The Technium

Neo-Amish Drop Outs

[Translations: Japanese]

The legendary computer scientist Donald Knuth doesn’t do email, or blogs (or probably PDAs, blackberries, either), although he used to. He still has a web page where he articulates his reasons for being off email. He once told me, “Rather than trying to stay on top of things, I am trying to get to the bottom of things.” Thus his dropping out of instant communication.

Professor Reinhold Grether used to host a popular online catalog of new media artists, a herculean effort containing hundreds of obscure but essential links. Then suddenly his web site ran this message: “[A]bandoning the internet in 2003 and the cell phone network in 2006 my netzwissenschaft link page is completely out of date. it’s time to bid farewell.” His online persona was gone.

Lots of people complain about being overloaded with email, blogs, twitter, and so on. But very few who complain reach the ultimate logical solution: turn it all off.

I am interested in heavily mediated folks who drop out. Not partially, only once in a while, on sabbatical, but drop off the internet completely. Are they happy now? Don Knuth seems happy and productive. How do others manage? Do they become a recluse, like the Unabomber? Do they form communities with the like minded? Or, are internet drops so rare that they are simple statistical outliers?

I know about the traditional Amish; they don’t count because they have never been wired. I’m most interested in Neo-Amish drop outs.  (There’s a Neo-Amish MeetUp group, which I think is self-disqualifying.)


Post a few lines in the comments about notable drop outs and I’ll try to keep an updated list here.

  • In 2007 Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the Idler, wrote about how he’d given up on email: I wonder if he managed to keep it up?

    In 2005 this chap wrote about how he was going to give up on email and create a more sociable life for himself from 2008: It’s an interesting idea but I’ve no idea if he’s managed it – there are no updates after this one.

    • Kevin Kelly

      Thanks, Phil. I’ll see what happened to them.

  • Rebeccacj

    I do not think that each student all over the world has a passion of argumentative essay writing! However, people that do not have writing skills have to take a support of professional essays online service and enjoy a result.

  • Franklin

    Pierre, you are living proof of your argument, a veritable House of Mirrors, in fact.

  • gmlk

    Maybe a more viable approach would be to consider the internet write-only? Most people use it read-only, some read and write, but maybe for some (like Knuth) write-only would be the best way to use it.

  • I’m interested in this too. Here’s one for you: some years ago (late 1990s/early 2000s) noted hypertext author Michael Joyce turned off and dropped out at the peak of his fame, refusing to discuss it at all. He talked about it a bit some years later in this interview

    Btw this is closely related to my research into nature metaphors of cyberspace of which more anon.

  • Miss Wired

    I think I know another persona who took this approach and his personality is sorely missed in Internet land.

    RIP Retarius.

  • Paul Graham wrote an essay on a similar topic, distraction here:

  • Why do you think that Don Knuth is productive now [without Internet]

  • Mhteas

    Of course, there’s another definition of neo-amish. The Amish selected a technology level they were comfortable with. Groups of Amish occasionally accept some new tech after deliberation, and sometimes reject it. Telephones, for example, were accepted in a limited way – they could not be in the house.

    We all implicitly make choices about tech that we want to use. Usually we make those choices by casual means: ignorance is one way. And, how many times have you heard statements like, “I just don’t have the time for that”, or “Oh, that’s just for kids/business people/nerds/college students/etc.”

    Why not emulate the Amish and have a neo-amish approach to considering the tech we want to actually have in our lives? It’s not just the immediate effects, but the secondary effects as well. If you have a cell phone, you need to pay the monthly bill. That means having the disposable income to pay that bill, carrying it with you, and being able and willing to answer it.

  • Not a complete dropout, but Tim Ferris has made a mini-religion of the low information diet:

    Instead of unplugging completely, decide how much time you want to spend on email, web surfing, reading/watching news, etc. Spend that much time on it then stop. If there’s more in your inbox/queue than you can get to in the time you’ve allotted, reduce the inputs.

  • Alger

    As I recall there was a cadre of authors in the 1990s who collectively renounced the tyranny of the word processor and wrote a book of essays entitled “The Lead Pencil Club”, adopting the same as their nom de guerre. There also remains a generation of academics that refuse to respond to email, John Frasier Hart being an example, but this is really no longer a viable choice for most of us who want to publish, build a career, and earn a salary above minimum wage.

