Preserving Community at the Internet's Margins
How the Amish have adopted certain digital tools in ways that allow them to work and live according to their own value system.
The Amish are famous for their disconnection from the modern world and all its devices. But, as Lindsay Ems shows in Virtually Amish, Old Order Amish today are selectively engaging with digital technology. The Amish need digital tools to participate in the economy—websites for ecommerce, for example, and cell phones for communication on the road—but they have developed strategies for making limited use of these tools while still living and working according to the values of their community. The way they do this, Ems suggests, holds lessons for all of us about resisting the negative forces of what has been called “high-tech capitalism.”
Ems shows how the Amish do not allow technology to drive their behavior; instead, they actively configure their sociotechnical world to align with their values and protect their community's autonomy. Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork conducted in two Old Order Amish settlements in Indiana, Ems explores explicit rules and implicit norms as innovations for resisting negative impacts of digital technology. She describes the ingenious contraptions the Amish devise—including “the black-box phone,” a landline phone attached to a device that connects to a cellular network when plugged into a car's cigarette lighter—and considers the value of human-centered approaches to communication. Non-Amish technology users would do well to take note of Amish methods of adopting digital technologies in ways that empower people and acknowledge their shared humanity.
The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding from Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.
Paperback$35.00 X ISBN: 9780262543637 208 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 29 figures
“The first sentences of this book draw you into a world of seeming contradictions—an older Amish entrepreneur who is a self-described 'technology buff.' What Ems deftly shows us by the conclusion of Virtually Amish is that it is our assumptions, not how people tend the boundaries and meaning of their shared lives, that we should reconsider. Written with crisp prose detailing how Amish families and religious leaders constitute the meaning of 'traditional ways of life,' Ems makes it clear that what matters most about technologies isn't their absence or presence. Ems smartly pushes beyond facile debates about the digital divide, focusing instead on how the Amish illustrate that even those who seem furthest from the center of technological innovation are always creatively remaking them through strategies of connection and disconnection in their everyday lives.”
Senior Principal Researcher, Microsoft Research; Faculty Associate, Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society
“The Amish—unlikely to be digital influencers—show us one way to draw on culture to regain control over our digital future. This compelling account of Amish resistance to digitization provides a surprising model for the rest of us.”
Scientia Associate Professor, University of New South Wales
“Rooted in extensive ethnographic evidence, Virtually Amish makes an important empirical and conceptual contribution to our understanding of the relationship between digital technologies and society. It is a touchstone text for understanding how the Amish view and use technologies.”
National University of Ireland Maynooth