Amish steampunk

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Via Instapundit, I found this article by Kevin Kelly about the Amish and technology. It jibes with a similar story I read some years ago in Technology Review. The Amish aren't anti-technology; rather, they're careful about the impact of technology on the integrity of their community and their independence from outsiders:

In any debate about the merits of embracing new technology, the Amish stand out as offering an honorable alternative of refusal. Yet Amish lives are anything but anti-technological. In fact on my several visits with them, I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers and surprisingly pro technology....

The Amish, particular the Old Order Amish -- the stereotypical Amish depicted on calendars - really are slow to adopt new things. In contemporary society our default is set to say "yes" to new things, and in Old Order Amish societies the default is set to "no." When new things come around, the Amish automatically start by refusing them.

The story points out the differences in practice among different Amish communities, but common motivations to protect the cohesion of the community against technologies like the car and the telephone which exert a centrifugal force and to protect the distinctives of the community against technologies like grid electricity which bind them too closely to the rest of the world.

Within the confines of those aims, the Amish can be quite creative. Kelly tells us about "Amish electricity" at one farm -- a massive diesel generator powers a pneumatic system which drives power woodworking tools and can also be used for specially adapted kitchen equipment.

In fact there is an entire cottage industry in retrofitting tools and appliances to Amish electricity. The retrofitters buy a heavy-duty blender, say, and yank out the electrical motor. They then substitute an air-powered motor of appropriate size, add pneumatic connectors, and bingo, your Amish mom now has a blender in her electrical-less kitchen. You can get a pneumatic sewing machine, and a pneumatic washer/dryer (with propane heat). In a display of pure steam-punk nerdiness, Amish hackers try to outdo each other in building pneumatic versions of electrified contraptions. Their mechanical skill is quite impressive, particularly since none went beyond the 8th grade. They love to show off this air-punk geekiness. And every tinkerer I met claimed that pneumatics were superior to electrical devices because air was more powerful and durable, outlasting motors which burned out after a few years hard labor. I don't know if this is true, or just justification, but it was a constant refrain.

At another farm, Kelly encountered a $400,000 computer-controlled CNC machine, used to make precision parts for pneumatic machinery and kerosene stoves. It was operated by a 14-year-old girl in a bonnet.

The story describes the typical pattern for testing and evaluating new technologies and addresses the dilemmas posed by off-the-grid electricity (solar) and telecommunications (mobile phones).

It's interesting too to read that the Amish (at least some of them) embrace technologies like disposable diapers and genetically-modified corn that city-dwelling crunchy conservatives reject.

Will the Amish way of life survive? In technological terms, they have a better shot than we "English" of surviving a situation like "The Long Emergency" -- the massive, painful societal readjustment that Jim Kunstler predicts as the age of cheap energy ends. Or even a short emergency: As I noted in the aftermath of the December 2007 ice storm, we've forgotten how to build homes and arrange our lives so that we can be well-fed and comfortable without the grid in any weather.

It seems to me that the true heart of Amish culture is not technological aversion or pneumatic ingenuity but mutual subjection to a common rule of conduct, grounded in the principles of their faith.

That's extremely countercultural. The broader American culture seems to have lost the impulse to live up to the expectations of the group. Voluntary societies like churches and clubs often have to choose between enforcing standards and retaining membership. (That's a topic that deserves further consideration.)

As long as Amish communities are successful at screening out socially corrosive technologies, they should be able to maintain the cohesion required for their way of life. The decentralized aspect of Amish culture may help preserve it in general even if a particular community is disrupted.

One last anecdote: Last fall, we went with our homeschooling group to a hearty dinner at an Amish home near Chouteau. The dining room was lit with what appeared to be propane -- brightly glowing net wicks of the sort I remember from Coleman lanterns. As we were leaving, my wife told me that one of the Amish men was trying to figure out how to set up a photocopier he just bought.

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2 Comments

As much as we all love to look at the Amish and think, "There but for the love of electricity goes Dwight L. Moody", the truth is that they probably can't survive without the rest of the world. They aren't really isolated or self-sufficient.

Jeff Shaw Author Profile Page said:

If you want to start a band and call it "Amish Steampunk" - I think I've got the album cover design. :)

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 18, 2009 12:07 AM.

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