Fear of Amish

[13 February 2009]

By Rob Horning

I grew up about an hour northwest of Philadelphia, in what was then considered the country by my citified relatives. For much of my childhood, I was terrified of the Amish, in the same way kids might be afraid of monsters under the bed or spiders. Dour bearded men in black presiding in judgment over the way of life I took for granted—it was very confusing, utterly incomprehensible that one would volunteer for that life, and it seemed to me that the Amish should be forced for humanitarian reasons to get themselves on the grid. (I was eight.) The idea that I might wake up in a somber world without electricity and forced to worship a god who ostensibly hated progress kept me awake at night; I actually slept for a while with a small transistor radio on underneath my pillow to reassure myself that technology still existed. (This proved costly in batteries.) I even refused to see the movie Witness because it had Amish people in it.

I have since mastered my fears. With their apparent pursuit of communitarian ideals and commitment to an unpublicized life, I wonder whether they are living the life I sometimes sound as though I profess as an ideal. Rather than be sucked into accelerated, stressful and unfulfilling modern life by communications technology and its attendant ideology of convenience; rather than overwhelm themselves with the abundance of ultimately meaningless choices offered by consumerism, they choose a self-imposed isolation that strengthens the importance of interpersonal relations. Rather than adopt the contemporary preoccupation with identity fashioning, they accept traditional, religiously derived roles. That last one is really the sticking point—no matter how appealing it might seem to extradite myself from consumerism, I wouldn’t ever wish myself Amish.

Nevertheless, they serve as a provocative foil, as this fascinating post from Kevin Kelly (via Kottke) demonstrates. He details the various ways the Amish innovate on their own terms, which I hope to god doesn’t launch an Amishpunk design craze along the lines of steampunk. What interested me was not so much the Amish’s “hacking” skills, as Kelly calls them, but their deliberate attitude toward technology, and the possibility for a different, more conscious way of integrating it, their example suggests. “In any debate about the merits of embracing new technology,” Kelly notes, “the Amish stand out as offering an honorable alternative of refusal.” Kelly explains how the Amish are not ignorant or even entirely apart from mainstream society—some have power generators, autos, refrigeration, etc. Kelly suggests they are simply 50 years behind us, by choice. (That’s what Manhattan snobs say about my Queens neighborhood.) Instead, the Amish interact with technology with an entirely different set of ideological precepts. “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.” That bit about the illogicality of the Amish is something my childhood self would have readily seconded, but now I’m not so sure. The point is that their logic is different from the teleological positions that our culture espouses; they don’t assume like we do that the development of technology equals social progress. Some technological developments are potentially immiserating and ripe for abuse, creating untenable and exploitative social relations, or worsening such relations that already adhere.

So the Amish adopt a kind of negative dialectic: “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.” This extremely conservative impulse appears at the same time wildly radical, a testament to how habitual is our affirmation of change under capitalism. This affirmative reflex makes inanities like the fashion cycle and planned stylistic obsolescence possible, and it also leads to “early adopters” being regarded as gurus instead of dupes.

Because Amish communities are so tight-knit and patriarchal, change can rejected by a kind of moral brute force, in the name of preserving their way of life, or in less euphemistic terms, their tight-knit patriarchal system.

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.

The Amish also famously don’t want to call attention to themselves; we of course respond by being fascinated by them, and deploying caricatures of them across documentaries, films and scripted TV shows. What makes the Amish compelling to us is probably the promise of escape they represent, and the way they demonstrate the possibility of unified resistance. But that resistance is grounded in a world view that precludes most of what we recognize as freedom. For the Amish, it’s obviously different, since despite their fabled Rumspringa, most Amish youths choose to remain within Amish communities. (They are not forced to join, as I assumed as a kid.) But it’s also as though we regard the Amish’s minding their own business in our midst as a kind of affront. They may have the right to their weird Luddite religion and their kooky Puritan costumes, but they don’t have the right to be ignored.

We are moving in the direction of less and less privacy, and our ideology is shaping itself to rebrand surveillance as sharing. Self-broadcasting is becoming more and more customary, and for some it is almost mandatory (as when you are forced to get a Facebook page to be invited to things and so on). The Amish regard communications technology as corrosive to communication.

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?

Basically, the ideology guiding the Amish appears to have nothing to do with the knee-jerk individualism, which we tout as an end in itself. An ethic of inconvenience is adopted to inhibit the development of strictly personal goals, and the tools of modern identity formation (media, branded consumer goods, etc.) are apparently kept out of their communities. Here’s how Kelly sums it up:

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.

He then argues that we need to learn to become better at relinquishing bad technology as a group, though we are good at it at the individual level. I think that’s backward. We adopt technology because it seems to thrust us ahead of the group, and then adopt new technology to try to remain ahead of the pack. We generally prefer technology that makes our lives more convenient, in other words, requiring less face-to-face human interaction. What the Amish reveal to us is that technological development in capitalist society is about achieving exploitable disharmonies, situations where asymmetrical information reigns, opportunities for creative destruction. That is why we don’t pause to assess the effects technology has on society until after the fact; the effects on society are by-products to its real purposes, to create competitive advantages and to accelerate our capability to process information. In Amish society, where the relevant economic unit is the community rather than the individual, there is not asymmetry in adoption; in our atomistic society, adoption is necessarily asymmetrical among individuals all striving for an edge.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/amish/