century that every society has technology (he called it science) as well as magic and religion. a pencil is a form of technology, banging two stones together is a form of technology. using or fashioning a fishhook is a form of technology. I say this because we are so quick to use the word “technology” these days to refer to either computers or to gene splicing. in the 70s and 80s, we spoke of :appropriate technology” a lot, meaning environmental sustainable for the most part.
    I didn’t find this article condescending toward the Amish at all. I live pretty low tech myself…yes I use wireless Internet but I don’t own or generally use microwaves or cell phones. for starters. and I’ve lived TV free for just about my entire adult life and don’t miss it. I don;t deny that the radio and landline phones I do enjoy regularly are as much technologies as the twenty-one year old car I maintain and drive or modern TV though. anyway…great article, thanks! I’m looking forward to the book.

  • John (jshot)

    It’s interesting to note that the Amish population has doubled over the last 16 years. Since the Amish are slow to adopt new technology they might eventually discover the ‘sweet spot’ where they naturally feel the most comfortable balancing man-made tech and nature (if they already have not).

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315790/

    “LANCASTER, Pennsylvania – The Amish are expanding their presence in states far beyond Pennsylvania Dutch country as they search for affordable farmland to accommodate a population that has nearly doubled in the past 16 years, a new study found.”

  • dmitry

    we don’t do much communally, period. the word “community” is a misnomer in our usage.

    thank you for the article!

  • rix

    Good article, & the author was correct to concentrate on the general issue & overview of technology rather than be sidetracked into discussing the many differences between the sects. I didn’t mistake occasional ironic amusement for condescension.

  • AjmoT

    Hey, I wanna throw my log on this fire!

    The focus on Amish infrastructure is wonderful. I’d like to know a lot more, especially how money flows through their communities, and measurements of how they spend time as a culture. But contrary to your conclusion, American society at large follows the same four principles (among others) that you outline at the end of the post:

    _1) They are selective. They know how to say “no” and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ban more than they adopt._ Americans are obstinately selective. Drug use, sustainable food systems, living machine water purification, spending without going into debt: many activities in American society are illegal, taboo, or made overly difficult by the cultural bylaws which confidently proclaim “no, we’ll have none of that”. And as you demonstrate throughout the post, the Amish do not _”ban more than they adopt”_, they just adopt _everything_ in their own way. They choose the time and place and amplitude for any given activity in a way that is peculiar and conspicuous to an outsider, but all American subcultures are in sum no less arbitrarily selective from the viewpoint of a non-native observer.

    _2) They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes._ American culture as a whole is just as permissive of unbridled experimentation — GM crops, nuclear waste storage, jumbo automobiles that feed benzene into our lungs. We’re also just as oppressive once it’s decided that a behavior is, for whatever reason, not okay — psychedelic drugs, prostitution, painting your house the wrong color, collecting rainwater for drinking inside city limits. All big no-nos. Instead of “Rumspringa”, we have “College”. Instead of “shaming”, we have “building inspectors” and “prison”.

    _3) They have criteria by which to select choices: technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world._ Meh — that may be what they _say_, but what are the “unspoken” rules? If it’s okay to plant Bt corn because it’s easier on old men’s backs, then screw it: “old men are right” is the criterion, not “enhance family life”. Does promoting super-pest resistance, death of the soil, and empowerment of agribusiness conglomerates enhance family life? How long will family life persist on that coked-up land? Looks to me like some Amish have decided that the world at large is not worthy of being “family”: to be treated only as foreign, perhaps as suckers to make a buck off of. What does that philosophy look like to a Christian with an eye for global humanity? Who have the Amish fed and clothed lately? What inventions of theirs are helping to nourish and emancipate the impoverished and enslaved?

    _4) The choices are not individual, but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction._ Well once again, you’re not really finding out how the Amish are special. You’re pointing out a rule by which American culture operates as well — if not all cultures. I’m hassled and endangered by car drivers when biking on city streets. It would be illegal for me to retrofit my bike with a small ethanol engine, and to produce my own ethanol on my residential property. Did I make that rule as an American individual? But somehow it’s legal to send local money to distant lands so that I can purchase a toxic cocktail named “gasoline” for my glorified-heater of a car. The community establishes an infrastructure, and we individuals are expected to participate accordingly: those who resist fall somewhere along the spectrum from “old-fashioned” and “weird” to “lunatic” and “criminal”.

    In light of all this, the conclusion that you _”have not seen any evidence”_ of _”social relinquishing”_ in modern America is kind of silly. We tried solar water heaters and suburban agriculture prior to the Cold War, then we dumped them. We built simple, small, cheap cars after the ’70s energy crisis, then we dumped them. We’ve been to Hanoi: we don’t seem to want their scooters. We don’t want Venice’s car-free city. We’ve been to Hawaii and the Andes: we don’t want their robust perennial polyculture. We used to plant apples and tap our maple trees — but now we’d rather buy useless ornamentals for our lawns and high-fructose corn-syrup for our bellies. We’ve relinquished and resisted a lot of good tech as a society — practices that create and conserve health and wealth.

    The entire era from 1880 to 1930 is replete with spectacular inventions, many of which are the most illuminating, effective, durable, repairable, replicable, non-toxifying tools (bicycle, Einstein-Szilárd fridge) and infrastructure (pneumatic power, keyline earthworks) ever known, a wellspring of innovation — all willfully distorted or forgotten during the petroleum age. Instead of the ornithopter, we have the 747.

