March 24, 2011

The Amish and telephones

Why look at Amish communities when studying the social uses of the telephone?

While hunting and gathering material for my thesis, I came across a few articles that questioned the relationship between Amish communities and modern technologies.  At first glance one would say: ‘But the Amish don’t use modern technology (cars, phone, electricity), what’s there to study?  Rather than stop at this facile conclusion, however, it’s revealing to look at the questions the Amish people ask themselves before adopting a new technology and also to understand how they do use technologies, once they decide on their utility to the community.

Observing Amish communities feels like you're watching someone in a living museum.  Only these aren't museum employees but real people with all the usual attendant problems of survival.  You couldn't describe them as living in a time warp, since there are some tenuous links to the outside world. 

Unlike the ‘English’ (as the Amish call the non-Amish), these people are selective in which technologies they want to adopt.  Each device or system is carefully weighed and the consequences of using that technology are taken into account.  For example, by acquiring a mobile phone, an Amish farmer will understand that he can keep in touch with suppliers, customers, etc. without needing to visit them in person, but more significantly, he will also be aware that a telephone in his home will disrupt precious family time.  (Have you ever tried to ignore a ringing telephone at home during a meal, or worse, during an argument?)  It is these kinds of pros and cons that are considered.   

Amish bishops pose the following question when deciding whether or not to adopt a technology: Will this device build a strong community and bring families together, or will it drive them apart?  In the case of the telephone, they definitely view it as an intrusion to domestic cohesion and community spirit, a notion contrary to what the telephone promoters would have us believe.

A case of déjà vu - the Amish are prepared to welcome the telephone for business use in their offices and workshops.  But they will not easily tolerate a telephone in their homes.  A familiar tale from the beginning of the 1900s when the telephone was first promoted as a business tool. There is a clear distinction between home and work and nothing should cause the two domains to overlap.  If you bring a business tool (the telephone) into the home then this will spoil domestic peace and adversely affect family relationships.

There are many more aspects and observations on this topic, too much for one post.  
Further notes will be posted in the coming days ...

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.