Wednesday, September 6, 2006

"Cutting deals with technology": Using the Amish to understand contemporary anxieties about emerging technologies

If it didn't sound so gross, I'd say I have a thing for contemporary Anabaptism. And I especially have a thing for popular accounts of how the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites deal with technology. But what is this thing we have?

Washington Post: Still Called by Faith To the Phone Booth

"Off the side of a dirt road in Southern Maryland stands an odd answer to the swiftly changing telecommunications industry. It's a rusted metal chamber, nearly eight feet tall. The door is padlocked. Trees surround it, with no houses in sight. It looks like an old bomb shelter. Inside is a telephone. Built by several nearby Mennonite families, the oil tank-turned-phone booth connects them to the rest of the world -- sort of... The phones allow them to conduct business -- crucial to surviving amid the region's development pressures -- while holding on to prohibitions against home phone lines and cellphones. Called 'community phones,' they are the latest example of how the groups in Maryland and elsewhere have been cutting deals with technology for the past century." (via)

Since the Industrial Revolution, we've been confused, fascinated and offended by communities that oppose or reject new technologies. While some popular accounts still focus incredulously on Anabaptism as some form of contemporary Luddism, more often mainstream descriptions of Amish and Mennonite communities extol the somewhat exotic virtues of responsible and situational engagements with technology--rather than total acceptance or rejection.

Referring specifically to the Amish, Howard Rheingold calls such people "adaptive techno-selectives," and if we follow Donald Kraybill's account of the telephone in Amish life, then we look to these Others specifically because they offer not just parables, but living, breathing examples of human control over technology. Kraybill argues that the community phone "symbolizes key Amish values--separation from the world, establishing limits, shunning convenience, preserving family solidarity, and respecting past wisdom...These understandings keep the phone at a distance and limit its use. The Amish are its master rather than its servant...The phone story is... a demonstration that a technology can serve the community without dominating it."

But if ethnographic accounts tell us as much about the world of the author as the people studied, then Kraybill reminds us that we're still scared of technologies controlling us. In The Amish in the American Imagination, David Weaver-Zercher demonstrates how changing popular representations of the Amish way-of-life reflect broader societal anxieties about emerging technologies, and use Amish practices to "mark boundaries, express fears, support causes and, in many cases, make a profit." And in his Wired article Look Who's Talking, Rheingold explicitly looks to Amish ways of negotiating with technology rather than letting it run amok:

"[T]he Amish have an elaborate system by which they evaluate the tools they use; their tentative, at times reluctant use of technology is more complex than a simple rejection or a whole-hearted embrace. What if modern Americans could possibly agree upon criteria for acceptance, as the Amish have? Might we find better ways to wield technological power, other than simply unleashing it and seeing what happens? What can we learn from a culture that habitually negotiates the rules for new tools?"

But Diane Zimmerman Umble, in Holding the Line: The Telephone in Old Order Mennonite and Amish Life, further describes the underpinning logic of telephone adoption as one of "appropriate association--who can be connected to whom, in what context, and under what circumstances." In this sense it's not the technology itself that's important, but rather the communal relations in which it's embedded. In discussing the "telephone troubles" Zimmerman Umble explains:

"The telephone helped mark but did not itself alone foment questions regarding the privileging of domestic, local, and oral communications, the habits of correspondence among far flung groups of believers and their elders or leaders, or the much debated practice of excommunication as a form of social control."

The important point here is that the telephone was both object and subject of people's (other) daily interactions. Just seeing how the telephone was being marketed in the early 1900s makes me wonder if it was the telephone or the values associated with it that were more troublesome to the Amish:

Reasons to own a telephone:

"So your wife can use it daily, to order her meat and groceries. You can get at once into communication with your home when you are away. . . . If every clock in the house stops, you can get correct time from central."

"You can increase your circle of desirable acquaintances as a telephone in the home gives you a social distinction in the country."

"By use of the telephone, more work can be crowded into one day, . . . increasing the length of one's life, as after all, what really counts is what we actually accomplish."

"How pleasant it is to make a telephone visit to relatives or friends. The distance only adds enchantment to your chat."

"The old order of things has passed. To be modern is to have a Bell Telephone. To have a telephone is to live."

I mean, I want nothing to do with values like those, and I'm not Amish! But debating 'the telephone' or any other new technology allows the Amish to renegotiate cultural and communal understandings of the relationship between people and ideas and things--to renegotiate their boundaries. As Zimmerman Umble discusses, the Amish have complex ways of deciding what is included or excluded from the Amish way-of-life, and these decisions manifest as Ordnung, or codes of conduct. However, as Jameson Wetmore points out in Building Amish Community with Technology: Regulating Machines and Techniques to Forward Social Goals, Ordnung are quite different from non-Anabaptist regulatory traditions:

"Each Ordnung is an unwritten collection of rules comprised of the district's long established traditions, as well as more recently agreed upon norms. It is conveyed both by example and by instruction when someone breaks a rule or inquires about a rule . . . An Amish minister described the decision making process in the following way: 'We try to find out how new ideas, inventions or trends will affect us as a people, as a community, as a church. If they affect us adversely, we are wary. Many things are not what they appear to be at first glance. It is not individual technologies that concern us, but the total chain'."

One of the ways this kind of (non?) networked thinking plays out is in how the Amish limit the use of certain technologies. Wetmore tells stories of how, when electricity was needed, certain technologies were adopted--but restricted in ways that made it difficult or impossible to run other appliances. These adoptions also favoured the re-use of discarded machinery and the re-purposing of other technologies. This last point allies the Amish more with Asian repair cultures than with mainstream North American society.

So what do we make of the "Amish example"? Do we seek in theirs something that we miss in our daily lives? Do we want protection from our fears? Hope of action in the face of political uncertainty and disempowerment? Is this thing we have a sense of community lost? A crush on a girl we cannot have? A desire for Truth? What if the Amish aren't who or what we think they are? Want them to be? Would that make a difference to who or what we think we are? Who we want to be?


Blogger Chris said...

I remain fascinated by these communities - they are, in many ways, like custom constructed "indigenous cultures" (in the sense of being self-sufficient autonomous communities like many indigenous cultures; obviously they are not literally 'indigenous').

How easy is it to maintain such autonomous communities without a common metaphysical system, though? I have to wonder...

Best wishes!

Blogger Trevor said...

Great essay, Anne,

The Amish are a beautiful example in regards to the telephone. The thing that may destroy the Amish is the lack of land. It makes them take jobs in factories which gives them money, rather than produce, and money then needs to be spend somewhere. So where do they go?


A couple of notes to Chris: The autonomy, or better separatedness, of these communities is not maintained by a common metaphysical system, better faith, but rather the product of that faith.
It's more a question of theonomy than anything.
In order to live in the Kingdom of God these people believe that they need to be separate from the world; this poses some natural difficulty as they need to live in the world in some sense.

Anonymous anne said...

me too chris...

trevor - ping me on ichat please :)

Blogger Jane said...

This is a brilliant historical analog for ubicomp technologies... will provide me with great food for thought. Thanks, Anne!

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