    So this brings up what Lisa Marshall mentioned below: the Amish are now making some pretty bad ecological decisions, like the rest of us. How can dairy be your cash crop, and yet you’re not harvesting the methane and using CNG as your fuel? (Talk to your Indians in the Deccan for that.) How can you justify planting an intensive monocrop of Bt corn, when sowing fields using native no-till companion planting is more bountiful, less work, and enormously soil-nourishing? (Talk to your Hawaiians for that.) I can see now how pumping diesel exhaust into the air from your retrofit tractor will help keep you separate from this world: it will destroy your flesh!

    The Amish are clearly a repository for technological, agricultural, social conventions and inventions which we would do well to document closely and learn from. I’d love to know all their farming and husbandry techniques, see old tools and building practices, and appreciate their knack for lo-tech retrofitting. But nothing in your article suggests that the Amish are much wiser than those living at large in North America. Using dysfunctional, ill-informed criteria for choosing their “acceptable” behaviors and technologies: they are digging their own graves with their haphazard expedients, like us.

    Well, anyway. The important thing is that the Amish have a bit of steam-punk in them. This is a powerful ethic. Let’s join in the reverse-engineering of existing technologies: emulation using different material and energy platforms (different machine code). Let a tool be replicable from the cheap and easy materials at hand… like your wooden bikes. We have by all indications taken a roundabout way through the petroleum and silicon ages: the best computers may truly be born in an age of wood, ceramics, and hydraulics. This is the idea behind steam-punk, biomimicry, and some of my favorite Vernor Vinge (_A Fire…_). The Amish are onto something — and it only becomes visible when cultural or material demands are imposed on a technology in a non-native environment. Open-source, indigenous tinkering that more fully explores the _possibility space_ of a technology, as you might say.

    Only after developing this robust palette can we really judge which flavor is most appropriate to a given occasion. The overlapping of cultures (which your post helps create) allows for zones of ambivalent value and radically free inventiveness. You are partly investigating here how the Amish are dancing with us “English”, together establishing the lines of social interface — meeting points of mutual trust.

    If we can use the trust that exists between our communities (much of it based on the exchange of “well-built” goods) then some cross-pollination is in order: Let’s learn from their sturdy tools, air-punk, P2P-grid, local food and money system. And they can see from us how leaky their ship will become when punctured by corrosive plow-agriculture, the idolization of “toil”, and their refusal to accept the world as a lovable creation not separate from themselves, but continuous with their body and community and worship: not a purgatory but a temple.

  • Myron D. Yoder

    Hi! This is definitely a great article. I want to add my 2 cents worth about Amish technology. I come from Mennonite background here in Northern Indiana, but I have an associates degree in Electronics, have been an amateur radio operator most of my life, I have had numerous electronics jobs, but none so interesting than working for an Amishman who sold solar panels, wind generators and related equipment primarily to the Amish population in Elkhart and Lagrange counties Here in Indiana. It turns out that the thrifty Amish here have embraced Solar energy to pump their water and charge their buggy(or carriage) Batteries. Gone are the traditional many petaled windmills seen on most Amish farm pictures you would see on calendars.Instead almost every Amish house or barn here has at least one medium sized solar panel on the south facing roof. The traditional windmills were fully mechanical and required yearly maintenance,tall towers that needed paint, and that could come down in bad weather.What has replaced them is simply a 25 year warranteed Solar Panel hooked up to a German built 25 year warranteed in-ground water pump and sometimes a battery system for back-up. A truly set-and-forget system for their house-hold water needs. No yearly maintenance,no fuss.I have also seen many new high-tech wind generators on many Amish farms in the area as well. But solar is not universally accepted here either. I took a solar/ wind system down from an Amish farm in Middlebury and put it back up on a new,young Amish man-owned Farmette in Shipshewana, about 10 miles to the east. When I questioned my boss, he said that the bishop of one district wanted the system off of the buildings for quite some time, but it was quite alright for the young Amishman to install it on his buildings because he was in another district governed by a different bishop. We also installed 12 volt DC outlets right along side 110volt AC
    outlets in an Amish home in Shipshewana, because it was ok to run the vacuum sweeper from the stationary generator in the barn (110VAC), but all the lighting must be 12VDC because of what the Bishop wanted.My boss said it would take a while to explain the logic in this. BTW My boss, after I was no longer with the company, traded in his black buggy for a black suburban, because he had moved his company and was building his business in Middlebury.Seems being amish may have slowed him down too much.He has built a very good business on “Amish technology” in Middlebury, Indiana.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Myron Yoder: Thanks for the great report. I’ve been wondering about the direction of solar with the Amish and you answered a few questions.

  • Dodger

    Clearly the CNC Machine is being used to secretly make precision tooled parts for an enormous clockwork pneumato-nuclear doomsday device.

    After all, what better way to be “in the world, not of it” than to rule it with an iron* fist?!

    * Wrought-iron, that is.

  • Jason

    Very fascinating article.

  • paul

    It’s interesting that they see electricity as tying them to the world but they don’t make the same connection to diesel fuel. My uninformed opinion would be that electricity from a local hydro plant is less of a tie than diesel from across the planet.

  • Kalevi

    Some Amish communities are anything but critical of modern technology. I saw a documentary about the genetic engineering of plants, and one segment introduced an Amish community that embraces the technology wholeheartedly. All the work they do on their fields they do manually and I got the impression that this is the main thing, that the immediately visible part of the process must have the look and feel of traditional farming. The irony is that the plants that are thus cultivated are anything but traditional. They are the genetically altered brainchild of modern technocrats in lab coats. An interesting contrast, don’t you think?