    It goes to show how weirdly naturalized the computer/internet is that these decisions to forgo either are framed as rejections of ‘technology’ altogether, instead of a matter of personal philosophy and choice.

    There is a deep literature on this subject of how culture and technology meet, best known are EF Schumacher and Wendell Berry.

    • Kevin Kelly

      @Sue: thanks for the tip on Joyce.
      @Drew: No matter what he says, Tim Ferris has not dropped out.
      @Alger: There is indeed an older cohort like the Lead Pencil Club and Wendell Berry (whom I worked with as an editor — he sent in longhand on yellow lined paper) that has never embraced the digital communication world. At least that I know of. It would be semi-interesting to see which of the Lead Pencil Club are not wired, so to speak. But I am interested in folks who went the other way. Who were wired and now are not.

  • I’ve dropped out many times not replying to e-mails. Many unimportant people really thought I was dead. But in reality trying to get focussed on a new business.
    If you are serious and need to get new work done, you do need to switch off from wasting time online and getting down to clear focus. I think it’s sad though the older generation, give up and don’t go back. You can have both, it’s simply a case of better time management and setting up systems. Lifehacking if you will. There’s nothing wrong with putting on your blog/e-mail/website ‘BUSY’ check back later in 6 months, rather than just dropping out 100%. Droping out 100%, 100% of the time is frankly in my opinion rather stupid fearful and narrow minded.

  • As a virtual worker, this wouldn’t be entirely possible (unless I became a carpenter or something), but there have been plenty of studies and anecdotes about “focus time” when people switch all the crap off to get down to business on something. It is how our brains are processed– we aren’t innate multi-taskers when it comes to our primary consciousness.

    So yeah, in academia or in other insular areas that can’t benefit from the information barrage, I could see this working.

    But I like the idea of a tech level you’re comfy with. That’s where I’m going now, a blend of hi and low-tech solutions that work towards a better quality of life, instead of a quantity of data throughput.

  • One thing I’ve noticed is that several of the highly-creative people I’ve met avoid one particular technology: they don’t have a television. TV is entirely one-way, and a huge time-sink, so as communication technology goes, I think giving it up has a big payoff and not much downside…

  • Iain Perkin

    If you don’t cooperate, you can sometimes convince people that you will not use a technology. For me those issues are Cell phone issues. I tell people that I will get to text messages by the end of the month and voice messages by the end of the week. Except for a few, I’ve largely succeeded.

  • Fritjof Capra does not do email, but I hear he’s good about answering all of his letters.

  • betaphi

    What’s the story behind that great Amish Airlines photo? That’s the story I want to read.

  • Alger

    I apologize for my ineptitude with blog commenting: my comment from before was supposed to be an observation of how despite the depth of the history behind appropriate technologies those who make the choice to forgo email, or the internet, or word processors are framed as blazing a new path.

    My question is if more appropriate to refuse technology before or after experiencing it?

    I realize now that much of what I meant is well-phrased in Mhteas comment, which was apparently written simultaneously with mine.

  • There’s also the flip side to all this – those who drop out of the real world and take up an almost full time existence online. I’m prettyu close to that but being a real world father prevents me from falling all the way into that particular rabbit hole – my sedentary desk-widened lard ass also helps, I’m sure.

    I gave up on the phone completely a few years ago. We still have one but I rarely answer it – preferring to have the machine pick up – i it’s important I’ll email them later – or just forget it ever happened. The cell pphone was tossed many years before that. Television exists as a late night soporific with occasional forays into the Daily Show but beyond that it’s just a large box now – compared to my “always on” modus operandi a decade ago. Snail mail is only good for deliveries of whatever I’ve ordered online. I force myself, once a week, to gather with friends at a local watering hole so I don’t go totally “Unabomber” on myself.

    Life without email? Egad. I’d have no alternative then but to live in a cave. And now, having just looked around my small, dark, cluttered home office, I see just how near I am to that destination.

    Hmmm. Maybe I should go for a walk.


  • DavidEHowellOkPrkMI

    For all the stupendous advance of technology, we have this situation in 2008:
    1. Farm-land prices are the only real estate that increased in value.
    2. Women who are prudish sexually cannot get cervical infections.
    3. The most ignorant farmer is far healthier and physically stronger than 95% of academics.
    I think that the Amish may be on to something.

