Virtually Amish: Lessons from the Amish

Technology can work for you or it can work against you.

If I’m honest with myself, there was a time when technology was doing me more harm than good.

On Facebook, I frequently fell into the comparison trap (comparing myself to people who had posted delicious dinners, amazing holiday photos, etc).

On Twitter, I’d get baited by trolls (and I’d foolishly take the bait).

Throughout the day, I’d constantly check my phone and email, which left me feeling jittery and chaotic.

Big Tech was constantly hijacking my time, energy, and attention. Every time I retreated to my devices for a quick shot of dopamine, I moved further away from my goals. I didn’t like this, and I knew something needed to change.

Over the past three years, I’ve implemented many practices to regain control of my time, energy, and attention (including deleting all social media).

These practices have made a big difference in my life. But I’m well aware that not everyone feels the same way I do about Big Tech, nor are they in a position to be able to delete all their accounts.

My Reality Check

Following a school presentation, I spoke with a small group of year 8 students. I shared with them that I didn’t use any social media, to which a year 8 girl quickly chimed in:

“My grandma has Facebook. What’s your excuse?”

Her words struck me like a bolt of lightning. I didn’t know what to say.

It highlighted how adopting these apps is the norm for a young person.

When everyone else has a smartphone and is using social media (including your parents and grandparents), why would you question using them?

I couldn’t forget the year 8 girl’s words. While I appreciated her candidness, it left me slightly disturbed.

At the same time, it increased my motivation to resist Big Tech. I started searching for role models: people actively resisting Big tech and this hyperconnected, fast-paced way of life.

One community kept popping up in my research: the Amish.

Lessons from the Amish

The Amish are often portrayed as being technologically impaired. A classic example is Weird Al Yankovic’s music video Amish Paradise (a parody of Coolio’s mega-hit Gangsta’s Paradise).

In this video, Weird Al sings:

I never wear buttons but I got a cool hat
And my homies agree I really look good in black, fool
If you come to visit, you’ll be bored to tears
We haven’t even paid the phone bill in 300 years
But we ain’t really quaint, so please don’t point and stare
We’re just technologically impaired

There’s no phone, no lights, no motorcar
Not a single luxury
Like Robinson Crusoe
It’s as primitive as can be

While the Amish still mainly travel by horse and buggy and shun many modern technologies, such as televisions, radios, and cars, they are not ‘technologically impaired’ as Weird Al makes out.

When it comes to cultivating healthy digital habits, there is a lot we can learn from the Amish.

The Amish have a set of strategies that guide the adoption and use of different technologies. These strategies have allowed them to avoid being pawns for the goals of Big Tech companies, which make massive profits by seizing people’s attention.

I recently read a fascinating book called Virtually Amish, written by Dr Lindsay Ems. For her PhD research, Dr Ems spoke to Amish people about their relationship to modern technology (e.g., smartphones).

She argues that the Amish take control of their tech tools and thrive. Through adopting similar practices, we can thrive, too.

Below, I share how you can thrive by emulating Amish practices and beliefs around technology:

1. Become a technoselective

The Amish are not technophobes. They are ‘technoloselectives’.

They carefully consider the tech tools they’ll adopt and their functionality, tweaking them to help them achieve their goals.

The Amish don’t mindlessly purchase the latest gadgets and gizmos. Instead, they think about their values and goals and how the technology could cause unintended harm to themselves and the wider Amish community.

What are your goals?
Do your tech tools help you achieve them, or do they distract you from them?

2. Be guided by your values

The Amish are guided by their values (i.e., the things that are most important to them). Their values underpin everything they do.

So, what exactly do Amish people value?

• Community
• Connections with others
• Living a simple and slow-paced life
• Living a spiritually rich life
• Being self-sufficient

The Amish use these values to guide their adoption of technology.

An example of this can be seen with the arrival of the home telephone (not smartphone). Dr Ems shares how the Amish decided to ban the telephone from being inside the family home.

This ban came about after careful consideration and reflection on their values. The Amish value connections with family, friends, and the community. They don’t want to be the kind of person who interrupts a conversation by answering a telephone call. For this reason, telephones are located outside Amish family homes or nearby.

What are the things that are most important to you?
How does technology impact on those things?
Does it enrich those things or diminish them?

3. Understand technology isn’t neutral

The Amish understand that technology can cause harm. Subsequently, they intentionally delay adopting new technology until they see its impact on others.

Does it destroy family life? Does it wreak havoc on their ability to pay attention and distract them from their spiritual life?

If so, the technology threatens their culture and religion, and for these reasons, it should be avoided.

Before adopting a piece of technology, the Amish need to be clear about two things:

1) The functionality of the technology (what it can do)
2) The potential social impacts of the technology

Once they deeply understand these things, it is then decided whether the technology is adopted or not.

It may come as no surprise that Amish people view the smartphone as an incredibly dangerous innovation. Many Amish communities have bans on this device.

