The growing anxiety about technology has prompted a “humane technology” movement among former Silicon Valley insiders disquieted by what their industry has wrought. But there’s another group, utterly unconnected to Google or Facebook or Apple, that has been practicing humane technology for generations: the Amish.
If your familiarity with the Amish doesn’t extend much beyond the image of a bearded man wearing a black hat and driving a horse and buggy on a rural road, you might have the impression that members of the traditionalist Christian group reflexively shun all modern technology. You’d be mistaken. Each church community of about 30 families — in a denomination with well over 300,000 members, spread across 31 states and parts of Canada and South America — has latitude in setting its technology boundaries.
When a church member asks to use a new technology, the families discuss the idea and vote to accept or reject. The conversation centers on how a device will strengthen or weaken relationships within the community and within families. Imagine if the United States had conducted a similar discussion when social media platforms were developing algorithms designed to amplify differences and then pit us against one another, because anger drives traffic and traffic drives profits.
Friends of mine belonged to an Amish church in Michigan. One of the church members wanted to purchase a hay baler that promised to be more efficient, even as it enabled him to work alone. The members discussed the proposal — yes, the new machine might increase productivity, but how would community connections be affected if he began haying without the help of others, and what would happen if his neighbors adopted the same technology? The risk to social cohesion, they decided, wasn’t worth the potential gains.
In another case, a family wanted to run propane gas pipes for lights to every room of their home instead of running them only to the kitchen and living room. (The Amish choose not to tap the electrical grid.) Church members discussed how the change would affect the family. If the family members could separate into bedrooms to read at night, instead of gathering in the living room, would their ties fray? Of course they would.
When I heard about that discussion, I thought of a woman at my children’s school who said the disintegration of her family began the day her husband bought a TV for every kid’s bedroom. That was a while back. Today, millions of parents are unwittingly putting TVs in their children’s bedrooms, in the form of smartphones and laptops. And uneasiness about weakening family ties is widespread.
For the Amish, technology in the workplace has long been more accepted than technology in homes, especially as the group has had to expand beyond farming to make a living. A recent issue of the Fabricator trade journal reported on advanced manufacturing processes in an Amish factory in Dalton, Ohio. A robot welds wheels. Programmed lasers cut metal. Engineers use three-dimensional computer-aided design, known as 3-D CAD, to devise products. And yet the plant is not connected to the electrical grid: A generator powered by natural gas provides electricity. At day’s end, the workers ride home on bicycles. High and low tech successfully live side by side because the focus stays on human connections.
For the Amish, social media consists of paying visits in real life to other members of the community. It’s the main form of entertainment. People drop in on one another to chat for the evening, they have regular potluck dinners, they gather for what the Amish call a “work bee,” as dozens of church members pitch in on a construction project — a barn can be built in a day. When the Amish take a vacation, they don’t call it vacation; they say they are “going visiting,” seeing the country by stopping in at the homes of friends and family.
Americans will never abandon technology for a horse-and-buggy life, but millions of us have begun weighing the costs of constant connectivity. When pondering how to strike the right balance, we might do well at least to pause and consider taking a personal version of the Amish approach. “Go visiting” to see an older relative, invite a neighbor for a meal, spend an evening with a loved one just talking — no glowing screen in your pocket or on your lap or in your hand begging for attention. There’s a reason people have been connecting like this for eons: It’s good for them.