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Thanks to various films and documentaries we think we know who the Amish are: a bunch of charmingly mad fundamentalists whose lives revolve around a luddite rejection of modern technology.

According to Arielle Zibrak’s illuminating essay for Avidly, the truth is more subtle:

“…contrary to appearances, not all of this buggy-and-bonnet business is based on hard and fast rules. The seeming ban on technology is surprisingly porous. Though they don’t use electricity, some have batteries in their houses for small appliances. Many will use battery-powered sewing machines or flashlights. Some of their buggies have blinking rear lights like a bike, for safety. Anyhow, nowhere is it written that the Amish can’t have buggy lights or an immersion blender. While the bible is holy to them, they don’t determine what technology is acceptable by consulting any text.”

Rather than rejecting technology, Amish communities are collectively choosing which technologies suit their way of life and which don’t:

“The primary Amish relationship is between the self and God, the secondary relationship is between the self and the family, and the tertiary between the self and the community. If a technology seems to threaten any of these relationships, it’s out. So a ban on video games or internet use is a no-brainer. The Amish are not having PTA meetings about social-media bullying or sending their kids to rehab camp for their World of Warcraft addictions.”

Other technologies, such as the telephone, are out for similar reasons. If your family’s time ‘together’ consists of its different members staring into different screens, then the Amish probably had a better Easter weekend than you did.

Another thing the Amish can do without is debt:

“…they don’t take out loans and most won’t use credit cards. When an Amish family needs a house, they build it. And everyone else helps them. The down side of this is, of course, that you frequently have to be on hand to help build a house. That’s no small shakes. But it seems like a fair price to pay for debt-free home ownership and the sense of community that comes from a consistent commitment to team effort.”

Though in many ways the Amish are deliberately narrowing down their options, in doing so they gain choices that ‘the English’ (which is what the Amish call non-Amish Americans) don’t have.

The most radical of these choices (for many Amish denominations) is what they call the rumspringa “wherein Amish teenagers experiment with the trappings of English life before deciding whether or not to become baptized and go back into Amish life.” It would seem that the overwhelming majority do opt to go back (which, in combination with the comparatively high Amish fertility rate, explains why the Amish population doubles every twenty years or so).

Arielle Zibrak laments the fact that there’s no “reverse rumspringa” to give outsiders “the option to try to be Amish and see if it works.”This is a hugely important point about mainstream western society, which unlike Amish communities, has no ‘outside’. Short of moving to the developing world or living in the woods, the options for leaving are strictly limited. Yes, you can join any number of religious and secular groups with different beliefs and alternative lifestyles, but none of these offer a distinct ‘technology space’ on the scale of the Amish in America – who can live, work and raise families free from the technologies they don’t wish to engage with.

In theory, we are free to do the same – for instance, not to have a car or a television. However, to make a stand in this way is to fight off constant pressure to conform. For instance, many employees are not only required to have a mobile phone and access to email, but also to stay contactable at the weekend or even on holiday.

In short, what we are encouraged to think of as ‘choice’ is often nothing of the kind.

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