Oct 5, 2017

In Amish Country, the Future Is Calling

New York Times
September 15, 2017

A young woman, wearing a traditional full-length Amish dress and white bonnet, stepped away from a farmer’s market, opened her palm and revealed a smartphone. She began to scroll through screens, seemingly oblivious to the activity around her.

Not far away, a man in his late 60s with a silvery beard, wide-brimmed straw hat and suspenders adjusted the settings on a computer-driven crosscut saw. He was soon cutting pieces for gazebos that are sold online and delivered around the country.

The Amish have not given up on horse-drawn buggies. Their rigid abstinence from many kinds of technology has left parts of their lifestyle frozen since the 19th century: no cars, TVs or connections to electric utilities, for example.

But computers and cellphones are making their way into some Amish communities, pushing them — sometimes willingly, often not — into the 21st century.

New technology has created fresh opportunities for prosperity among the Amish, just as it has for people in the rest of the world. A contractor can call a customer from a job site. A store owner’s software can make quick work of payroll and inventory tasks. A bakery can take credit cards.

But for people bound by a separation from much of the outside world, new tech devices have brought fears about the consequence of internet access. There are worries about pornography; about whether social networks will lead sons and daughters to date non-Amish friends; and about connecting to a world of seemingly limitless possibilities.

“Amish life is about recognizing the value of agreed-upon limits,” said Erik Wesner, an author who runs a blog, Amish America, “and the spirit of the internet cuts against the idea of limits.”

John, who works a computerized saw at Amish Country Gazebos near Lancaster, Pa., likened it to the prohibition on automobiles.

“Not using cars is a way of keeping us together,” he said. (Like most of the people interviewed for this article, he declined to give his surname, out of an Amish sense of humility; many refrained from having their faces photographed for the same reason.)

“There’s always a concern about what would lead our young folk out of the church and into the world,” John added.

The internet also threatens another Amish bonding agent: For a society in which formal education ends after eighth grade, youngsters learn a trade or craft alongside a relative or other member of the community.

“If you can just look it up on the internet, you’re not thinking,” said Levi, another woodworker. “The more people rely on technology, the more we want to sit behind a desk. But you can’t build a house sitting behind a desk.”

“My concern for our future, for our own children,” he said, “is that they lose their work ethic.”

Some young people do not agree.

Marylin, 18, said that when she and her friends gathered for church activities, “our youth leaders ask us to respect that we’re together and not use the phones, so we only check our messages and the time and stuff.”

But she insisted that some leniency was necessary.

“We can’t live like we did 50 years ago because so much has changed,” she said. “You can’t expect us to stay the same way. We love our way of life, but a bit of change is good.”

The Amish community is growing at a rate that may surprise outsiders — and that growth is helping to push the sect’s adoption of technology.

The Amish population in the United States is estimated at 313,000, up nearly 150 percent from 25 years ago, according to researchers at Elizabethtown College near Lancaster. Large families are the chief reason: Married women have seven children on average, and Amish people marry at a higher rate and at a younger age than Americans over all.

In the Lancaster area, as open land has become scarce and more costly, the rapid population growth has pushed some Amish families into more rural areas in places like upstate New York. Others have left farming and moved into business trades. Moses Smucker, for example, opened a food store and sandwich shop at Philadelphia’s popular Reading Terminal Market. Six days a week, he is driven from the Lancaster area to Philadelphia.

“Philadelphia is very fast-paced,” he said. “Then I go home, and I can drive my horse. I enjoy horses. Some people don’t, but I do. It slows everything down.”

His business, Smucker’s Quality Meats and Grill, caters to tourists and office workers near City Hall. It takes credit cards, and has four and a half stars on Yelp. (“Pot roast beef sandwich was PUUURFECT!!” one reviewer wrote.)

Referring to technology, Mr. Smucker said, “You have to do what you have to do to stay in business. People are starting to understand that.”

There are probably 2,000 successful Amish businesses in the Lancaster area, many of them multimillion-dollar enterprises, said Donald B. Kraybill, a retired professor at Elizabethtown’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.

This “very entrepreneurial, very capitalistic” tendency, he said, was all the more remarkable because it was channeled through a “culture of restraint.”

Many Amish people draw a bright line between what is allowed at work — smartphones, internet access — and what remains forbidden at home.

Still, the divisions can get fuzzy. Connecting a house to the public utility is unheard of, but many homes are electrified with power generators and solar panels. Propane-powered refrigerators are found in many kitchens. And “Amish taxi” services, driven by non-Amish people, provide a way to get around without violating the rule against owning a car.

John, the woodworker at Amish Country Gazebos, spends part of his time operating the computer-guided saw, which would look at home in any modern cabinetry shop. His mastery of the machine, at 68, can be a source of teasing at home.

“We call him the computer geek sometimes,” said his son, Junior, laughing as the family sat down to supper.

The crowd around the table on this evening made for an Amish tableau. John and his wife, Lizzie, were there, along with Junior, his wife, their four daughters, and a son who had been born at home just five days before.

Lizzie had prepared steak, potatoes, and corn, with watermelon from the garden for dessert. The family members bowed their heads to say grace. No buzzing phone would interrupt this meal.

John had his worries about where technology was taking the Amish community.

“We’re not supposed to have computers; we’re not supposed to have cellphones,” he said. “We’re allowed to have a phone, but not in the house. But to do business, you need a computer, or access to one, and that phone moves into the house. So how do you balance that?”

Lizzie said she was upset by how people had become so attached to their phones.

“People are treating those phones like they are gods,” she said. “They’re bowing down to it at the table, bowing down to it when they’re walking. Here we say we don’t bow down to idols, and that’s getting dangerously close, I think.”

Professor Kraybill said such insights were not unusual among Amish people.

They “are more savvy about the impact of technology on human interactions than most of us are,” he said.

Mr. Wesner said that Amish concerns about the effects of constant cellphone use may be borne out in the wider world. Things are said online that would never be said in public. The speed and accessibility of communicating online can lead people to be impatient and dissatisfied with a slower, more deliberate life. Regular use of cellphones can result in an over-reliance on machines and technology to solve problems.

And a phone can pull individuals away from a group.

“A cellphone and some earbuds are all it takes to place yourself in your own world, isolated from the rest of society,” Mr. Wesner said. “In some sense that is profoundly anti-Amish.”

For now, some people in the Amish community seem to be able to keep modern technology at arm’s length.

Sam, 29, who used to make deliveries for Amish Country Gazebos, now works on a computer in the company’s shop. Learning to use the machine was a challenge for him.

“I thought, I need to know how this computer thinks, or the computer needs to know how I think — we need to get along!” he said. Now, he added, he is amazed at how productive the computer can be. “I can easily see it helping as far as numbers go — oh my goodness — to get rid of all these papers.”

But technology has its place, he said, and that is at work. Speaking outside his home near Lancaster one sun-dappled day, he said, “I’ve never thought about bringing a computer onto this property.”

Not far away, his wife was cutting the lawn with a push mower, the blades making a soft whirring sound as they scissored the grass. And in a nearby vegetable patch, his two young sons were chasing butterflies.


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