    One image in particular lingered in my memory long after viewing the program, that of an elderly Amish farmer spreading pesticide from a horse-drawn contraption especially built for that purpose. I have to admit that it lead me to doubt the ethical honesty of the Amish lifestyle. They make such a an appealing show of rural life in 19th century America that many people on the outside like to conceive of it as some kind of bold ethical statement against modernity. But are the Amish really an ethical movement, or an aesthetic one?

    • Crusty Rusty

      I think the issue of how the Amish are perceived is more a problem of the “English” doubting their own societal rules and glorifying their image of Amish life, rather than the Amish trying to put on a show. I’m sure in PA there are plenty of Amish who go out of their way to perpetuate the theme park of their lifestyle, but the Amish I knew in IL basically stayed to themselves and only interacted with us when they needed to buy something, or in a few shops where we bought furniture or other handcrafted items.

  • Laurel

    I happened on your blog when googling Amish, whom I’ve always had an interest. The lifestyle, albeit one I couldn’t adapt to, is fascinating. I have read all the comments as well. Thank you.

  • Agile Cyborg

    Interesting post. I am going to back you up on this. I am a tech guy who married a woman who came from the Old Order Amish which means that I am delightfully (and, sometimes, not-so) exposed to the thrice yearly rubbage of shoulders with these tinkerers and Amish law-twisters.

    My wife still has several sisters and brothers in the Amish and the one item that pops into my mind immediately based on your post here is a problem one small Amish branch community is dealing with in South-Western Tennessee. My sister-in-law and her husband are part of a cadre of Amish families who use souped-up modern tractors to travel the back-roads and village streets of that county.

    The tractors have been over-hauled to top 35mph. Well, if you’ve been around tractors of a good size for any amount of time you know damn well the god-awful pollution associated with these things. ESPECIALLY, if they are being utilized as glorified cars!

    Well, the town council has voted to ban all tractor traffic within the town’s limits, unless it is deemed part of farming activity WHICH pretty much precludes a group of tractor-riding Amish on their way to the local hardware store.

    Needless to say this group of Amish folk will have to move on in spite of their creative tractor usage.

  • Internet Strategist @GrowMap

    I have personally assisted many Mennonite family businesses over the years. They are not as strict as the Amish and, as mentioned, the communities make their own decisions. The one I am most familiar with prohibits musical instruments but allows electricity. They drive vans but the vans have no radios.

    When I first built Web sites for them they had white-list Internet access so they could only visit a site once it had been reviewed by the company that provided that access. As domains expired I am sure that became cumbersome. It also made getting business email delivered to them challenging so today they use regular access.

    The families I know are extremely honest and wise in business. They build impressive business buildings with living quarters for a fraction of what most construction costs, importing double-paned windows from communities in the north even to Texas. Until they can afford to build a house they live there; later they rent them to other families to assist them in getting started.

    They do make many products for sale outside their community. Why shouldn’t they? They do use computers in their businesses but have no televisions in their homes. Their children work in their businesses and go to their single-room school house.

    I can not imagine them sending their children to public school; those communities that do will have relinquished their future and will soon fall for “modern” propaganda and widely accepted practices that are unhealthy physically and financially.

    In many ways they have an advantage over outsiders; however, it is unfortunate that the individuals making the decisions may have lost track of the original reasons behind living apart from the world. I consider their accepting GMO to be a major mistake and that is not the only one some communities have made.

    There is only one way to know the Truth and I hope that the Amish, Mennonites and everyone else will make ever wiser choices.

  • John Johnson

    Fascinating topic. I never fully understood that the Amish motive is to nurture family and community relationships.

    My children had TV growing up, but not cable TV or video games. We gave them cell phones for convenience and security, but now texting follows them everywhere, even to the dinner table. I’m feeling more and more Amish each day.

    Amish values may also instruct us as we stumble and lurch toward a sustainable future. We tried DDT and gave it up. Can we do the same with fossil fuels?

  • mennomom

    Correction to David – We live on the fringes of a large Amish community, are Mennonite, and live within easy driving distance of the Amana colonies. The Amana church, historically called the Society of True Inspiration is not part of the Anabaptist faith family, nor has it ever been. But the confusion is common – we are frequently asked by tourists to explain.

  • J S

    Your picture of a ‘combine’ is really a hay baler (you’ll notice the bales of hay on the wagon).

    Why a motorized baler is ok when a motorized tractor is not.. shrug.

    • Paul Best

      Horse drawn farm equipment is no longer manufactured. They’ve had to find ways of adapting modern equipment to horses.

  • Tom Crowl

    Just a quick note on a tentative conclusion relating to that stubborn issue of scaling up the decision process from small Amish communities to Congress, Wall Street and the U.N.(and to Jared Diamond’s realization of the need for leaders to be connected to the effects)

    In summary:

    Both Self-Interest and Altruism are inherent motivations in humans.

    Self-interest is clearly bounded. In other words its quite clear where it begins and ends: the individual and his/her personal survivability.

    However altruism is NOT!

    The boundaries of what might be called “extended identities” vary from individual to individual and from sub-group to sub-group within the entire human species.

    Further, the intensity of attachment to these extended identities is directly related to genetic, geographic and cultural proximity.