How do you feel after spending time on social media?
Have you seen things posted on social media that weren’t true or were exaggerated?

4. Put the technology on trial

When an Amish person wants to use a new technology, that technology will go through a formal decision-making process.

The community (in particular, the leaders) will consider the future with this technology. They’ll try to imagine how the technology could change their way of life.

Questions the Amish reflect on include:

• What are the advantages and disadvantages of the technology?
• What might come with it that we might not anticipate?
• Could someone get addicted to it?
• Is it a need or a want?
• Can the technology be restrained?

In her book Virtually Amish, Dr Ems provides the example of an Amish business owner asking the community leaders if he could have permission to use a label maker for his business.

After careful consideration, the leaders ruled label makers could be allowed for the following reasons:

• They are not addictive
• They can’t be used for recreational purposes (e.g., playing games or entertainment)

Think of a new technology (device or app) you want to adopt. Could it become addictive?

5. What matters is how you use it

Many Amish people believe the issue is not whether you use a smartphone or social media but how you use it. It’s important that the Amish remain in control of their use of tech and place limits on it.

It’s also important that the technology is not visible (i.e., you don’t pull your smartphone out in Church or during a conversation). Being discrete in the way one uses technology shows respect for Amish values.

How do you use the tech in your life?
Are you in control of your use?

6. Reflect on who you become when you use the technology

Amish people think about not just how they use the technology but what kind of person they become when they use it.

This point resonated with me deeply. I can’t say I’ve always liked who I become when I use certain technology.

A few years ago, I babysat my friends’ children when my friends went out for a kid-free meal. I look back and cringe when I think about how the experience unfolded.

Before going to my friend’s place to start babysitting, I got into a heated text discussion with some people in a group chat. Things were said that upset me.

For most of the night, I was on my phone, texting back and forth, not present with these young children. At one point, the little boy tugged on my arm to get my attention. “Aunty Jane, come play!” he said.

What can I say? I felt terrible. This certainly was not my finest moment. I had become the kind of caregiver I am usually quick to judge: distracted and disengaged.

I vowed to avoid trying to resolve issues by text and leave my phone at home next time to be fully present with the kids.

When you use social media, what sort of person do you become?

7. Adopt sticky tech tools

The Amish take modern tech tools and modify them to help them achieve their goals.

The plain mobile phone is an example of this. Amish people have created a mobile phone that can only make calls. It doesn’t have a camera, games, access to the Internet, or the ability to send text messages.

Similarly, the plain computer allows Amish to make spreadsheets, do word processing, and construct simple drawings. This allows them to complete tasks without being distracted by other things.

In other words, the Amish create what David Kadavy (author of Mind Management, Not Time Management) would refer to as sticky tools. A sticky tool allows you to stay focused on a task without getting distracted.

What sticky tools could you consider adopting (e.g., a basic flip phone and Internet blocker app)?

8. Create, don’t consume

The Amish take pride in growing their own food, raising barns, baking their own bread, tinkering with robotics, inventing, and making their own clothes. They are not big consumers, but they embrace a simple lifestyle and encourage human creativity.

In the modern non-Amish world, many of us are doing the polar opposite of this. We have fallen into the trap of consuming content mindlessly online (e.g., watching people bake bread instead of baking our own bread).

Don’t get me wrong—the Internet is an excellent learning tool to help us build our skills. I have turned to YouTube for many instructional videos on how to make and fix things. But doing this requires discipline because it is all too easy to get derailed by other distracting videos.

The bottom line is this: the more time we spend online, the more ads we are likely exposed to and the more our consumptive desires are stirred up. Is it any wonder so many people feel so dissatisfied with their lives?

Instead of mindlessly consuming, what can you create today?

9. Embrace inconvenience

The Amish embrace tech with inbuilt friction. In fact, inconvenience is considered a virtue.

Dr Ems shares that many Amish technologies intentionally contain ‘speed bumps’ and ‘friction’. The reason for this friction is to prevent Amish people from wasting time on the device.

I’ve found this is one of the positives associated with using a ‘basic phone’.

Last year, I experimented with using a basic flip phone with limited functionality (I could only make calls and send texts). Texting on this phone was so painfully slow that it made me want to avoid getting into long text discussions with people. It was easier to pick up the phone and call people.

Using a smartphone to text your friends may be easier than making a phone call, but as the Amish strongly believe, easier is not always better.

How can you build friction into your tech use?
Can you embrace analog alternatives to decrease your screen time?

To sum up

How much control do you have over your time, energy, and attention? As Chris Bailey writes in his book How to Calm Your Mind, “On the Internet, our intentions very quickly slip from our grasp.”

If you want to thrive online and offline, consider adopting some of the tech habits of the Amish. By limiting their tech use, the Amish have been able to remain mentally free and protect their way of life.

If more of us adopted Amish tech practices (e.g., being intentional with our tech use and placing limits on it), we’d most likely feel calmer and less anxious. We’d also spend more time engaged in activities that bring us joy and are aligned with what we value.