Keeping the world at arm’s length: what the Amish can teach us about technology

by Christopher Markou, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge

Must technology dictate the nature and quality of our future? Or should we make a New Year’s resolution to become bigger players in determining how technology shapes our lives, and what advantages might be best to surrender?

2015 might be termed “the year of the robot” and 2016 is likely to be a year when robo-anxiety goes mainstream. Whether it was Google making steady progress with driverless car tech, Amazon building its own air force for its Prime Air drone-based delivery system, or some of the world’s greatest scientific minds warning against the dangerous of autonomous weapons systems, 2015 has been the year where robots stopped being the stuff of science fiction in the public eye and became the subject of serious social, legal, economic, and existential debate. For instance 2015 saw a number of books detailing the implications of a robotic future, and questioning what place humans will have in it. Whether it is Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s The Second Machine Age, the Susskind’s The Future of the Professions, or Mark Reiff’s On Unemployment, some much-needed sober thinking is being done on what the impact of robotisation, computerisation, and automation will have for economies. While it may be a great time to be a robot, it’s looking like an increasingly dismal time to be human as we are bombarded with messages about technological change catalysing mass unemployment and stoking fears over our personal safety and privacy.

While many authors have described the dark future we might inherit, few have offered proscriptive solutions for how it might be averted. Reiff captures a dimension to the problem that is often overlooked. He writes:

“Unfortunately, however, a labor-saving technological innovation need not be more efficient than the method of production it replaces in order to be adopted. There are some technological innovations that are actually less efficient than the more labor-intensive method they were designed to replace…yet producers use them anyway, either because they mistakenly believe these innovations will result in an overall labor savings in the long run or because they correctly or incorrectly believe these new methods of production will shift the composition of the workforce required from easy to organize blue-collar workers to more difficult to organize white-collar workers and will therefore ultimately lead to higher profits for the producer by reducing the power or uncertainty of labor.” [1]

In November 2015 the Bank of England weighed in with its own report, and its results are grim. The BoE estimates that robots could replace some 15 million workers in what it terms the ‘third machine age’. That works out to about half of the approximately 31 million people employed in the UK. However, what is telling about the report is its focus on the likelihood of automation across a range or industries. At the top of its list were jobs in administration, clerical and production. Meanwhile, the caring, leisure, service, retail and skilled trades are predicted to have an ‘average probability of automation’ approaching 80 per cent. In the words of the Andy Haldane, the chief economist behind the report:

“Technology appears to be resulting in faster, wider and deeper degrees of hollowing-out than in the past…because 20th-century machines have substituted not just for manual human tasks, but cognitive ones too. The set of human skills machines could reproduce, at lower cost, has both widened and deepened.”

Despite the doom and gloom heralded, Haldane offers the consolation that: “The lessons of history are that rising real incomes have ridden to the rescue, boosting the demand for new goods from new industries requiring new workers.” He admits that while technology has threatened to replace workers for centuries – as the story of the Luddites so vividly reminds –  technological advancements have lifted wages over time. In Haldane’s words: “Technology has enriched labour, not immiserated it.” While the BoE is careful to suggest that its report is not immutable prophecy, it provides an educated guess as to how many jobs in the UK may be automatable in the not so distant future. However, unlike the Industrial Revolution where manual labourers – such as the humble textile workers who raged against the machines in Northern England – were forced to improve their skills to adapt to new and more sophisticated jobs, this time around robots are expected to simply replace workers altogether.

As we enter a New Year we do not need to see technological change as the deterministic force it is often revered as. What we do need to do is think deeper and more reflectively about the transformative capacity of technology. There are no magic bullet solutions when it comes to understanding, let alone solving, complex technological problems, or attenuating the socio-economic, ethical or legal repercussions they might have. However, if we want to think more expansively about how technology is reconfiguring entire societies, redefining the nature of work, and debasing the value of labour, we should look more seriously at how technological change might be managed. I submit that we might look to the Amish and see what lessons they have to teach us.