    And these altruistic drives weaken with distance whether genetic, geographic or cultural…

    if interested there’s a bit more on my blog post this morning if it seems to make some sense:

    Self-Interest vs Altruism – Problems in Scaling the Decision Process
    at
    http://culturalengineer.blogspot.com/2009/02/self-interest-vs-altruism-problems-in.html

  • darlena

    I live around the amish…and it is a cult…The children can only go to school until the 8th grade…then it’s marriage and work…
    if you ever see them out..the kids look scared all the time…
    oh they use tech all the time..and even hire drivers…
    why are they seen a sweet…when they are the same as those crazy mormans…

  • Modern not happy.

    Thanks MUCH for this.

    Boy they at least ONE thing right…
    “to keep energy focused in the local community”

    I currently live in a town of approx. 1000 where the downtown is wiped out dead pretty much because everyone drives 20+ miles to Walmart to get everything except food… where we drive 2 miles to the outside edge of town on the highway where the grocery store is.

    A pattern that pretty much plays out in cities too, where local neighborhoods lose all their shops for malls miles away…

    The Amish have not lost perspective on what is truly important in life. Most of us, who are dependent upon an employer who’s sole purpose is to make a profit for shareholders who are NOT part of the community, have lost our perspective.

  • Donald Ryan

    Found this on twitter. i guess the amish hackers created this site aswell.

    @birdjello Google Amish-Online-Dating = Unexplained Phenomenon :: ROFL :: http://tinyurl.com/mz23ce

  • michael

    What about inbreeding?

  • Joshua Barratt

    Fascinating article, thank you for doing this research.

    As you noted, the line keeps moving.

    I have a friend who works for an electric utility in Ohio. In a recent conversation, I asked how the housing bust had affected their work (as I correctly assumed new construction would have ground to a halt.) He noted that it’d stayed more or less constant, as suddenly the local Amish had begun requesting hookups for their workshops. (Which tended to be nice jobs, as they were far enough off the grid to be real engineering projects.)

    It turned out that the rising cost of Diesel fuel had totally upset the economic balance of running their manufacturing workshops — at $3+ dollars a gallon, they could no longer afford to power them that way and still be price-competitive with their furniture and other products. The community had decided that given the circumstances, this (but not wiring the houses themselves) was an acceptable compromise.

  • Kent Schnake

    Excellent post! I had an almost completely invalid idea of why the Amish have been slow to adopt automobiles or electric appliances.

    I too believe that we must strive to live in the world but not be of the world. However, I do not believe the determinant is what things we own nearly as much as what we value in life. If we value conversation and community, we must use the things we own to enhance conversation or community.

  • Scott

    Oh! I drive through amish country every day going to and from work.

    I’ve seen a team of horses pulling a tractor chassis pulling a hay baler to bail the hay.

    Just this past week one amish put up a 40′ tower with a wind generator system that was spinning madly here in Southern Indiana today.

  • Tom Crowl

    Very exciting post…

    And a perfect springboard for consideration of the possible evolution of “a new kind of mind”… (or maybe minds?)

    It could be that a multiplicity of such quirky “social experiments” is be the best option for long-term “Technium” survivability.

    That is a “semi”-independent federation of perhaps widely divergent “culture try-outs” as opposed to an “all-eggs-in-one-cultural-basket” Borg collective.

    In other words a very free society… or collection of societies bound only by certain necessary agreements regarding rights and obligations that each acknowledges as mutually required. (no easy task that!)

    Admittedly a biased view, but I believe it’s rational to believe that the necessity and persistance of ‘outliers’ makes the former model more viable since we simultaneously need outliers…

    And, at the same time they have a tendency to tip over the civilization table. Often for great benefit… but not always.

    However, before flying off on that tangent,what first comes to mind in the search for the answer to your question, “can it work for the rest of us?” is…

    What allows it to work for the Amish?

    And why have they been able to survive so long as a group where so many others have not?

    Intra-Group loyalty & identification?

    Group size?

    Nearby similar (yet importantly not identical) groups?

    Group escape valves (some choose to leave)?

    Group “criticality” – a tenuous balance between order and chaos that allows them both clear rules but with occasional exceptions? And the resilience with flexibility to survive within a dominant surrounding group.

    A willingness to tolerate, do business with and, at least occasionally intermingle peacefully with those NOT of their group?

    A hierarchical network for immediate authority moderated by a distributed network that checks excess?

    Functional hypocracy? (I’ve long believed that the actual role of hypocracy in social structures has been neglected… it can be either a necessary technique for dealing with irreconcilable internal conflicts or a path to social disintegration depending on surrounding circumstance)

    And, undoubtedly and most importantly something I’ve probably forgotten.

    I’m pooped!

  • Mitzi

    There’s a small Amish community in western Kentucky that runs an auto repair shop, alongside a more traditional furniture store. My father told me the fellows there were quite good mechanics, up to date on the computer-controlled nonsense that’s on cars these days as well as all the basic mechanical stuff that anyone who has grown up around farm machinery could be expected to know. I believe they did some work on his old Camry at one point.

    Very interesting article, thanks!

  • Dane

    @paul
    more then likely they use Bio Diesel they process themselves, it is an easy thing to make. in fact the Diesel engine was invented to give remote farmers access to fuels they could make themselves as opposed being reliant on petroleum

  • Johnny Ow

    Great article. Very interesting read for someone interested in geekness and the Amish like myself.

  • Marrz

    I 2nd that, very interesting It’s not something I’d ever thought of

  • Jeff Robbins

    Excellent article.

    I happened on it serendipitously. I was googling Amish and “Howard Rheingold” trying to find the URL for a comment I made (for some reason it was not added to the comment list) on a recent NY Times piece “Coffee Can Wait. Day’s First Stop Is Online by Brad Stone. The Times article was about how the Internet, in all its various trappings, has taken over family mornings. I thought of Rheingold’s article in Wired 7.01 (which I’ve included as a source in my Research Writing course on Technology at Rutgers) and decided to offer it, along with the URL, to the comment crowd.

