Video with footage from the movie “Man with a Movie Camera”, Dziga Vertov (1929).
The Amish, for listeners that don’t know, are a group of religiously bent people, heritage out of Northern Europe, who are seen as being anti-technological but actually are just behind. They’re just later than us. And the canonical vision of the Amish are a community who don’t have electricity, who do things without much technology. But in fact, the story is a little bit more complicated than that. They’re changing all the time. They’re in the process of always evaluating the technologies. And it’s that process that I found most interesting. I was really very, very curious about how the Amish decided what they were going to use and what they weren’t.
And they’re not that much different than most of us, because most of us are at the point where we can’t use all technologies. There’s just too many. So we make decisions. And from the outside, our decisions look kind of crazy, irrational. OK, so I have state-of-the-art internet, but we don’t have TV. It’s like someone said — that doesn’t make any sense. [laughs] No, it doesn’t make any sense. And the Amish will have — they’ll have no cars and no bicycles, but they’ll have skateboards. They don’t have zippers, but they have disposable diapers. You kind of look, and you say, “What’s the strategy? What’s the theory there?”
Well, the theory is, very simply, that unlike most Americans — we’re individualistic, so we decide individually what we’re going to do or not going to do. We’re gonna use email, but we’re not gonna use Facebook. But the Amish are different in this way, in that they decide collectively.
And here’s what the criteria that the Amish use implicitly, to decide whether they’re going to adopt a technology. And the criteria are basically two things. One is, will this technology strengthen my family, increase my family? So the Amish, their ideal is to have every meal with their children until they leave. They want to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day with their children. And then the second one is very similar, which is, does it strengthen the community? How much time does it bring them and keep them in the community? So the reason why they have horses instead of cars is because the horse can only go 15 miles away, so they have to go shopping, go to church, go to visit, all within 15 miles. That forces them to pay attention, to support their local neighborhood, their community. And so when they’re looking at new technology — like, they say, LEDs or whatever — does it help them do that, or does it not? So they’re not rejecting technology. They’re saying: We want technology that serves our purposes.
And the way that they do this is also interesting, is — they don’t think about the technologies. They have Amish early adopters. And these are guys, usually, in any community, who are eager to try new things. And they have to get permission from the bishop. And so the bishop will say, “OK, Ivan, yeah, you can have a cellphone in your truck for work.” And so, for the next year, they watch — his community watches Ivan to see how that affects his family, his community, his work, and if they don’t think that it’s a positive, then he has to give it up. So it’s a community decision.
Kevin Kelly, “On Being with Krista Tippett (podcast)”