What Amish Hackers Could Teach Tech-Frenzied American Consumers

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-06-09
Amish Hackers

What Amish Hackers Could Teach Tech-Frenzied American Consumers

ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa.—When it comes to technology, it may not be a stretch to call the Amish high-tech.

True, they don't typically use computers, have high-speed Internet connections in their homes or maintain Facebook and other social media profiles. But what they are doing is modifying and using such things as kitchen blenders that run on air pressure, refrigerators that run on natural gas and manufacturing tools that run pneumatically.

That essentially makes them "Amish hackers," who have been finding ways to adapt what they need from the high-tech tools that the rest of the world provides, says Kevin Kelly, a technologist and the co-founder of Wired magazine.

Kelly was here in the heart of Amish Country in Lancaster County, Pa., on June 6, speaking at the "Amish America: Plain Technology in a Cyber World" conference at Elizabethtown College, where he spoke about what the rest of us might learn by watching how the Amish use technology.

"I think that the Amish have a lot to teach us," said Kelly, whose new book, What Technology Wants, includes a chapter titled "Lessons of Amish Hackers."

Kelly was one of a host of speakers at the conference, which also featured Donald B. Kraybill, a Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and a noted expert on the Amish and other communities.

Kelly's interest in the Amish dates back to when he was 29 years old and rode his bicycle on a 5,000-mile trip across America from San Francisco to New York. What he saw and the impressions of the people he met as he rode through Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse and other small towns and villages here in Lancaster County stayed with him for years and inspired him to read about the Amish people and learn more about their history, beliefs and lifestyle.

A key lesson he has learned over the years about the Amish is that they are not the Luddites that the rest of society views them as, said Kelly. "I find them to be incredibly technology-oriented. They're using technology to hack their own rules."

That makes them just like the hackers who are found throughout the rest of society, he says, but the difference is that Amish hacking is missing the negative connotations that the term "hacker" raises in the rest of the world.

"The original term 'hack' was often something that subverted a rule or explored a loophole, and the Amish are often seen to do that," said Kelly. "There's a line and they'll often come up to that line or cross it in a way that no one even thought of before. The difference between Amish hackers and English hackers is that English hackers don't have such a line."

That's how the Amish figure out innovative, creative and outside-the-box ways of transforming and converting an electric appliance such as a kitchen blender into one that runs via air pressure. Amish families don't use public electricity, own or drive cars and they don't have telephones in their homes. To more safely operate their horse-drawn buggies on public roadways, one Amish man hacked a system of turn signals using batteries and lights on the buggies.

That's just one more example of how the Amish find various ways of using air pressure, natural gas and storage batteries to power and be able to perform the tasks that they want to accomplish.

"They're hacking within those boundaries, where outside hackers have no boundaries," said Kelly. "It makes them like artists. Regular hackers are hacking because they can while Amish hackers are hacking with more of a goal."

What Amish Hackers Could Teach Tech-Frenzied American Consumers

For the rest of American society, the approach to technology is in stark contrast, said Kelly. Most of us today use computers with high-speed Internet access, and we carry smartphones that we can use any time. We play video games, participate in Webcasts, use social media, shop online and engage in many other high-tech tasks.

The approach of the Amish is a bit different, he said. "They are using minimal technology rather than maximum technology. There's a delay. The plain folk are adapting technology but at a much slower rate than the rest of us."

And since technology continues to evolve quickly for the rest of society, Kelly expects that over time the Amish will continue to adopt more new ideas as they find ways to incorporate them. "They are trying things, seeing how they work and re-evaluating all the time."

What's particularly different about Amish people's approach to technology is that they are very selective, which wouldn't be a bad strategy for the rest of us, he said.

"The Amish have articulated what their criteria are, what they want as a strong family and community. That is a very powerful thing from which we can learn."

At the same time, technology is important for the development of society, said Kelly. If pianos had not been invented before Beethoven was born, we would not have received the gifts of his music, he said. If moving pictures hadn't been invented before Alfred Hitchcock was born, we would not have his film classics today.

What that means is that we should work to continue to encourage the development of new technologies that can keep inspiring new generations of Beethovens and Hitchcocks, while at the same time being more selective of which new technologies we choose to incorporate into our own lives, said Kelly.

"That's what I'm trying to do in my own life so I can be a better person, but I want to maximize the amount of technology" so others can share their dreams and talents and impact society in positive ways, he said. "Even the Amish depend on others to invent these other possibilities. We have an obligation to increase technology to give others possibilities. Today, there is some genius out there waiting for us to create a technology so they can share it."

Kraybill, the Senior Fellow at Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies, said that in America today there are 40 Amish "tribes" which include about 2,060 congregations composed of about 282,000 Amish members in 30 states and in Ontario, Canada. Their use of technology varies widely, said Kraybill, depending on their local congregations and beliefs. There is no one description of how all Amish people use or avoid technology, he said.

"The Amish today have become very entwined with 20th century technology, and that's very different than in the 19th century," said Kraybill, who is a co-author of a new book titled, The Amish.

Those changes will certainly continue in the years and decades to come on a congregation-by-congregation basis, said Kraybill. The use of computers in Amish households could eventually "leak into the house" in some of those communities over time, he said.

"There are some Amish communities that will change very rapidly in the next 20 years," he said. "There will be others that will remain rigid. I do expect that the spectrum of diversity will be wider" in the use or consideration of technologies such like computers in the future.

Today, though, the lure and dangers of modern technologies like cell phones are much greater on Amish society than other technologies from the past, he said. "Amish 13- and 14-year-olds can have a cell phone in their pockets and the world is in their pockets. That's more of a threat than past technologies due to their addictive, seductive nature."

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