    • Kjgh

      like depending on walmart like the seculars nextdoor? they are in deep like everyone plugged into the banksters.

  • And to be perfectly accurate, Donald Knuth does use email via his secretary. I too would not touch email and other IT systems that adversely affected me if I had an agent to act on my behalf.

    I use telecommunications to extend my ability to communicate with people. The only way I would get rid of that was because I don’t want to communicate with people. But I do. So I don’t get rid of it.

    As for media, what is TV anyway? If I watch YouTube, is it “TV”? If I read a book on kindle, is it reading? How much electronic media I use depends on how much of it I want.

    Sometimes I want to go to a coffee shop, read a book until a friend appears and we can have a conversation. Other times I want to read the tweets of my friends from all over the world on my BB while I watch TED podcasts on my iTouch. It’s all about what works best.

  • james

    I love being wired, and I can hardly wait until truly ubiquitous society is realized. I enjoy leveraging webapps and services to my advantage to make me more connected and productive. At the same time, I can see how – after reaching a certain status and greatness – being wired is no longer a necessity and opting out might be a more fulfilling way to live life and while offering a different perspective of world events.

    In a world of samsara, the sage-monk opts out of society to retreat into the mountains. After ‘achieving’ enlightenment she then returns to help her fellow brethren. Perhaps we can expect to see something great from these men in the future. Or perhaps this is just an ill-conceived analogy.

  • Most people don’t have a personal secretary or other means that would allow them to “drop out”… instead, they have to fend for themselves, figuring out how to thrive in an environment with an employer-issued email address, blackberry, and other bitstreams.

    Ideally people would learn to engage the bits when they want, and function (live and work and play) *without* the bits, whenever they want… i.e. to “drop out” temporarily, as it were, to take a breather.

    This is the central message of my book “Bit Literacy” – – that people should and *can* learn how to “let the bits go.” There’s a chapter on the media diet, but also methods for handling emails, to-dos, photos, files, etc.

    For anyone who doesn’t have a personal secretary, I’d recommend these skills – either via Bit Literacy or some other book.

  • Robert B

    Well, if you’re looking for the network used by the Amish, you’ll have to find the (wait for it…) Mennonet.



  • Knuth doesn’t really need distractions… It was more than 30 years between volumes 3 and 4 of his Art of Computer Programming series. He took 8 years to develop a new way of typesetting just so he could reprint volume 2 the way he wanted to… If anybody needs focus in his life, it’s Knuth…

  • I recently hired an assistant. I’ve been retreating from all of my internet and email dependent things ever since.

    About the only thing I am still hands-on with is my blog, mainly because I post my work there myself.

    I’m experimenting right now with how far from this medium I want to be. I think in the end it’s got to be pretty far. As a professional artist, however, I’d never be able to survive that way financially without the assistant.

  • I recently decided to abandon my blog, Futuratronics (a spanish language page dedicated to compiling and commenting news on radical change) that had about 200 daily readers (possible true fans).

    I took this decision one Sunday evening after re-reading a series of old notebooks that I wrote in the years before starting the blog in November of 2005.

    Reading the notebooks I felt a connection to my self and to my thinking (at the time of writing) that I do not feel upon reading old blog posts. Also I felt that my thinking was clearer and that I would sustain a thought in writing for a longer stretch of time. Reading and compiling information on the Internet has become, for me, an increasingly frenetic and unsatisfying experience.

    Also I feel that the internet cultivates a kind of compulsive-obsessive attitude towards archiving information. For example, on my delicious account I have saved, indexed and commented over 1,600 pages. I confess that I have not made any use of this index for reference, review or future reading. I cherish, much more, the few hundred books I have in my home. (If I had to be under house arrest for a year and had to choose between having Internet access OR access to my library and a pen with notebooks I would choose to be off line. I think I would emerge a more solid, calmer, more educated, more productive. I think I would have though more in that hypothetical year off line than otherwise).

    Another thing that I have noticed about my use of the Internet for reading, browsing and researching is that it makes the PRIVATE act of reading PUBLIC. If you are continually tagging what you read on line in a social bookmarking site like delicious, there is some assumption in the back of your mind that your reading habits will be interesting to another person. I find this somewhat poisonous.

