The lives of the Amish can seem simple, especially to those of us who are outsiders to their communities. They live off the electrical power grid, some use a horse and buggy as their main form of transportation, and they dress plainly. Their religious beliefs command that they live in this world but “not of it.”
When I talk to groups about uncluttered living, more often than not someone in the audience will express an objection to my ideas using the Amish in their argument. Typically the statement is, “but I don’t want to live like the Amish, I like my cell phone.” To this, I explain that uncluttered living doesn’t mean turning your back on modernity and, as a matter of clarification, many Amish have cell phones.
The lives of the Amish are filled with to-do lists and responsibilities just as ours. The ways in which they complete these items are different, but chores like laundry, dishes, meal preparations, and even returning e-mails still take up their time.
I’ve read a great deal about the Amish over the years, and one of the articles I’ve found that might interest Unclutterer readers is the article “Amish Hackers” from last year on Kevin Kelly’s Technium blog. The title appears to be an oxymoron, but Kelly’s research into the technical lives of the largest American Amish community illustrates how it’s not:
For being off the grid, without TV, internet, or books, the Amish are perplexingly well-informed. There’s not much I could tell them that they didn’t know about, and already had an opinion on. And surprisingly, there’s not much new that at least one person in their church has not tried to use. The typical adoption pattern went like this:
Ivan is an Amish alpha-geek. He is always the first to try a new gadget or technique. He gets in his head that the new flowbitzmodulator would be really useful. He comes up with a justification of how it fits into the Amish orientation. So he goes to his bishop with this proposal: “I like to try this out.” Bishop says to Ivan, “Okay Ivan, do whatever you want with this. But you have to be ready to give it up, if we decide it is not helping you or hurting others.” So Ivan acquires the tech and ramps it up, while his neighbors, family, and bishops watch intently. They weigh the benefits and drawbacks. What is it doing to the community? Cell phone use in the Amish began that way. According to anecdote, the first Amish alpha geeks to request permission to use cell phones were two ministers who were also contractors. The bishops were reluctant to give permission but suggested a compromise: keep the cell phones in the vans of the drivers. The van would be a mobile phone shanty. Then the community would watch the contractors. It seemed to work so others early adopters picked it up. But still at any time, even years later, the bishops can say no.
What inspires me most about the Amish isn’t their alleged simplicity (which you can probably infer I don’t necessarily believe is simpler), but their ability to give up a convenience after experiencing it. It is extremely difficult to give up a technology (or habit or vice or any possession) that you greatly enjoy. The fact that the Amish know of the technologies and ways of our world, have even experienced them, and are willing to give them up if they start to interfere with their priorities in life is what I find impressive. They easily get rid of the distractions that get in the way of what matters most to them.
Be sure to check out Kevin Kelly’s article in its entirety if you haven’t already.