As I mentioned a little while ago, I made a decision to pull down most of my old articles from my website when I re-designed my site about a year ago. I’ve changed my mind about that and decided to make them freely available on my website, but wanted to put them into the database for my blog and amke them available in the “Articles” category archive. As a result, I’ll be regularly posting these articles on my blog. Consider them as bonus posts.
The first one is one of my favorite short articles. It was written in 1999, is still timely now and the questions raised in the article will probably be topical forever.
What Can the Amish Teach Us About Technology?
Has anyone else has read Howard Rheingold’s fascinating article on the Amish and cell phones in the January 1999 issue of Wired? It’s one of the most thought-provoking articles I’ve read recently. Or maybe it has a special resonance because I grew up in a part of Indiana where it wasn’t a rare thing to see Amish people in stores, building barns and houses, and riding in horses and buggies on the roads. The Amish society, however, remained a closed mystery to those of us who were allowed only to be distant observers.
Rheingold’s article looks at the fascination the Amish in Pennsylvania have with cellular phones and how they are wrestling with the place of these phones in their society and whether they will even allow this technology (and others) into their communities. He calls the Amish "techno-selectives," a useful term. The article turns into a fascinating discussion of how communities, in a principled way, make decisions about the place of technology.
I love the way the Amish who do have phones sometimes keep them in a shed away from houses or even in outhouses — the concern being that phone calls are essentially disruptive to face-to-face discourse and must be kept in a place in a way that shows that people control the technology and not vice versa.
Rheingold explicitly relates this to the issues that arise when older Internet communities experience an influx of new people who are not aware of the community customs and norms. In the "old days", he says, everyone adhered to the largely unwritten rules of "netiquette" and those rules and list lore were passed along as new members entered and were integrated into the community. Sheer volume has overwhelmed the capacity to pass along this community lore and norms that Rheingold refers to with the German term "Ordnung." And the older Internet communities have struggled to adapt to a new reality.
By the end of the article, there is a dawning feeling that perhaps, in some sense, the Amish have it right – the new technologies should be considered and discussed in terms of their implications for the community, both in terms of costs and benefits and in the sense of appropriate place.
We would do well to consider and try to answer Rheingold’s final question: "If we decided that community came first, how would we use our tools differently?"
I recently finished Joel Garreau’s excellent book, Radical Evolution, which I highly recommend, especially as a popular explanation of the notion of the Singularity often associated with Kurzweil. One of the most interesting parts of the book addressed the Amish and these same issues.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (]
This post brought to you by LexThink!™ – The Conference, Re-imagined. LexThink! – Think big thoughts, do cool things, change the world. November 11 & 12 – LexThink’s BlawgThink 2005.