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AMISH TECH

These two words together must strike most readers as quite odd. Surely, the Amish as a group shun modern conveniences and technology, living as they did 100 years ago? Not true. An Amish friend and I once tried to make a list of things that have not changed in the Amish world in the last 100 years. We couldn't come up with too much. Clothing styles have actually changed. Even kerosene lamps are relatively "new." As one Amishman succinctly put it, "If we got to the place where we didn't change, we'd be a dead society." Or as another has been quoted, "We don't want to stop progress, we just want to slow it down."

Stephen Scott, an excellent interpreter of Amish culture, has written that "the Amish faith is not bound to dead traditions. Instead it is a living faith that meets the challenges of contemporary society and is equipped with the godly traditions of their forebears to stabilize and guide them. They do not blindly accept the old ways. Rather, they scrutinize 'the way we always did it'..." 

The carriage, or buggy as we non-Amish call it, may not have changed a great deal in design, but now the body of the carriage is mostly made of fiberglass rather than wood. I was at an auction a few years ago because I wanted to buy a buggy for display. I looked at several that were to be sold, a total of around 100. I was inspecting one when an Amishman came along, pulled up the carpet on the buggy floor, grunted the word "wood," and went on to look at the next one. I marked this one down as a buggy to bid on. As I expected, when that carriage came up for sale, I was able to get it cheaply, since few boys or men today want a buggy made entirely of wood!

In fact, the Amish have for many years been adopting, or perhaps better put, adapting new technologies. For me at least, it seems the Amish have more of a problem with the impact of the media than with the technology itself. Visitors would be surprised to find some of the "modern conveniences" that are used on the farm, in the home, and at Amish businesses. As many writers have noted, the Amish are "selective" in what they accept.

The Amish use fairly modern farm equipment, as long as horses pull it. Tractors were not accepted for fieldwork, just for stationary power, such as operating the ensilage cutter. But hay balers and other gasoline-powered equipment can be pulled through the fields by horses.

Likewise, while the Amish can ride in cars and buses, they cannot own them. Cars break down the family and community through their mobility, and are seen as a negative influence to be limited and controlled.

One major change came when the Lancaster Amish needed to cool their milk in bulk tanks rather than milk cans. Bargaining between the Amish and the milk companies resulted in a resolution in 1969. As described by Donald Kraybill, "The bishops would accept bulk tanks if their refrigeration units were powered by diesel engines. They also agreed to automatic agitators run by a 12-volt battery, recharged by small generators."    

Appliances at home are operated by various means. Gas engines power old wringer washing machines. Modern stoves and refrigerators use propane gas, hence the large bottled gas tanks outside most homes. Smaller propane gas containers are used for the Coleman lamp. You'll see some pretty nice barbecue grills, too. Propane gas also provides hot water for the kitchen and bathroom. (A visitor once asked me how the Amish flush their toilet, since they have no electricity. I told her to go home and see where her toilet was plugged into the wall! Some of us have very little knowledge of the mechanics of how things work. Many Amish do.)       

Almost any electrical appliance can be adapted to work off of alternate power, such as compressed air. Some Amish women have been using compressed air to power blenders in the kitchen for years. In one house, compressed air powers a water pump, sewing and washing machines, and drills and saws in the shop. Some Amish businesses have as their specialty adapting such appliances so they can be powered by compressed air.

Probably the most dramatic changes came with the rise of Amish cottage industries, especially woodworking and furniture making, where modern machinery is operated by sometimes ingenious combinations of diesel engines used to power hydraulic and air pumps that replace the electric motor. Now often dubbed "Amish electricity," it serves the Amish well. 

In one Amish grocery store, four car batteries power the electronic scale and digital cash register. The new machines were first used because the hand-operated ones broke, were old, and could not be replaced since they were no longer made. There are various ways to re-charge such batteries, and some Amish use solar panels, which can recharge a 12-V battery in about seven days.

An Amishman who does accounting operates his computer with car batteries.  An inverter changes the 12-volt direct current to 110-volt alternating current for computer. A typewriter business adapts electronic typewriters to operate off car batteries in this way. An Amish library once did the same thing to power their microfilm reader.

The Amish have, of course, used telephones for years. Before they were common in the home, they used ones in town. Later, as they became more common, a phone booth or phone "shanty" was often built outside, and shared by several neighbors. The idea was to keep those disruptive phones out of the house. "It's not the use, but the abuse, of the phone we worry about."  Many Amish businesses rely on answering machines or services, or instruct their patrons to call at a certain hour when they will be at the outdoor phone.

