Karl Albrecht Ph.D.


What the Amish Can Teach Us About Technology

Where are the techno-media taking us, and do we want to go there?

Posted Jun 16, 2014

Is the American culture at war with itself?

  • Pediatricians are increasingly concerned about the effects of television, video games, and other electronic media on the cognitive and social development of American children. The American Academy of Pediatrics emphatically recommends that no child under the age of two be exposed to screen-based media of any kind. They recommend that teens should not spend more than two hours per day with entertainment media – as contrasted to the current average of about seven hours.
  • Parents and mental health experts increasingly lament the addictive effects of social media and online games on teen-agers.
  • Police and public officials are alarmed by the increasing incidence of gun-wielding berserkers, and the possibility that sensationalized media coverage might be motivating them.
  • Some citizens are increasingly anxious about the loss of personal privacy and identity, intrusive commercialism, hedonistic values, and government surveillance without legal cause.

But in the inner circles of techno-America, not many people seem to be all that concerned.

Are we helpless to stop or redirect the relentless invasion of electronic media - “technology,” as it’s popularly known - into our lives?

Are we witnessing the disintegration or destruction of the American culture as we’ve known it? Does it matter?

Maybe we should ask the Amish for advice.

The Amish in America – and their counterparts, the Mennonites - are a culture within a culture, with very distinct boundaries separating them from the majority “exo-culture.” But few people in the majority culture have more than a superficial understanding of the way the Amish culture works.

Here are some reasons why the Amish might be better qualified than most “experts” to advise the members of the majority culture on the impact of technology and the need to manage and control it.

Amish communities in the US, especially the large ones in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, are as strong, cohesive, and self-managing as they have ever been. Contrary to popular belief, their numbers are not declining, but are growing steadily, driven by the combination of large families and impressively high retention rates – typically 80 - 85%. This is true worldwide.

The best way to understand the Amish culture is to focus on what they want, not what they don’t want. Amish typically don’t completely reject popular culture, commercialism, and technology because they consider them “sinful.” Their policy is more accurately understood as one of selective adoption, with very high thresholds of acceptance.

Some Amish communities use no electricity; others do. Power tools are acceptable in some situations and not in others. Few Amish people own cars, but some of them willingly ride in cars. Few of them use cell phones, but some do. Televisions are rare, but not non-existent.

Decisions to adopt or reject various features of the outer culture are typically managed consciously and carefully. Certain elders of each Amish community can set policy, and typically all the heads of families who belong to the same quasi-clan structure accept and apply those policies. Over time, each important element of the surrounding culture comes up for careful scrutiny. Members discuss its potential benefits to the community, as well as its perceived impacts on the Amish way of life. Each option is adjudicated as in, or out, or sometimes placed on well-scrutinized “probation.” In almost all cases, the elders decide its fate based on a kind of cost-benefit reasoning process.

Two powerful, over-arching, uncompromising priorities guide the entire Amish philosophy of selective adoption. The first is to preserve and enforce devout religious practice amongst all members of the community – with no exceptions. The second is to preserve and enforce their values of community and collectivism: allegiance to family and clan; cooperation and sharing of resources; humility; simplicity; thrift; contemplation; compliance with cultural norms; and obedience to the authority of the (male) elders.

Any new idea, invention, commercial product, or social practice that, on balance, seems to undermine the fabric of religious practice or erode the social order gets a thumbs down. If its potential benefits outweigh its side effects, it may get adopted.

Amish young people, when they get to be about 16 - 18 years old, have the choice of 1) leaving the community or 2) permanently dedicating themselves to fully compliant membership. During that formative stage, they can experiment with some worldly practices: riding in cars, going to movies, going to parties, using cell phones, and visiting the big cities. By age 18, they are expected to make their choice. There’s no cafeteria option; it’s all in, or all out.

Granted, the practices just described are so far removed from the mainstream practices of the wider American culture that there’s little risk of the Amish model taking over. But, do their core doctrines make sense in some way, particularly to those in the outer culture who increasingly worry about the unmanaged impacts of the commercial-electronic environment?

It wouldn’t be easy to apply the Amish method. The American culture has no process for vetting the fruits and consequences of the techno-media tidal wave. It’s all determined by the producers, the advertisers, and the market place. Americans are compliant consumers, even eager consumers. And they freely allow just about any business or any celebrity to sell just about anything to their children.

By contrast to the Amish, there are no “elders” of the American culture. There is no clan structure to promote and reinforce key values. There is no code – no Ordnung, as the German progenitors of the Amish laid it out. Indeed, there is no “culture,” in the same sense that the Amish recognize, define, cherish, and preserve their culture. There is only the “culture of now” that is evolving in the media saturated commercial environment.

Could we - should we - set a new standard of scrutiny for the rapidly spreading techno-media culture? If so, who might do it, and how? This might be a new role for existing religious institutions. Or, secular advocacy organizations might emerge to take on the challenge.

By the time we fully understand where the techno-media culture is taking us, there will be no coming back.



National Geographic Website: http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/channel/amish-out-of-order/articles/amish-out-of-order-facts/

American Academy of Pediatrics Website: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/127/4/800.full