About Me

Just a person in recovery from years of spiritual abuse at the hands of good, upstanding Christian folks.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What the Amish Taught me about Technology

If there’s a support group for Facebook addicts, then I need to join up. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the site for years. This morning, however, after receiving a notice from a “friend” that I was among the ones she would purge from her contacts list (“nothing personal, Bill”), I deactivated my account, hopefully for the last time.

Oh, and I still don’t own an IPod or IPad, though I do have a Kindle.

The question of technology’s effect on our humanity is a growing one in the minds of many people. It has been troubling me for some months now, as I noted the ease with which I and others casually “friend” and “defriend” persons with a mouse click, giving little consideration to the fact that they aren’t simply images on a computer screen. They are living, breathing human beings, with thoughts and needs and strengths and faults and feelings. Unlike us shallow types, they may actually be foolish enough to believe that the word “friend” still means something.

I’m reminded of a book I read almost twenty years ago, entitled How to Live Without Electricity. It was written by an Amish gentleman who lives in Pennsylvania. Obviously I didn’t accept everything he had to say, demonstrated by the fact that I’m typing these words into a PC while a light bulb burns overhead – though in my defense I must add that it’s a low wattage fluorescent.

However, his central thesis struck me to the core, and has remained with me ever since. In explaining why his spiritual community eschews many modern conveniences, he explained that it had nothing to do with legalistic notions about radio and TV and automobiles being inherently evil. The actual reasons are more nuanced and thoughtful.

The Amish people decided long ago that is was foolish to accept technological innovations uncritically, without considering how they would affect their primary goal of living in close relationships and mutual interdependence. Television may provide hours of entertainment, but it causes persons to withdraw into their own private worlds, forgetting about the living, breathing human beings around them. Power driven tools make work more efficient, but they make community projects, such as raising a barn together, seem trite and unnecessary.

Given my current disgust with online social media, I can’t help but reflect on these things and wonder if the Plain People are onto something the rest of us could learn from. Having ten thousand “friends” cheapens the meaning of the word almost to extinction. Rushing to the mall or a big box store to get the latest cell phone or video game console, without first asking why we’re doing so, is the sort of thing that leads to obscene levels of credit card debt, and economic depressions when we can’t make those monthly payments.

This isn’t to say that such products are evil, of course. To the contrary, technology has given us unprecedented opportunities for education, enrichment, and, yes, entertainment. In and of themselves these things are not wicked. The danger arises when we adopt a “latest is greatest” mindset and neglect to ask ourselves what our motives are for adding yet another technological gadget to our possessions.

Is it because of status? Do we fear being behind the curve or looking antiquated in front of our friends and neighbors? Is it due to a commercial being entertaining or a sales person being persuasive? Are we afraid the kids will nag us if we don’t pacify their incessant demands? All of these are great reasons NOT to make the purchase.

Material possessions, as well as the activities we engage in, should be means to an end, namely to live productive, healthy, meaning filled lives. Ones that help us to learn, to grow, to strengthen our bonds with other people, or to enhance our spiritual or intellectual lives, are wise and well made investments. On the other hand, those that make it easier for us to waste time, go further in debt, or dehumanize others should be avoided, no matter how attractive the Sirens of Capitalism make them seem.

That is what the Amish taught me about technology. I pray to God that I will take the lesson to heart, and apply it fully to my own life. Maybe you should do so too. Email me if you agree. Or just send me a tweet.


  1. ooohhh! this is really thoughtful, and i do appreciate it, a lot. i am getting a phd in instructional technology (i call it getting a phd in the internet) but i do believe in its limitations, namely in reducing our interconnectedness in our face to face communities. now, i do make a case that technology has helped me to connect with people who i live away from - and for that i am grateful, but the connections i maintain via technology are not the same as being with my loved ones face to face.

    sometimes i do wish i'd been born amish. i read about their community and i am drawn to it, i read about their simple lives and want a life like that. but i'm not amish, and i do like technology, but i have to balance technology with other things, like insisting that when i have a meeting with someone in town that it's never done via skype or via the phone, that it's always done face to face.

  2. I'm glad you found the post to be helpful, Brooke. And it sounds like you already have an informed, balanced approach to technology. Paradoxically, the Internet has simultaneously brought us closer together and further apart.

    The alarm bells began ringing in my head when I suggested to some of my virtual friends that we try to eventually meet, as a group, in the real world, for dinner or something. Many of them thought it was a quaint but somewhat old-fashioned idea. That reaction gave me chills.
    I joined FB to make real friends, not stare at electronic ghosts on a monitor screen.

  3. *nod* i understand about trying to move people from virtual space to in person space. i discovered that difficulty many years ago, so, for the most part i don't participate in social media to connect with people that i've never met in person before. i've also been known to un-friend someone on facebook that i knew face to face who seemed to only connect to add another friend to their list (people from high school come to mind, people that friended me from HS, who i wasn't friends with in HS, but who never seemed to make an effort to connect more in the facebook world).

    now. bloggers.. there is a woman in texas that i am becoming friends with. her daughter died of cancer, my dad died of it. she is a liberal academic and a woman of faith as well - just as i am (and hope to continue to be - academic that is - after i finish my phd). so, we have a lot in common. but she's an exception these days.


  4. I'm glad that you're becoming friends with the lady in TX. I'm hoping that, by publishing more comments in my blog, one of the benefits will be correspondence with persons of an intellectual bent like yourself. I've lost any desire to waste a millisecond of my life discussing Lady Gaga's antics or who Schwarzenegger's love child is.

    I drove through Oregon in the late 80s during a cross country jaunt. I spent the night in Ontario and drove through Utah the next day, where I spent a few hours at Temple Square in Salt Lake.

    I remember going to the bathroom in the visitor's center. The guy to my left looked over at me and complained that every time he came in to use the facilities the Mormons tried to convert him.

    Why I shared that story with you is a mystery to me.

    I too went to a "college" in GA, in Toccoa to be exact. I've actually learned far more from my studies at Auto Didactic U. than I ever did in a formal classroom setting. If I had life to do over I'd attend Saint John's College in Washington, DC.

    VA is a magnificent state. Roanoke is one of my favorite places to visit.

    I just had a chance to peruse your blog. It sounds like you've dealt with some very challenging things in your life and have made some brave choices, such as a commitment to pacifism. I believe it was Mr. Spock who said that people of peace are usually persons of courage as well. I agree.