Cell phones have become fairly common, especially among Amish businessmen, and may yet prove to be controversial. Howard Rheingold wrote an article on the use of the cell phone by the Amish in WIRED magazine in January, 1999. He noted that the Amish are actually quite sophisticated "because they have an elaborate system by which they evaluate the tools they use." Modern Americans, and much of the world at large, will unleash a new technology and then see what happens, for good or bad. "Amish are very adaptive techno-selectives who devise technologies to fit their self-imposed limits."

He posed the question of whether we "moderns" make technology and machines our servants, or if it is the other way around? I find it interesting that many science fiction books and movies, from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY to the TERMINATOR series, will focus on the threat of machines taking over our lives, and possibly destroying humanity. Certainly in the area of warfare, we have possessed that ability for decades.

Rheingold notes that the Amish "mold technology in the service of community. If we decided that community comes first, how would we use our tools differently?" Or, as an Amishman has said concerning whether a new technology will be acceptable, does it "bring people together or draw them apart?" Answers to such questions often determine the "ordnung," the rules of the Amish church community, often unwritten, about what is and is not acceptable.

But the Amish concern is not just over how technology might change the community, but also the individual. One man noted that it's not just what or how you use a technology, but "what kind of person you become when you use it." When I asked an Amishman why an electric refrigerator was not acceptable, but a propane gas one was, he simply said, "You've never seen a bottled gas television set, have you?" The implication here was not that electricity was bad. The concern was what would come with it --- TV, radio, computers, the internet, and all the influences of the modern world and media. "Electricity is a hotline to the modern world."

Some modern writers have suggested that many of us are "neo-Amish" or "techno-selectives." Like the Amish, we "draw the line" on technologies we will use, or try to put limits on them. But, rather than the community deciding on these things, as the Amish would, we each decide on our own what technologies we will and will not use, and how.

The internet is a good example of a technology that was unleashed without too much thought of the consequences. For all the good things about the worldwide web, there are also many worrisome ones. Some critics say that the internet now needs some "ordnung," a set of rules that we can all agree upon. But for now, anything goes. Already, we are almost overwhelmed by "spam," x-rated websites exist by the hundreds, and there is no way to tell whether what one sees or reads on the internet is true. I sometimes joke that "www" actually stands for the "wild wild web," a cyber American West where the "law" may eventually have to be imposed to establish order.

Gene Logsdon has written that our challenge is "to develop a humane and ecological technology where people and nature need not be sacrificed to speed and greed." We need to negotiate between humans and hardware. Some people head to the mountains or some isolated spot in the world to get away from modern life and its hectic pace, but they take their computers and modern equipment with them to stay in touch with the world they are leaving behind.

It all has to do with values. Kraybill, who has explained the "riddles of Amish culture" better than anyone, perhaps sums it all up when he says, "The Amish would remind us that their choice of an alternative lifestyle is not so much a matter of conforming to tradition --- for that is inherent in the human experience --- but a matter of deciding which traditions are most worthy of embrace." This is the "neo-Amish" idea, deciding what technology is appropriate for your "traditions" and your beliefs. But we tend to make these decisions as individuals, while the Amish look at them in the broader, and perhaps more significant, context of the community as a whole. Sometimes our American individualism gets in the way of seeing the "big picture."

So, are there things we can learn from the Amish, without actually becoming Amish? Surely. Here is one of my favorite Amish quotations, taken from the Small Farm Journal, Summer, 1993...

If you admire our faith --- strengthen yours.

If you admire our sense of commitment --- deepen yours.

If you admire our community spirit --- build your own.

If you admire the simple life --- cut back.

If you admire deep character and enduring values --- live them yourself.

For those who wish to read more on these topics, may we suggest the following books:

AMISH ENTERPRISE: FROM PLOWS TO PROFITS, Donald Kraybill and Steven Nolt, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995

THE AMISH IN THEIR OWN WORDS, various Amish writers compiled by Brad Igou, Herald Press, 1999.

LIVING WITHOUT ELECTRICITY, Stephen Scott and Kenneth Pellman, Good Books, 1990

THE RIDDLE OF AMISH CULTURE, revised edition, Donald Kraybill, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001

 

Amish Country News Article (Sept. 2003) by Brad Igou

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