When you think about the Amish, the first thing you probably think about is their traditional, 19th-century-esque lifestyle and especially their rejection of technology.
Yet, contrary to popular belief, the Amish don’t reject all modern technology and aren’t entirely against it. While guidelines around the use of tech vary between their communities, in many of them, you’ll find Amish folks using electricity, telephones, and even a kind of computer.
They have, though, certainly created very particular modifications around how they use this technology.
Their electricity doesn’t come from the local power grid but rather from diesel generators and solar panels.
While the Amish don’t put telephones in their individual homes, there are phones available in communal outhouse-looking shacks called “phone shanties.”
And while you won’t find most Amish tapping away on the latest Apple laptop, some do use a very-stripped down word processor that offers basic functions but lacks capability for internet, games, video, etc.
While strange to an outsider, all of these usage modifications have one thing in common: they allow the Amish to employ technology in a manner that doesn’t disrupt their way of life.
The Amish prize family time, neighborly connections, simplicity, and self-sufficiency. Technologies that will sustain these values are welcome, while technologies that will erode them are shunned.
By relying on their own, independent sources for electricity, rather than the grid, the Amish are able to maintain their self-reliance.
By using a community telephone, the Amish get the benefits that come from phone service (like being able to call a doctor in an emergency or do business with outsiders) while making its use inconvenient enough to avoid what they see as the downsides of personal phones — a decrease in face-to-face conversation and an increase in distraction.
It’s for a similar reason that they avoid modern computers, as well as radios and televisions; they see these devices, and the way they provide personal entertainment, as something that would fragment families and the broader community.
So instead of thinking of the Amish as anti-technology, it would be more accurate to say that they’re incredibly intentional about how they use technology. When a new innovation comes along, an Amish community will scrutinize it, weighing its benefits and drawbacks, and its potential effect on their values and lifestyle. In thinking this through, sometimes they ban a certain technology outright; other times, they ban its unlimited use, but okay it with certain limitations. Twice a year, members of each Amish community meet together to review the Ordnung — the rules which govern their lifestyle — and discuss if any changes to the way they’re using technology should be made and/or to affirm their current usage practices.
Contrast this approach towards technology to the average person’s.
A new device or digital service comes out, it looks super rad, and without really thinking about it, you buy it and start using it. You figure if it’s new, it must be better; it’s a no-brainer. Pretty soon, you can’t imagine your life without it.
But then, a few months or years later, you start feeling uneasy about how the new technology is affecting your life. You don’t like how you’re constantly checking your phone to scroll Instagram. You feel annoyed, discomfited, and just kind of sad when you notice how the members of your family are always off in their own rooms, on their own devices, gazing into the blue light of their own digital worlds. You didn’t think ahead to how the technology you introduced into your life, and the habits you formed around it, would impact your mind, routine, connections, family culture, and values, and now that serious drawbacks to the tech have emerged, it feels difficult to put things back on course.
If you feel like this about your technology, maybe it’s time to take a lesson from the Amish. Not in being as strict about it as they are, but rather in approaching it with greater intention.
This first step in this requires knowing what you’re about, just like the Amish do. The Amish are extremely clear about their values, and they make sure their technology use supports those values.
So the first question is: What’s your aim in life?
After you figure that out, scrutinize new technology you could bring into your orbit before you adopt it, considering its potential implications for either contributing to or detracting from your life’s purpose. If it’s got more potential downside than upside, don’t even get started using it in the first place.
Engage in a similar reflection about the devices and apps you already use. What do they add to your life? What do they take away? If you have a family, consider holding your own version of an Amish community council to hash things out together.
Then start figuring out ways you can modify your tech use so that it better aligns with your values. Just like the Amish, this needn’t always mean shunning a piece of tech outright, but instead implementing restrictions around its use that will maximize its benefits and minimize its detriments. It may mean putting apps on your phone (or using Apple’s Screen Time features) to block use of other apps at certain times or to limit the time you can spend on them. It could mean deciding you aren’t going to check your phone in the morning until after you do a session of scripture study or meditation. It could mean banning the use of smartphones at the dinner table or making it a rule that your home’s video game console can’t be used individually, but only to play with another family member.
Just as each particular Amish community has its own unique, communally-arrived-upon rules and guidelines about tech use, each individual and family will have their own unique rules and guidelines about tech too.
If you’re looking for some specific questions to help guide your intentional tech use, check out this great list from The Convivial Society. Here are some of my favorites:
- What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
- How does the use of this technology shape my vision of a good life?
- What habits will the use of this technology instill?
- How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
- How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
- How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
- How does the use of this technology shape my vision of a good life?
- Can I imagine living without this technology? Why, or why not?
- What desires does the use of this technology generate?
- What are the potential harms to myself, others, or the world that might result from my use of this technology?
- Does my use of this technology encourage me to view others as a means to an end?
- Does my use of this technology make it easier to live as if I had no responsibilities toward my neighbor?
Using technology like the Amish doesn’t mean trading in your car for a buggy and your computer for a calculator; it simply means knowing the end you’re after, and using tech in a way that enhances rather than hinders your path to getting there.