The Amish, their gadgets, and their ability to get rid of distractions

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.

24 Comments for “The Amish, their gadgets, and their ability to get rid of distractions”

  1. posted by Claycat on

    Great post, Erin!

    Another past group I admire is the Shakers. I love their built-ins and the spaciousness of their surroundings. But… I have to have art on the wall and interesting things to look at (as well as technology). Elements of these simple people’s lives are definitely worth incorporating into our own.

  2. posted by Charity on

    I grew up in Amishland (north central Indiana) and had an Amish nanny and my father employed many Amish in his factory. Thanks Erin for your intelligent and well thought out post. Many people misunderstand the Amish and indeed they do have much to be admired!

    I love the idea of trying out technology and then giving up on it if it does not enrich your life. I am doing this with Facebook now.

  3. posted by Mike on

    Meh… minds clouded by superstition. One wonders what humanity might have accomplished if reason ruled the day.

    I’ll stick with electronically-controlled central heating, electric refrigeration, wireless broadband, and so on. And I find life is much *simpler* when I don’t have to ask some bishop how I am to live it.

  4. posted by Alix on

    I’ll stick with modern technology too, but I don’t know what “superstition” has to do with the Amish.

  5. posted by Charley Forness on

    I think the great lesson here that I’m taking away from the article is the ability to give up distractions from your primary purpose.

    This can easily be applied to goal setting. If you’re really burning to accomplish XYZ goal, then you need to be willing to pay the price to get it…and that may mean giving up some things that seem like conveniences but are in fact distractions.

    – Charley

  6. posted by Meg on

    Since when do Amish not read books? Or did the author of that original article forget that books come in formats other than Kindle downloads?

  7. posted by Marjory Munnerpie on

    Very interesting and informative read, Erin. Thanks for the link.

    The Amish are definitely onto somewithing with their willingness to give up any technology not perceived to be useful. They are clearly more thoughtful consumers than their mainstream counterparts: they do not let technology control their lives, they control the technology and only use it when it enhances their life. That’s a great message regardless of its religious source, which seems to be irksome to some people here (well, it’s their loss…)

  8. posted by Ben on

    Living among the Amish in Lancaster County, PA I’m compelled to comment!

    As I see it, Amish don’t have anything wrong with technology, they have something wrong with technology having control over their life. How many of us have felt pangs when our blackberry died until we could get a new one shipped in? Or that we must check out email hourly if not more? Amish people create a level of separation between technology and their life so that they can continue to live regardless of their material possessions.

  9. posted by Allison on

    I can see your point about how hard it is for people to give something up once they’ve experienced it, even if it’s actually making their lives more difficult! When I was the first of my peers (age 21) to quit Facebook everyone gasped– but it was to rid my life of distraction and social clutter. Another friend of mine tried to quit as well but after a few weeks gave up and went back even though she routinely complains about how much Facebook is a “lifesuck.” Funny how we tether ourselves to things that do us more harm than good.

  10. posted by toddes on

    @Mike,

    And what to you do when the electricity fails. How well does your technology work then?

    My wife and I were discussing this the other day. If, GOD forbid, the power grid were to fail for an extended period of time, how would we fare once the heat is gone, the gas pumps are no longer functioning and the food stores are depleted? I imagine the “superstitious” Amish would fare much better than the individuals who have make REASON their idol and lean on technology for their comfort.

  11. posted by Mike on

    @toddes,

    Power goes out from time to time, and there are backup options that are generally low-tech. That does not constitute a compelling option for discarding the high-tech superior options and using the backup all the time.

  12. posted by Mike on

    @toddes,

    I hit “enter” before I finished. Your second paragraph makes many assumptions and fails logically. Many rational people are indeed taking the “squirrel” approach these days, ensuring that there are emergency supplies available in light of the very real possibility of economic collapse. We all had to wake up to that possibility after the events of these past few years. That has actually LED to uncluttering for many, as we seek to discard those things that aren’t important so that we can more efficiently live our lives.

    I’d say people who make REASON their PRACTICE (not idol, as idols presuppose faith, and reason rejects faith) are going to be better off in general than those who watch it all hit the fan and just pray in the hope that “God will provide.” You will observe that the Amish pray for God’s blessings, but where the rubber meets the road, they milk the cows and plow the fields on their own, using noticeably non-heaven-based methods.

  13. posted by Tyler on

    http://www.wired.com/wired/arc.....sh_pr.html

    Nice article in Wired from a few years ago on this same topic.

    Basically – the Amish evaluate tech based on what it does for/to the community, not what it can do for an individual.

  14. posted by barb in Edmonton on

    Very interesting post. I made a similar decision when I went from living with a roommate to living alone, and decided to do away with television. I saw it as a time-sucker in my life, because I would come home from work tired, sit down in front of the TV and not have the energy/motivation to turn it off for the rest of the evening. It made a conscious choice to do without, and now instead I read, surf the Internet, garden, do crafts or sleep! I don’t miss the tube at all.