    P.S. I once wrote an article on what we can learn from the Amish re their selectivity of technology. It was published in the premier issue (1994) of the now defunct “Plain Magazine.”

    At the close of the piece I included a quote from John Hostetler’s book “Amish Society.” Hostetler said this: “By holding technology at a distance, by exercising restraint and moderation, and by accepting limitations and living within them, the Amish have maintained the integrity of their family and community life. They have escaped many of the noxious side effects of ambitious technology–haste, aimlessness, distraction, violence, waste, and disintegration.” By their refusal, they provide one model for a future (my add-on).

  • Thoryke

    About the puppy mill issue: not all cultures view dogs as family members, or as creatures who should be given different treatment than any other form of livestock [think about how we treat pigs and in factory farms]. What some people see as cruel or inappropriate for man’s best friend, others might see as an efficient way to produce as many of the “animals that fetch a good price” as possible.

    Having said that, I agree that puppy mills are cruel, and I’m glad the state of PA has finally taken action to shut them down.

  • Zbigniew Lukasiak

    I can see that social relinquishing in the bans on illegal drugs – I would say this is the same pattern.

  • lancastrian

    I’m always amazed at the over-glorification of the Amish. I live and work around the Amish and OOM in Lancaster, PA. Here’s the truth about their selective use of technology, if it makes them money they’ll use it, if it costs them money they won’t. Things like radios, tv’s, etc cost them money, and don’t generate income. Cell phones, power tools, fax machines, PC’s help them make money so they use them. They’re just cheap people who like to pass the cost on to the English any chance they get. Any rural library is full of Amish using free Internet access for entertainment. They could easily afford to buy Internet access at their homes, they just don’t cause they’re cheap. Go to Costco on any day and they have the biggest cartloads of stuff. Of course they got to Costco by hiring someone else’s van or bumming a ride off of someone else who pays insurance, registration, car payments, etc. They ruin our roads with their horses (horseshoes destroy paving quickly), and they love spreading their fields with manure, not to fertilize but as cheap waste management. One of the reasons why the Susquehanna River is dying. They love to inbreed puppies and stuff them all on top of each other in disease riddled pens. Once again cause it’s cheap way to make a buck. During the summer I love to watch them price gouge the tourists. The Amish are simply thrifty, shrewd, businessmen.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @lancastrian: That’s an interesting theory, but I don’t buy it. If the Amish were only driven by thrift money-making, then all thrift money-makers would end up looking like the Amish. I think they ARE thrifty and money-making, but greed will not get you where they are. Cheapskates live all over the world. Why don’t we see a Japanese version of Amish? Why don’t we see thrifty greedy Italians using horses and cell phones but no TV? I think it is because there’s a lot more going on then your very simplistic view.

    • Paul Best

      Those horses that are ruining the roads draw tourists who spend money in Amish and non-Amish business’s. If the horses and buggies weren’t somehow covering the cost of road maintenance the local government would correct the problem. They would license horse drawn vehicles like they do in Indiana. Every Amish person I know insists on paying their way. They don’t accept free rides. The drivers they hire are licensed and insured. As far as passing costs onto the English, that is what business’ do. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be in business very long. Every Amish owned business I have dealt with has good prices and quality products. Your last sentence “The Amish are simply thrifty, shrewd, businessmen.” is accurate in my experience. I’d also say honest, humble, and hardworking. If you ever feel that you have been cheated all you have to do is find their minister or bishop. They will straighten things out.

  • Chris

    I like the idea of “slow geeks”. Maybe this is something to be encouraged, like Slow Food. The mindful contemplation of technology and its uses.

  • Sessy

    I’m your average modern-day European geek girl. But here’s my 2 cents about relinquishing:

    When I moved out of my parental house into the student dorm, I decided not to get a tv, as I felt I was too busy to watch it. Next I know, my boyfriend gave up his tv subscription as well (meaning he does have a tv if he wants to play a dvd or a video, but he can’t receive a signal on it from outside). Next my mother gave TV up as well. I’m hearing more and more from distant and not-so-distant friends now that they, too, have given up TV.

    Another thing is, I’m finding less and less joy in the internet these days. I’ll read some informative articles, but forums seem to have lost my interest – except from very specific ones (pertaining to my study or sport). When I spoke out about this I found out that surprisingly, my mother and my boyfriend were apparently feeling the same way as well, and then, we found out some of my mother’s friends and my distant friends were also concerned about this. Now, I doubt we’ll give up the internet, but I can totally see how we would use it more selectively, conservatively in the future.

    Me and the group around me have also some concerns about modern computerised cars – you can’t simply repair them yourself, like it used to be possible with older ones. Also, older cell phones and computers used to be a lot sturdier than modern ones – they were truly made to last. Modern ones are made to break down after 2 years so you will get a new model. See the problem?

    Overall, it is my impression that more geeks are also starting to grow frustrations with the modern use of technology. It’s quite logical. With the adaptation of new technologies by the society as a whole, instead of pioneers, the intellectual challenge behind the technology drops (in the early internet days, mostly people with higher education of some sort had access and now that it’s publically available, most forums dropped to the level of a gossip tea club) and worst of all, the products drop in quality and robustness because they are tailored to a consumer market where showing off with a new gadget is more important than its functionality. And frankly, I’m seeing more and more geeks get fed up with it and start to relinquish certain technologies in favor of older ones, or adapt the new technologies in a way not used by mainstream barbie-doll buy-buy-buy-minded society. They will be the driving force to more environmentally friendly, more community friendly technology, IMHO.

