How to use the Amish technology

Throughout the industrial era and now in the information age, the Amish have held on to the long tradition of to make as a primary form of work.

The fact that the Amish also started making digital technologies, such as the black-box phone that worked as an intended replacement for cell phones, should come as no surprise. However, the black box telephone is just one of many examples of an increasing number of communication technologies developed by Amish people for Amish people. These devices are designed to achieve professional goals as accurately as possible, while minimizing the negative effects associated with digital communications today. The Amish recognize that this certainly has political implications. Making in general, and the making of digital technologies in particular, further enables the Amish to exercise their creativity, resist scrutiny, and control and sustain their way of life in the digital age.

The way the Amish use technologies reveals a lot about the relationship they want to have with the larger society. In addition to the black box phone, I have a range of Amish workarounds that reflect local values ​​and are determined by the social context. The specific assembly that includes a workaround can also indicate one’s Amishness or shared group identity.

For example, according to several Amish leaders, when a technology such as a smartphone or cell phone is used by a member of an Amish community, it is considered rude to do it showy. According to my contact Noah, the visibility of one’s use of digital technology should be minimized in an effort to show respect for shared Amish values, heritage and tradition. In a discussion with him and another participant, a business owner who used a computer and the Internet on a daily basis at work, both men agreed that people used these tools, but because of their desire to show respect for the community and its values, they did. ‘out of sight’ and ‘they just didn’t talk about it’ or ‘they knew who to talk to and who not to’. So, in an effort to accomplish the desired goals of sufficiently efficient communication through a cell phone or smartphone, while showing respect for Amish community leaders, these individuals created a sort of temporary solution. They used their devices, but only out of sight of others they knew would likely disapprove.

I interviewed Ben, a 30-year-old office manager at a company that sold $2 million worth of products a year on a popular online auction website. He was sitting at his computer under electric fluorescent lighting during our conversation. Ben used an IP phone, a computer and the internet at work. Cell phones were allowed in his church. He said, “I wouldn’t take my cell phone to church or answer it at church or show it to a neighbor and say, ‘Look what I’ve got’ if their church doesn’t allow it. You have to use it with respect.” Ben also strongly believed that technology “wasn’t a problem when used responsibly”. However, he thought that the technology would continue to evolve and that it would be useful for running a successful business. Sure, he said, he and his employer (a relative) wanted to keep their close-knit community together, but they also believed that “you have to make the most of what you have, and this is what we have.” He said, “You know, we can do this without the technology, but why should we? We use technology in a way that doesn’t conflict with our morals.”

At the beginning of my fieldwork in a settlement, I was accompanied to a few interviews by the director of a local historical society and museum, who helped introduce me to the community. The director was with me when I interviewed Dennis, a successful entrepreneur whose construction company had a website. He told us how he owned (but didn’t drive) trucks for his business. He described his multiple trips to Europe on a luxury cruise ship. He told us that he liked the ‘fancy’ things in life and impressed us with his extensive volunteer work with many elite community and bank boards. His wife used a smartphone at home to keep in touch with relatives who lived far away, and his three sons now also co-own the business.

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