The Amish are a traditionalist Christian denomination that can be found primarily in the US States of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana and the province of Ontario in Canada. They share the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament as their primary scriptures and more or less share the theological beliefs of other Protestant churches. [2] While some might know them for their long beards, antiquated dress sense, propensity for travelling via horse and buggy or the disingenuous Mafioso image cultivated by television, there is more to the Amish than some might assume. Often characterised as technophobic or Luddites par excellence the Amish provide remarkable testimony for how socio-economic equilibrium can be maintained during turbulent periods of technological change and industrialisation. Far from being Luddites, the Amish are remarkably tech savvy. One of the most defining aspects of the Amish belief system can be traced to the writings of church father Menno Simons, who advised his nascent community to:

“Rent a farm, milk cows, learn a trade if possible, do manual labour as did [the Apostle] Paul, and all that which you then fall short of will doubtlessly be given and provided you by pious brethren, by the grace of god.” [3]

Amish communities place great importance on Demut (humility) and encourage Glassenheit (placidity, composure and calmness) and values such as honest labour, reliance upon family and community, simplicity and pacifism as well as the rejection of Hochmut (pride, arrogance, egotism). Amish devotion to the ‘Will of Jesus’ is expressed through upholding these communal norms which are by their nature antithetical to the rugged individualism that is promoted by western – particularly North American – culture. It is this anti-individualist stance that provides the basis for rejecting labour-saving technologies that could make their community less self-reliant. While the entirety of Amish history and theology cannot be reiterated, it suffices to say that they are not a community that is strictly anti-technological. As opposed to most of the modern world, wherein technology is seen as something to be embraced and innovation something that must be incentivised at all costs, the Amish believe change – technological or otherwise – does not always lead to desirable ends. Although technology is not strictly forbidden in Amish communities, the Amish are extremely judicious when it comes to choosing what technology to allow into their communities and the circumstances in which it can be used. Whereas modern observers of technology might see the undesirable effects of technology in the form of pollution or injury, the Amish regulate the use of technology to preserve their way of life. At the heart of that way of life is labour, or more specifically, communal labour. It is here where the rest of the world might learn something.

As most scholars of technology would agree, the Amish do not regard technology as neutral or value free. Instead, they acutely understand that technology and society coevolve and influence each others evolutionary trajectories. The Amish intuitively grasp Jasanoff’s suggestion that technology “both embeds and is embedded in social practices, identities, norms, conventions, discourses, instruments and institutions – in short, in all the building blocks of what we term the social.”[4] Nonetheless, the Amish are not what we would term technological determinists. For them, technology is not some autonomous force that ‘wants’ in the world, but as a powerful tool that can limit the ways in which they can shape their own social order. The Amish did not arrive at this sophisticated position by reading Jacques Ellul or Martin Heidegger (formal education is forbidden past the age of about 12 or 13) but through observation and reflection on the relationship between technology, society, behaviour and what they see as the constant need to strengthen their community, their religion, and indeed their capacity to be self-reliant through labour. To those ends, the Amish strictly regulate what technologies can be used, and where, when and why they are. Each Amish community is semi-autonomous and is regulated through what is known as an “Ordnung” or a code of conduct for their community. In addition to being a compendium of long held rituals and traditions, the Ordnung contains details of mutually agreed upon norms, and covers just about everything there is to Amish life, from the colour of clothing to detailed guides on which technologies are acceptable in the community, and which are unacceptable (and why). The Ordnung orients almost all aspects of Amish communal life, but for present purposes we need only focus upon its implications for work and labour.

At the heart of every decision the Amish make about technology there are two interconnected goals. First, when deciding whether to allow a certain piece of technology into their community they ask whether it enables behaviours that are compatible with their values. If a particular technology threatens to displace the importance of their religion, community or family it is likely to be prohibited. Second, the Amish ask how a particular technology will help them separate from the non-Amish (“English”) world. This is why it remains common in Amish communities to see identical horse drawn buggies as some communities believe that car ownership causes community members to focus too much on themselves at the expense of the community, particularly those responsible for buggy making. Nonetheless, there is no religious ordinance prohibiting cars in communities. Instead, the decision to purchase a car must be made by the community and directed towards purposes that help strengthen their social cohesion. Because most Amish communities are self-contained and families live in close proximity to each other, there is often little need for vehicles. But the Amish recognise that one consequence of modernity (and a growing population) is that their families are now spread out over a wider area than before and the logistics of family get-togethers may require travel further than is possible by horse and buggy.

There is also no objection to being driven in a car by a non-Amish person, or taking public transportation. Taxi businesses have even sprung up to cater to the transportation needs of the Amish communities. Each scenario is legislated for in a community’s Ordnung taking into account the unique values and norms of respective communities. Electricity is almost entirely shunned by Amish communities, but not out of any belief that it is evil or dangerous, but in order to remain energy self-sufficient (such as through the use of natural gas reserves) and to avoid being entangled with the energy companies in the “English” world. Again, it is communal work that is emphasised as the basis for decisions to reject a particular technology and determine strategies to meet the needs of communities in ways that are commensurate with the Amish way of life.