  • Timothy Sauder

    I too, am an Old Order Mennonite in fact I belong to the exact same denomination as Marlin Hoover who was mentioned in this article. I guess I would fit your definition of an “Amish alpha-geek”, that said, I want to applaud your in-depth, well-researched article, I could not have explained the subject better myself.

    The most unusual combination of a Plain Community and technology that I ever came across, was that of the Dave Martin church north of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. They are a well established denomination which dates back to abuot 1912, so are not a radical/experimental offshoot. They too use horse-and-buggy as their primary source of transportation (very simple ones at that, only a single red warning light at the back), their homes are not wired and some even have no running water (just a hand pump on the kitchen sink.) Yet throughout their community they own and run dozens of high-tech shops (which BTW are diesel electric powered.) These shops feature directional Yagi WiFi antennas that connect them to the internet. Many have several CNC machines, doing high volume production for a number of industries even including the auto industry. Socially they have a number of quirks that really stand apart from other Plain Communities. For example their children attend public schools, another odd one is that the even though the younger guys wear a quite plain shirt/pants/suspenders outfit, many sport the most unusual haircut, a mohawk!

    Just when you thought you heard it all…

  • twylightsync

    Re: cryptic comments on the CNC machine.

    Are they making guns?

  • Alan

    Great article. I deal with the Amish and Mennonites at their produce auctions that numerous communities have. Great people but they are same in many ways as everyone else. As one teen told me he liked music but didn’t listen often because radios were banned..but noted a few had them but were kept hidden or they would be smashed. An elder member told me about the costs of maintaining a buggy… he noted that the spoked wheels were expensive and occassionally one would get busted up on Friday evenings when the teen boys would have buggy races on the roads.

  • Gerry

    paul, interesting note about the diesel; but diesel was originally created for farming countries to run off peanut oil and coal dust suspended in water. My theory on their reasoning for diesel would be that they would be able to make their own fuel if they had to.

  • Sam

    How did you manage to get pictures? Were they aware and or ok with it?

  • Eli James

    Wonderful article. I was very surprised that they use pneumatic power as opposed to electricity. Wonder why they don’t as a community create a small Amish electricity plant and get their electricity from there, as opposed to reinventing the wheel and use air.

    Strange people, these bearded ones.

  • Ivy

    How do they power their puppy mills? It’s interesting how you glorify unsafe child labor. I grew up on a farm and we had many Amish farms nearby. Children were always getting injured doing inappropriate work. Kids are kids, not labor. I know a middle-school aged boy who lost his leg shoving corn into a silo. We have laws to protect children for a reason. If we see a kid from a 3rd world country doing what Amish kids do, we are enraged by child labor. When the Amish do it, it’s perfectly acceptable. You also point out that none of these people have more than an 8th grade education. Since when do people need more than an 8th grade education to be mechanics, tool and die makers, carpenters, etc. When you have this kind of talent, why should you be compelled to get a liberal arts education? Again, I grew up in a rural area and the people we worked with didn’t go to college and were often high school dropouts. I wasn’t shocked that such uneducated barbarians could fix my cranky diesel Volkswagon in their backyard or figure out an irrigation system for our farm.

  • Robert Bryant

    Excellent article, but how could any community
    afford a $400,000 CNC machine?

  • Jonas Borntreger

    Readers who wish a first person account of living Old Order Amish in Iowa and Missouri a half century ago are invited to visit my blog (placesivebeen.wordpress.com) and do a search for ‘family history.’ Thanks. Jonas

  • Anonymous

    I like the comment about “slow geeks” though the term itself leaves itself open to ridicule.

    Slow adoption makes a lot of sense. I’ve worked as a computer scientist for the past thirty years, equivalent to about ten system lifecycles. At the especially accelerated pace of this industry, it’s a bit like watching genetic evolution in fruit flies. Sure there’s a constant flood of new technology, but it’s significant that only about ten percent of it ends up delivering any lasting value. The rest just ends up as “roadkill on the information highway” to paraphrase Ted Nelson.

    All that overhyped but doomed technology is a massive waste of resources. Most of the time, the latest shiny new thing will make no meaningful difference in our lives, yet it has a disproportionately large and enduring effect on our fragile environment.

    Our current economic crisis is a sharp reminder of the increasing necessity not to be wasteful. Global warming is another, if one were needed. If we could just put a bit more effort into being thoughtful about what we acquire instead of reflexively reaching for every bright new shiny thing, we could maybe reduce the technology fail ratio with all its attendant waste to one in two instead of nine in ten. That’s pretty good leverage. Think about it.

  • gili

    Luddite is spelled with a capital “L”.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

  • Robertsonline

    Intersting reading it certainly added to my limted knowledge of the Amish while they have a unique outlook on life at least they have retained the famil values that many in the west have lost,I say good on them.

  • mmm

    Why they don’t use automobiles or tractors on their farms?

  • Howard Dickins

    The idea of protecting community is (or should be) important. If refusing certain kinds of technology helps to do that, then I reckon it’s a sensible decision.
    How much have we lost when we start to distrust our neighbours!?

  • easy

    “So a few years ago they installed a massive, $400,000 computer-controlled milling (CNC) machine in his backyard, behind the horse stable. This massive half-million dollar tool is about the dimensions of a delivery truck. It is operated by his 14-year old daughter, in a bonnet. With this computer controlled machine she makes parts for grid-free horse and buggy living.”