  15. posted by Gina on

    Wait — why are reason and using technology suddenly at odds in some posters’ minds? Usually people point to technology as a sure sign of reason (aka logic, aka “cold hard fact”) winning out over something squishy and nebulous like (gasp) faith or religion.

    Not that I think faith/religion and reason are necessarily at odds either. I just find it really funny that suddenly we are pitting reason and technology against each other.

    And people who stubbornly cling to “reason” or “being rationality” still have succumbed to making a religion out of reason.

    At the end of the day, what matters is that technology is a tool, nothing more or less. Technology isn’t good or bad — it simply exists. Its up to us to use it the right way (to enrich our lives) and avoid enslaving ourselves to it.

    And I bet you can find a few stubborn Amish who vehemently disagree with the inclusion of any newfangled electronic gizmos in their world.

  16. posted by Leonie on

    The key for me is to make technology work for me and not the other way around. Two things I am doing this year are:
    1. I don’t answer the cellphone when I am driving
    2. I only check email twice a day (for work), once a day (personal)

    Technology is supposed to make my life easier not add distractions. Good info on how the Amish work with this!

  17. posted by Stormbringer on

    Thanks for this article. Strange how things are converging in my life, “somebody’s trying to tell me something”. Christian principles (with an emphasis on the Amish viewpoint), Buddhist principles about “attachment”, uncluttering, Peter Walsh…

    Earlier today, I picked up an audio book by Peter Walsh about decluttering the mind. I listen to audio books while I work, using the CD built into my computer terminal (and the computer is 100 percent of my job). I ordered the audio book online through the library’s network, and I do not know the library from which it originated in the loan system. When the audio book arrived at my local branch, the system generated an e-mail to inform me of its arrival.

    If the power goes out, I cannot work and I cannot hear my audio book about decluttering. Ironic, isn’t it? Of course, I could have ordered the physical book and been able to read by candlelight…

  18. posted by Beth on

    Cell phones USE electricity: the Towers necessary to transmit the calls are RUN by ELECTRICITY.

  19. posted by Shalin on

    So fascinating – Kevin Kelly is really an amazing person. If you haven’t seen his TED Talks videos, check them out on ted.com 🙂

    Best,
    Shalin

  20. posted by toddes on

    @Mike,

    While we are considering assumptions, how about this one: “Meh… minds clouded by superstition. One wonders what humanity might have accomplished if reason ruled the day.”

    Nowhere did I state that the Amish or anyone else should just “watch it all hit the fan and just pray in the hope that “God will provide.” That, again, is an assumption on your part.

    At best, I stated that the Amish were better prepared if technolgy and all it provides were no longer available. They would not have so great a learning curve as many of us would.

    Finally, you state that “people who make REASON their PRACTICE (not idol, as idols presuppose faith, and reason rejects faith)…”. How does this jibe with your initial statement, quoted above, that the world would be a better place if only reason ruled the day? Is this not a statement of faith? Reason is a tool like technology. It can be used correctly or incorrectly but it is only a tool. Once you elevate it beyond that, you have made it into an idol.

    Erin, I apologize for hijacking the thread. This will be my final word.

  21. posted by Katie in PA on

    The criteria for judging the adoption of technology mentioned here and in the referenced article are largely correct.

    You might be interested to learn that some Lancaster County (PA) Amish use voice mail forwarding to spread news (i.e. a birth, an accident) the way we use email. There are numerous 900 number chat lines for the Amish, with different topics discussed on different days and times. For instance, organic dairy farmers from around the U.S. can chat with each other one hour a week. Finally, there is an electronic bulletin board, using voicemail technology, for people seeking to travel and share bus rides around the country.

    Where I live, the telephone is not inside the house and not for mindless gossip. But it has become the platform for information sharing and community building.

  22. posted by Gabriel on

    I appreciate the spirit behind this post, and I have often admired the simpler Amish lifestyle. However, I think we should be careful to not fabricate a mythical belief that some group of people have some superior way of living. The Amish don’t automatically do everything better than we do, they just do it differently.

    For example, last year, I was driving through rural Ohio and spotted a man selling baked goods out of the back of his wagon. Like a fool, I thought “Ooh, Amish baked goods!” I spent $20 on three pies because I had created this idea that someone who lives their life simply would have some great, passed-down knowledge of rustic cooking and baking. Sure enough, the pies tasted like crap.

    I know there are probably some Amish people that cook better, live greener, make furniture better, raise animals better, or whatever. But that doesn’t make the Amish community somehow superior to non-Amish folks. They’re just people.

  23. posted by Gina on

    @toddes:

    “Reason is a tool like technology. It can be used correctly or incorrectly but it is only a tool. Once you elevate it beyond that, you have made it into an idol.”

    Exactly right.

  24. posted by Open Loops 2/16/2009: Articles I Think Worth Passing Along | SimpleProductivityBlog.com on

    […] aren’t they supposed to avoid modern technology? No, as it turns out. Unclutterer talks about “The Amish, their gadgets, and their ability to get rid of distractions”. The thing that is different is that the Amish are able to give up gadgets if they are detrimental. […]

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