The Amish observe that technology exerts a powerful impact on human cultures, and they insist on controlling it in their own society so that it does not subvert their values. They feel that their culture, their religion, and their communities depend on understanding the potential relationships between technology and society—how each influences the other and how devices may hamper or strengthen their way of life.
Scholars have explored these ideas in numerous works, but a detailed article in a technology magazine gives an especially effective overview of the issues. The author, Jameson M. Wetmore, a faculty member at Arizona State University, believes that Amish concerns about technology fall into two major categories. One is that they want to prohibit the use of technologies that may have a negative impact on their values, yet they want to accept and use the ones that will strengthen what they believe in.
Secondly, they like to use technologies that confirm their identity and help maintain their distinctiveness from the mainstream society. Thus, they deliberately choose to retain technologies that make them seem different from most of their non-Amish, “English,” neighbors. The author explores each of these issues in some detail.
He points out that community is extremely important to the Amish. They insist on numerous rules that seek to maintain humility and reduce pride, important ingredients, as they see them, in maintaining their peaceful society. Even very modest technological devices such as buttons are seen, in some church districts, as signs of pride so they are forbidden. People have to use pins to keep their clothing together. Likewise, the Amish generally prefer to avoid being photographed, a technology that most outsiders view as quite neutral. The Amish feel that photographs might give an individual the sense of standing out from the rest of the community.
Until about 100 years ago, many rural Amish people used technologies that were quite comparable to their non-Amish neighbors. But beginning with the widespread acceptance of the automobile, then electricity, then home labor-saving tools, then communications devices, the Amish began to review quite carefully each new invention to decide what sort of impact it might have. They became suspicious about those that they felt could be disruptive. They started discussing the acceptance of each proposed technology in church council meetings.
As one church minister described a council meeting: “We try to find out how new ideas, inventions, or trends will affect us as a people, as a community, as a church. If they affect us adversely, we are wary (p.14).” They do not necessarily see any inherent worth in new technologies. Rather, they must be convinced that the proposed device will improve their society and its ethical and religious principles. They see the automobile in the English world as a symbol of pride, convenience, and power, all of which they reject as antithetical to the values they stand for.
They use technologies—or their absence—as fences to maintain barriers between themselves and the majority society. They also control the use of electricity to keep the mainstream society at arms length. While they see the automobile as potentially harmful, their use of horses and buggies remains a very distinctive marker of their own group.
Automobiles are a particularly important issue to them. They feel that their buggies are a social equalizer—they all go about the same speed, 10 or 12 miles per hour, and are relatively uniform in size and color. Automobiles allow individuals to show off for the neighbors, to excel over them, to show power and affluence, and to leave the community behind—all values that the Amish disavow. As one Amish man said, “Young people can just jump in the car and go to town and have a good time in it …. It destroys the family life at home (p.16).”
But they have adopted some technologies—they are willing to change, though only after careful deliberation. Amish businesses that run machines, such as carpentry shops, have adapted the tools they use to run on compressed air rather than electricity. Diesel engines power the compressed air systems. But they tend to keep power tools out of the home. As one minister commented, “so far no Amish person has ever figured out how to run a television with an air compressor (p.19).” They see televisions as particularly destructive—they would bring the mainstream world into their homes and would distract the people from their families and neighbors.
The author describes the ways that Amish keep telephones at arms length—by putting up phone booths near roads so they can make business calls when necessary but not be bothered by calls inside their homes when they are enjoying their family lives. Unfortunately, Wetmore does not cover the use of cell phones among the Amish, particularly in the Lancaster County settlement, where news stories indicate their numbers are increasing.
Wetmore concludes by considering the ways the Amish today are continuing to deal with the implications of changing technologies. Some districts are allowing the use of electrically powered tools, such as adding machines, which they feel are essential for their businesses. Electricity for those devices can be provided by inverters hooked up to diesel engines. But inverters pose a danger: that same electricity could also power a television set or a computer.
The Amish continue to carefully monitor all proposed changes. As one man said, “we realize … that the more modern equipment we have and the more mechanized we become, the more we are drawn into the swirl of the world, and away from the simplicity of Christ and our life in Him (p.21).”
Wetmore concludes that technology retains the potential to be a disruptive influence over the Amish. In essence, “the Amish exert control over technology in an effort to protect themselves from the values and distractions of the English world (p.21).”
Wetmore, Jameson M. 2007. “Amish Technology: Reinforcing Values and Building Community.” IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 26(2), Summer 2007: 10-21