The Amish are also remarkably adept at adapting to social and legal pressures from the outside world. For instance, one of the primary means of revenue in communities is agriculture, particularly milk production. In the 1950s and 1960s when Pennsylvania law required farmers to install electric powered cooling systems in order for milk to maintain its Grade A rating, the Amish were forced to rethink their production and business models. While the Amish proposed various ingenious cooling strategies, it was eventually decided that coolers would be installed and powered by diesel generators salvaged from disused trucks. However, the new laws also mandated that milk be stirred “automatically” at regular intervals, something that perturbed the Amish because it diminished their self-reliance and the need for manual labour. They expressed their preference to manually stir milk – which would have required 24 hour supervision – but opted for a compromise involving 12v batteries hooked up to starter motor to handle the stirring. The greatest challenge for the Amish, however, was that the State wanted milk to be collected every day to minimise waste. Under no circumstances would the Amish accept their Sundays being interfered with. Because they were such prolific producers of milk, eventually the state of Pennsylvania relented and consented to two collections on Saturday. From the perspective of the State this was a small concession, but for the Amish it proved their resilience to technological change and allowed them to continue earning livings from their work in ways they deemed commensurate with their core values and beliefs. In effect, they had resisted what other farmers in Pennsylvania were compelled to do by installing costly electric coolers and mixers. One consequence of these non-Amish farmers complying with the new law was that farm workers were laid off in numbers thanks to the increase purchase and maintenance costs of the state-mandated machinery.

Milk production is not the only way the Amish have demonstrated their resilience in the face of technological change. As their population has grown, communities have been unable to support themselves through agriculture alone. Given that Amish family’s have an average of seven children, there are plenty of mouths to feed, and in face of rising property prices, not enough land that is affordable (and adjacent to existing communities) for them to purchase. While some young Amish have adapted to prevailing economic changes by finding work in nearby supermarkets or repair shops, the demands of working life in the “English” world are tough and often contrary to the interest of maintaining community and familial ties. Fearing the effects of their young working in the outside world, most communities have developed innovative entrepreneurial strategies that have allowed them to tap into new revenue streams that allow them to retain their communal work ethic as the possibility of relying on agricultural revenue alone has become impossible. In recent years’ Amish business ventures have grown to include furniture production, machine assembly, upholstering, engine repair and construction work. By striking out as entrepreneurs the Amish have developed strategies to play by the economic rules of the world they inhabit without losing the very essence of who they are, and who they want to remain. Even the tools used to create things such as cabinets and tables are subject to the same scrutiny afforded to all other technology. While an electric saw may be strictly forbidden, some Amish have developed ingenious ways of retrofitting traditional carpentry tools with motors powered by air pressure. If you were to glimpse inside an Amish furniture workshop you would see an elaborate network of pneumatic lines powers tools at various workstations. While it would be simpler, and perhaps more efficient, to use all electrical tools, the Amish make decisions – which to some might seem arbitrary – partially on the basis that their way of doing things is what separates them from the outside world, and in turn makes their products unique from the pre-fabricated furniture sold by the Ikeas of the world.

But Amish entrepreneurship does not stop at production. Because outsiders are seldom allowed in Amish communities, they require ways to sell their furniture on the open market. While 50 years ago a non-Amish family may have made a special trip to a furniture broker to custom order something for their home, the Amish have adapted to technological change by brokering agreements with non-Amish businesses to transport their wares and sell them online without having to be personally involved in the logistics of shipping and e-commerce. As was the case with milk production, the Amish accept technology on their own terms and do not allow it to disrupt their values and behaviours that might threaten to undermine what their belief system tells them is the basis for their being: community and labour. In many ways the Amish are paradigmatically modern in that they are deliberative and reflective upon technology as a defining aspect of their identity, and understand technology as a symptom of what Zygmunt Bauman powerfully conveys as the liquidity of modern life:

If the premodern life was a daily rehearsal of the infinite duration of everything except moral life, the liquid modern life is a daily rehearsal of universal transience. Nothing is truly necessary, nothing is irreplaceable. Everything is born with a branding of imminent death; everything leaves the production line with a ‘use-by-date’ label attached: constructions do not start unless permissions to demolish (if required) have been issued, and contracts are not signed unless their duration is fixed or their termination allowed depending on the hazards of the future. No step and choice is once and for all, none is irrevocable. No commitment lasts long enough to reach the point of no return. All things, born or made, human or not, are until-further-notice and dispensable. A spectre hovers over the denizens of the liquid modern world and all their labours and creations: the spectre of redundancy. [5]

