What Amish Hackers Could Teach Tech-Frenzied American Consumers

Amish families' adoption of technologies as they need them is in stark contrast to American society in general, which seems to jump on every tech craze.

Amish Hackers

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."