Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Technological Diversity and Cultural Change among Contemporary Amish Groups

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Technological Diversity and Cultural Change among Contemporary Amish Groups

Article excerpt

Abstract: Although the Amish are popularly supposed to eschew all technology, in fact they are discerning users of it. For example, privileging small family farms and shared community labor, the most conservative Amish communities keep technological innovation to a minimum. In contrast, more progressive communities may permit members to engage in non-agrarian, entrepreneurial enterprises and allow a wider range of technology. The result is a growing technological diversity in the Amish world that would have been unimaginable a century ago. These changing ways of being Amish have implications for family life and community relationships, the education of Amish children, economic interaction with non-Amish society, and the role of the church in the lives of Amish business owners.

In the minds of many North Americans today, the phrase "Amish technology" is an oxymoron. After all, these are the folks who still wear nineteenth-century garb and drive horse-drawn buggies. Yet as author Howard Rheingold has argued, the Amish are not "knee-jerk technophobes [but] very adaptive techno-selectives who devise remarkable technologies that fit within their self-imposed limits. ..." (1) For example, while car ownership and public grid electricity remain off-limits in all Amish communities, other technologies, including computers and cell phones, are increasingly evident in Amish settlements. There is, in fact, growing technological diversity within the Amish world. In some settlements, teachers painstakingly make old-fashioned "hectographs" out of glycerin and copy tests one at a time, while in others, they just hook the photocopier to a car battery and print as many tests as they need in seconds. (2) Some communities still harvest ice to refrigerate perishables in the hot summer months, while others employ propane gas to power stoves and refrigerators, thereby making available the benefits of these appliances while eliminating the need to connect to the grid. In many communities, propane gas has also eliminated oil lamps, and Amish homes in some church districts even feature a central gas distribution system. In all communities, batteries power flashlights, but in many they also run a host of other devices, from clocks to calculators and even cash registers and word processors.

These differences, both between the Amish and their non-Amish neighbors and between different Amish communities, would have been unimaginable at the beginning of the twentieth century, when all Amish lived lives very similar to those of their rural non-Amish neighbors, who also lacked electricity, telephones, and indoor plumbing. Since then, however, the mainstream culture has fully embraced the technological revolution. Non-Amish farmers have adopted factory farming practices, brought the tractor into the field, mechanized production, and expanded in size. At the same time, Amish communities, particularly in the larger, long-established settlements, have faced growing populations, a subsequent lack of affordable farmland, and the need to think about how to confront a more technological future.

The Amish response to these social changes has been shaped by community-specific patterns of decision-making grounded in tradition, the largely unwritten code of regulations (Ordnung), and the community's understanding of key Amish values. The most conservative Amish, such as the Swartzentruber groups, who regard the small family farm, shared labor, and multigenerational interaction as essential to an Amish life, reject or severely limit technology. As one Swartzentruber Amish minister put it, "We don't like to change. When you change, that's when you get into trouble." (3) To survive, members of these communities have often chosen to move to regions where cheap, available farmland enables them to continue a pre-industrial lifestyle with which their great-great grandparents would have felt comfortable. Other Amish groups, however, determining that "the old patterns . …

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