    I can envision a near future (or a plot for a steampunk short story) where people go off line for reasons of personal ethics. They will be like current vegetarians or people who are voluntarily abstinent from sexual intercourse.

    I have had the same sense of nostalgia and frustration with regards to photography in terms of analog/film shooting and digital shooting.

    Finally, I was wondering if you have your bookmarks on delicious (or any other bookmarking site). I would love to have access to them.
    Kind Regards,

    Andres Hax

  • Amy Borgstrom

    In 2004 my dear and recently departed friend Steve Cisler ( documented a year off the grid here:

    He took a long trip and interviewed a bunch of other people who chose to live unconnected.

    He also attended the second Luddite meeting in Barnesville, Ohio in the 90s that was put together by an interesting fellow named Scott Savage. Here is Steve’s account of that meeting:

  • Pierre Rousseau

    The technium determines the way you think.

    What is the point of turning it all off when you know it is about to kill your species and you know you cannot stop it while you ride bicycle and cultivate flowers for a living? My solution is to expose the insane way it absolutely determines the way we think.

  • Being a neo-luddite and a critic of high-tech (see my website I am nevertheless a big fan of the internet and email. They allowed me to get rid of my telephone, which I think is a much more intrusive and distractive (instant communication) technology.

    If you can say no to applications like Twitter or IM, I think the internet can be a neo-luddite’s best friend. Learning how to use it to your advantage seems to me a much better choice than turning it all off.

    Also, the internet does not have a monopoly on information overload – entering a big library full of books can be very overwhelming too.

  • The link to Paul Graham’s article “Disconnecting Distraction” is slightly wrong – the trailing period causes it to fail. The correct link is

  • Andy

    For me this has a slightly different meaning.

    Life has to be a process of living in a balanced manner. The problem with the internet is that it has superceeded normal human interaction in a way that is substandard to the original.

    Email and other electronic forms of communication don’t allow for emotion that direct contact allows.

    Second people tend to me a lot more ballsy (sorry ladies!) online that they would ever be in real life. That has a forming tendency as it is in some way reinforces the behaviour. This has the overall effect of making the world a lot more

    Lastly, people who I have seen that are so into this movement have become social idiots. Example: I once worked in a large insurance company and went to a coworker a few doors down for a question. His answer “why didn’t you IM me!??” Mine: Because I wanted to look you in the eyes and see your reaction to the question.

    People have to remember they are not machines and deserve a respect commensurate with what they expect from others. Somehow in more “polite” days (cooincidently when TV was still black and white – or not at all) these things were a matter of fact. Further these “modern things” actually brought people together (family watching TV or listening to the radio). Now kids hid in their rooms playing violent role playing games and we wonder why we have Columbine and the like?

    I can’t wait to unplug! (unfornately as a computer consultant its not possible!).


  • T Trimper

    The annoying tone of part of the article and some of the posters is that that those who eschew certain technologies are seen as being “against” them. That is an extremely short sighted and ignorant attitude.

    The Amish are not against technology, they simply choose not to use it, or if they do, in an amount that does not dictate their lives. Most Amish communities have one or more telephones, just not one in every house.

    The same goes for those like Knuth and Stallman who choose not to use certain software, only the ones they actually need. Or, not to put myself at their level of contribution, I have never used “Instant Messaging” for one simple reason: privacy.

    I’m not referring to privacy vis-a-vis snooping, but privacy as in I’ll-answer-email-when-I-want-not-when-you-want. IM allows others to interrupt me in the same way a ringing telephone does; my phone has the ringer off and always goes to the answering machine. Does that make me “anti-technology”? Only to fanboys with fixations and addictions.

    Technology is like any other tool – it should not dictate your life, you should dictate how it works for you. The “Crackberry lifestyle” is not one I would want because the device and others contacting you are dictating your actions. My cell is turned off not just when I watch a movie, but when I read or I’m talking to someone. The fact that some people may not see the need to be “offline” isn’t my failure, it’s theirs; the “online life” is a recent phenomenon, it’s not a normal state of being.

    To anyone who criticizes people for not using every available technology, I say, *get stuffed*. Just because I or others don’t use it does not mean you are prevented from using it. And no, I or others not using technology is not preventing innovation, it is preventing the waste of using more resources to make it.

    • Major Variola

      Kill your smartphone

  • Laurie