    If you think this machine was purchased for the purpose that you are portraying here, then I have some ocean front property in Arizona I would like to sell you. :)

  • Guy

    Correction required: the picture of a horse drawn “Combine” is in fact a horse drawn “Baler”. Balers make hay bales, which the people in the picture are stacking. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baler.

    I recently read about the victory the Amish scored recently with dealing with the Ice storms. Due to their non-reliance on modern technology and off-the-grid infrastructure they dealt with the storms better than most of their modern counterparts.

  • Meg

    Since when do the Amish not read books? Last time I checked, many Amish enjoy reading books, magazines, newspapers, etc. It’s not like they can’t get books without using an Amazon Kindle or something.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Meg: I am curious what kind of books you’ve seen the Amish reading? (Not newspapers or magazines). Don’t seem to be any in their homes.

  • Richard

    Great article! Thank you!

    I suspect the reason that a lot of people fear the Amish and Mennonites is simply because of their emphasis to “be in the world, not of it.”

    For them, church and community are the same. For too many of the rest of us, church is something we “do” — either occaisionally or regularly == but it’s not something we live. We’re too wrapped up in the “culture,” and that’s a pretty barren landscape these days. Guilty! =:^(

    In these present times – and the ones that are in the pipe – we’ll all *NEED* community.

    Going it alone won’t work in the long-term.

    The problem is: How do you start a community in a town full of isolated individuals?

    A point to ponder . . .

  • Paul

    I am so happy to have found this site!

    Your article here is absolutely fascinating, I am going to be referring to this in work.

  • Zeugitai

    Although the article is good and serves to educate “the English” who are often profoundly ignorant of their plain neighbors, I think it should in each example properly cite the order instead of generalizing everything to “the Amish.” This was mentioned at the beginning of the article, but not applied throughout.

    It is not necessary to point out the bias inherent in the perspective of the author who is necessarily writing as an outsider looking at the surface of Amish society and community with little or no comprehension of its internal logic or principles. Such ignorance is unavoidable. It is simply a point that must be kept in mind.

    If the electric power (and the petroleum) were cut off today, the Amish can and would continue right on with their lives virtually unaffected while the rest of the technologically dependent society would crash in helplessness and simpering panic. Who, then, is “behind” whom?

  • Prashanta

    I liked your article but your tone towards the Amish sounds condescending. Also your use of the term Geek (which has a negative connotation) just because someone likes to fool around with technology isn’t very nice.

    If Geeks, as you like to call them, weren’t around, you wouldn’t have all those modern day inventions you proudly wear as your badge of honor to distinguish yourself from people like the Amish.

    And if you define Geeks that way, then Einstein, Edison, Newton everyone was a Geek.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @ Tim Suader: Thank you for your informed additions and comments. There must be a story behind your journey to posting on blogs. I hope you publish it on the web someday.

      @ Easy: Please tell us what the CNC is really for!

      @ Prashanta: Geek and Nerd are compliments in my book. See GeekDad, a blog I contribute to. I also wrote a piece about Nerd Culture of Science magazine ten years ago.

  • Anne Wayman

    Wonderful! Thanks for the increased understanding of my world.

    I truly wish we had more community, and it may very well have been cars that broke it originally. Years ago in the Kingdom of Tonga and Fiji I saw how VCRs on some islands kept people from their community halls – islands without the VCR still met there. Sad.

    I don’t have TV, love the net, don’t have a cell phone. Go figure.

  • smalgin

    With your permission, I am going to translate this into Russian and re-post in my blog. (photos included). Do you mind?

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @ Smaigin: Same deal for all translators: send me a link when you are done so I can add a link back at the top of the piece.

  • Martin Cohn

    My family runs a rural auction business in Central Illinois and quite a few Amish and Mennonites buy cattle and arrange to have them hauled to their dairies and farms. A couple of years ago a young farmer was settling up after the auction and wanted to give directions to his place. He prefaced his description with “I live a new road that’s not in my GPS” and he took out a Garmin that was newer than mine.

    The farmer said that the GPS really helped the people that they hired to drive them.

    I think of myself as a geek and it was humorous for a Mennonite to have newer gadgets than I did.

  • easy

    I don’t really know what the machine is for. But I do know the Mennonites portrayed here, (no phone, horse and buggy) are extraordinary frugal and an austere people.

    The way the story is written leaves the reader with the impression that the machine is an investment and an extension of there way of life. It’s a terrible stretch of the imagination to think that they’re paying off this machine from products they’re selling to the community itself.

    The reality is more likely that they’re machining parts for the non-plain community.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @easy: It is true that more than just the Amish buy Aladdin type lamps or kerosene stoves, but these are still off the grid items. And yes, the Amish are thrifty, but they are not poor. In fact they are usually flush with cash. Consider they do not pay Social Security taxes, mostly employ their own family, don’t buy insurance, avoid debt, and yet get paid as much as the “English” — so their profit margins are much higher than outsiders. Result they accrue cash. Since they don’t buy a lot of things, they tend to pay quality when they do. However they may well manufacture other stuff as well for outsiders; that seems likely.

  • johnH

    Your article was wonderfully accurate.

