Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Amish as technology hackers
They’re not pretending to live in the early 1800s like the myth
In any debate about the merits of embracing new technology, the Amish stand out as offering an honorable alternative of refusal. Yet Amish lives are anything but anti-technological. In fact on my several visits with them, I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers and surprisingly pro-technology.

On close inspection, most Amish use a mixture of old and very new stuff. Behind all of these variations is the Amish motivation to strengthen their communities. The ban on unbridled mobility (owning cars) was aimed to make it hard to travel far, and to keep energy focused in the local community. Amish practices are ultimately driven by religious belief: the technological, environmental, social, and cultural consequences are secondary.

Turns out the Amish make a distinction between using something and owning it. The Old Order won’t own a pickup truck, but they will ride in one. They won’t get a license, purchase an automobile, pay insurance, and become dependent on the automobile and the industrial-car complex, but they will call a taxi. Since there are more Amish men than farms, many men work at small factories and these guys will hire vans driven by outsiders to take them to and from work. So even the horse and buggy folk will use cars — under their own terms. (Very thrifty, too.)

I visited one retrofit workshop run by a strict Mennonite. A few years ago they installed a massive, $400,000 computer-controlled milling (CNC) machine in his backyard, behind the horse stable. This massive half-million dollar tool is about the dimensions of a delivery truck. It is operated by his 14-year-old daughter, in a bonnet. With this computer-controlled machine she makes parts for grid-free horse-and-buggy living.

One can’t say “electricity-free” because I kept finding electricity in Amish homes. Once you have a huge diesel generator running behind your barn to power the refrigeration units that store the milk (the main cash crop for the Amish), it’s a small thing to stick on a small electrical generator. For re-charging batteries, say. You can find battery-powered calculators, flashlights, electric fences, and generator-powered electric welders on Amish farms. The Amish also use batteries to run a radio or phone (outside in the barn or shop), or to power the required headlights and turn signals on their horse buggies. One clever Amish fellow spent a half hour telling me the ingenious way he hacked up a mechanism to make a buggy turn signal automatically turn off when the turn was finished, just as it does in your car.

Nowadays solar panels are becoming popular among the Amish.

The Amish use disposable diapers (why not?), chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and are big boosters of genetically modified corn.

They use the web at libraries (using but not owning). From cubicles in public libraries Amish sometimes set up a website for their business. So while Amish websites seem like a joke, there’s quite a few of them.

Cruising down the road you may see an Amish kid in a straw hat and suspenders zipping by on roller blades.
As I wrote earlier, like good Catholics they’re not trying to live in the past but, as Hilary says of Europeans, with the past: living in an alternative present.

No comments:

Post a comment

Leave comment