As we enter a New Year what can the Amish teach us about the threat of robots replacing sizeable portions of the working population? I would argue, more than we might think, or at least more than we might be willing to admit. I am not suggesting that the complex and entangled challenges of thus-far unrealised socio-economic paradigms can be averted or resolved by governments and regulators simply ‘being more Amish’. We cannot simply ‘be more Amish’ because the Amish require us, and the decisions we make about technology, to inform their own. They define themselves over and against us and learn from the decisions we make, the consequences we experience in our society and conscientiously try and avoid replicating them. Essentially, we are their ‘beta testers’ of technology and they closely observe our world being transformed from their comparatively still perspective. I am also not suggesting that the western world is in dire need of a spiritual reawakening, that our economic crises can be solved by ‘turning to God’ or that there are not aspects of Amish society and beliefs that are fundamentally incommensurate with our own. However, what the Amish are able to do – albeit at a vastly smaller scale than the industrialised economies of western nations – and what distinguishes them from the rest of society, is their unwillingness to eschew responsibility for the adoption of particular technologies or techniques and their willingness to refuse the tradeoffs required by technology to stay true to their notion of the ideal life. Can we expect the companies that stand to profit from building the robotic workers that will replace human labourers to do the same? What about Google, Facebook, Uber, or the pioneers of the erstwhile sharing economy who have instrumentalised entire societies by instituting a race to the bottom over the value of human labour?

The Amish live in the same world as the rest of us, and should our furniture makers be replaced by furniture making robots perhaps they may face an influx of prospective employees. But while technological determinism has been more or less accepted as an alienable aspect of modern societies and the primary catalyst of change, the Amish have been able to preserve acceptable versions of the life they want to live in the face of powerful technological changes that they have not been immune to. By institutionalising what is to the outside world ‘technological criticism’ they continuously reframe their expectations as to how they can exist in the world without succumbing to it. They do so by asking questions of technology that we, governments, regulators, economists and innovators do not: How will this change us? Who benefits from this change? What are the foreseeable tradeoffs of embracing this change? By asking these question, foregoing change becomes a means of stabilising their communities which is seen as a greater victory than modest or massive gains in productivity or profit. These are the questions that will not be asked by the titans of industry, governments afraid to be seen as oppositional to innovation, or indeed by individuals who readily – but uncritically – embrace technological possibilities. But whereas the Amish keep our world at arms length and construct theirs with a clear sense of who they are, what they value, and knowing the importance of embedding those values with the decisions they make about technology, our world, and indeed our economic future, is increasingly constructed around us.

As we enter 2016 we need to reflect on the very same questions that the Amish have asked themselves for centuries. Whether it is value sensitive design strategies (which account for human values in principled and systemic design processes) or a shift towards the deliberative democratic models envisioned by Elster or Habermas, a strategy for wrestling greater control over the silicon empires that have and will be built is not just a task for 2016, but an imperative for the 21st century. If we are to be the authors of our future, we must correct the democratic deficit that exists over what technologies will construct our world, or it could be constructed to exclude us.

Listen to the podcast

We talk to Christopher Markou about his research. Christopher’s key quote:

“One of the biggest issues of the 21st century is the influence of computerisation and robotisation in work. What I am trying to do by looking to the Amish for my work is look to at how other communities have been able to mediate the influence of technology. We are already seeing AI based legal research systems that are replacing legal clerks, and it raises serious questions about the prospects of law students going forward.

“Ours is a world where communications is instantaneous and unconstrained, we are losing our identity, we need to understand what we value and get a consensus around that. Working is important, and the ability to have an identity through the work you do is very important, it is a central aspect of our life and one worth fighting for.”


[1] M Reiff, On Employment: A Micro-Theory of Economic Justice: Volume I, 66.

[2] Generally: DJ O’Neill, ‘Explaining the Amish’ (1997) 24 International Journal of Social Economics 10.

[3] M Simons, The Complete Writings of Menlo Simons (Herald Press 1956) 451.

[4] S Jasanoff, States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order (Routledge 2004) 3.

[5] Z Bauman, Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts (Polity Press 2004) 96-97.

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