    I am an IT manager in NE Ohio. I live in an Amish Community, and I even live in an Amish house. I bought the place because I fell in love with the woodshop. Our first year was difficult, as we adopted the Amish style of living while I slowly electrified the property.
    The woodshop was run with a diesel engine, driving a long shaft that ran the length of the shop. At various stages along the shaft, were pulleys that drove the individual woodworking machines. The machines themselves were standard electric machines with the motors removed, and simply connected to the shopshaft via drive belts. This is a very common configuration for Amish shops.
    The diesel engine also drives a compressor, which charges a 1000 gallon air tank. This air tank provides air pressure for various pneumatic tools in the shop, and also runs a pneumatic pump in the well, to provide the property with water.
    After getting electricity run to the property, I installed electric pumps and equipment, but still maintain the diesel for backup electric power and pneumatic power in the event of power outages.

    All my neighbors are Amish, and we provide taxi service as they need it. Most Amish families in this area have cell phones, but they still maintain their phone shantys, that are shared by neighbors. Most folks around here rely heavily on battery power and come by from time to time, to plug in their battery chargers. They always offer to pay for the service, but I always turn them down.
    We maintain an upright freezer in the buggy garage for the neighbors. They come and go as they please, and we enjoy providing this as well.

    My closest neighbor has electric fencing for his pasture….run by solar cells. Their John Deere tractor has tires…but no air. the tires are simply riveted to the wheels, as a cover. When he needs to run electric equipment, he uses his gas-powered welder/generator to supply 110V power. Clothes washers are powered by small 5HP Briggs & Stratton gas motors, and they charge their tool batteries and cell phones with solar powered inverters.
    I’m currently designing a website for this community and working closely with everyone to get it done right.
    The thing that I have to be most careful with is respecting the tiny nuances that surround the community. While I want the website to be populated heavily with pictures, I must be careful not to take pictures of the individuals themselves.
    They are a very private people, generous, thankful, and hardworking. The myth that they are forced out of school after 8th grade comes from the fact that the kids are offered that option, in the event that they want to start working and helping the family. Most choose this option, but many go on to high school.
    I think that it is important to also say that, to be Amish, is a choice that they make as individuals. They have the freedom to leave.

    I’ve said enough. Again…Wonderful article. I’d love to feature it on my site some time.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @johnH: Thanks for your helpful comments.

  • Joan

    A friend of mine who is a midwife spent a year practicing in a rural area in the Midwest that included an Amish community, and the content of this article lines up pretty well with what she saw. I would just add a couple of cultural observations:

    1) When they wanted to specially honor a dinner guest (such as the midwife) they’d hold back their homegrown food and serve things like Velveeta and the supermarket brand Wonder Bread knockoff.

    2) They still have some old-fashioned superstitions/bigotries. My friend heard enough anti-Semitic talk in her early days there that she didn’t dare tell them she was Jewish; she was afraid they wouldn’t let her near their babies if they knew.

  • Meg

    @Kevin

    Well, for starters, there’s the Bible. There are also textbooks for school.

    As for newspapers, The Budget is the largest newspaper serving the Amish community.

    Also,

    “The Amish read fictionalized stories about themselves which are purchased from religious or secular publishers they trust.”

    http://www.amish.net/faq.asp

    “Amish folks love to read, and usually check out 8-10 books at the Family Center’s Library.”

    http://bryanallain.com/archives/2009/09/17/more-living-with-the-amish-8/

    So, in short, I think it’s highly inaccurate to say that Amish people do not have or read books. Some might not, but then some non-Amish don’t. I can’t remember ever seeing my mom read a book, but that doesn’t mean that others around her don’t.

    But since you seem to know so much about the Amish, what gave you the impression that they didn’t have books? Why wouldn’t they?

  • Rolling

    KK, I am an avid reader of your material and this morning had the idea that I shd have a Blogharvest Page on my blog so I can record the wonderful journey across blogsphere that brings me to strange new findings about our world.

    I had never even heard about Amish People before reading about them in your space. I hope it’s ok if I excerpted and linked you from my space? If it isn’t, just let me know – wd drop it.

    My readers are basically my students, colleagues, other blogmates that belong to various other domains or profession. I like to share what I read and discover with them.

  • Tom Crowl

    Jared Diamond made an interesting observation on PBS last night about what seems to him a key difference between societies that survive and those that don’t.

    And it relates to their decision systems!

    He simply observed that in societies where the decision makers are insulated from the effects of their decisions… collapse is more likely.

    In Amish culture its a very direct relationship.

    This is one of the key problems in scaling the decision making process for larger societies: preserving that connection.

    Social stability (not rigidity) relies on consensus. But it’s not consensus on each individual decision that is required for that stability, but rather consensus on the process and structures through which decisions are made.

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  • Tattycakes

    I can’t say that I would ever manage to live like this, but I applaud their motivations behind it. The entire lifestyle is clearly focused around keeping the family together and doing no harm to the community, socially and emotionally, rather than just religious opression. Nothing wrong with that at all.

  • Jason

    I find it interesting they are all about not adapting until its “safe”. Yet, this same distrust of new means they DON’T have the ability to see how external factors like government and money play a part in EVERYTHING…they jump right on the GMO waggon (no pun intended) If Amish still lived in Europe (or other countries where GMO’s are already banned), they could have easily passed on the word via email… This article is very introspective for me in the sense that I wonder what “safe” ideologies I work from that are very short sighted.

    • http://www.blahah.net/ Richard Smith

      Amish are as intelligent as the rest of us, and perfectly qualified to make their own decision about incorporating biotechnology. Rather than ‘jumping right on the GMO wagon’ because they cant ‘pass on the word’, they have chosen to integrate a technology for its demonstrated benefits, rather than exclude it based on the huge swamp of misinformation that affects the public discourse on the subject.

  • Tim Inman

    Brilliant article.

  • Koen