The Amish, and Strategic Norms around Technology

I was read­ing Le­gal Sys­tems Very Differ­ent From Ours by David Fried­man. The chap­ter on the Amish made a cou­ple in­ter­est­ing claims, which changed my con­cep­tion of that cul­ture (al­though I’m not very con­fi­dent that the Amish would en­dorse these claims as fair de­scrip­tions).

Strate­gic Norms Around Technology

The Amish re­la­tion­ship to tech­nol­ogy is not “stick to tech­nol­ogy from the 1800s”, but rather “care­fully think about how tech­nol­ogy will af­fect your cul­ture, and only in­clude tech­nol­ogy that does what you want.”

So, elec­tric heaters are fine. Cen­tral heat­ing in a build­ing is not. This is be­cause if there’s a space-heater in the liv­ing room, this en­courages the fam­ily to con­gre­gate to­gether. Whereas if ev­ery­one has heat­ing in their room, they’re more likely to spend time apart from each other.

Some com­mu­ni­ties al­low trac­tors, but only if they don’t have rub­ber tires. This makes them good for till­ing fields but bad for driv­ing around.

Cars and tele­phones are par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant not to al­low, be­cause easy trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion cre­ates a slip­pery slope to full-con­nec­tion to the out­side world. And a lot of the Amish lifestyle de­pends on cut­ting them­selves off from the var­i­ous pres­sures and in­cen­tives pre­sent in the rest of the world.

Some Amish com­mu­ni­ties al­low peo­ple to bor­row tele­phones or cars from non-Amish neigh­bors. I might have con­sid­ered this hyp­o­crit­i­cal. But in the con­text of “strate­gic norms of tech­nol­ogy”, it need not be. The im­por­tant bit is to add fric­tion to trans­porta­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Com­pet­i­tive Dictatorship

Offi­cially, most Amish con­gre­ga­tions op­er­ate via some­thing-like-con­sen­sus (I’m not sure I un­der­stood this). But Fried­man’s claim is that in prac­tice, most peo­ple tend to go with what the lo­cal bishop says. This makes a bishop some­thing like a dic­ta­tor.

But, there are lots of Amish com­mu­ni­ties, and if you don’t like the di­rec­tion a bishop is push­ing peo­ple in, or how they are re­solv­ing dis­putes, you can leave. There is a spec­trum of com­mu­ni­ties rang­ing in how strict they are about about var­i­ous rules, and they make de­ci­sions mostly in­de­pen­dently.

So there is not only strate­gic norms around tech­nol­ogy, but a fairly in­ter­est­ing, semi-sys­tem­atic ex­plo­ra­tion of those norms.


Other Applications

I wouldn’t want to be Amish-in-par­tic­u­lar, but the setup here is very in­ter­est­ing to me.

I know some peo­ple who went to MAPLE, a monastery pro­gram. While there, there were limits on tech­nol­ogy that meant, af­ter 9pm, you ba­si­cally had two choices: read, or go to bed. The choices were strongly re­in­forced by the so­cial and phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. And this made it much eas­ier to make choices they en­dorsed.

Con­trast this with my cur­rent house, where a) you face ba­si­cally in­finite choices about to spend your time, and b) in prac­tice, the nightly choices of­ten end up be­ing some­thing like “stay up till 1am play­ing minecraft with house­mates” or “stay up till 2am play­ing minecraft with house­mates.”

I’m in­ter­ested in the ques­tion “okay, so… my goals are not the Amish goals. But, what are my goals ex­actly, and is there enough con­sen­sus around par­tic­u­lar goals to make valid choices around norms and tech­nol­ogy other than ‘any­thing goes?’”

There are is­sues you face that make this hard, though:

Com­pe­ti­tion with the Out­side World – The Amish sys­tem works be­cause it cuts it­self off from the out­side world, and its most im­por­tant tech­nolog­i­cal choices di­rectly cause that. Your busi­ness can’t get out­com­peted by some­one else who opens up their shop on Sun­days be­cause there is no­body who opens their shop on Sun­days.

You also might have goals that di­rectly in­volve the out­side world.

(The Amish also have good re­la­tion­ships with the gov­ern­ment such that they can get away with im­ple­ment­ing their own le­gal sys­tems and get ex­cep­tions for things like school-laws. If you want to do some­thing on their scale, you both would need to not at­tract the ire of the gov­ern­ment, and be good enough at rol­ling your own le­gal sys­tem to not screw things up and drive peo­ple away)

Lack of Mid-Scale-Co­or­di­na­tion – I’ve tried to im­ple­ment 10pm bed­times. It fails, hor­ribly, be­cause I fre­quently at­tend events that last till mid­night or later. Every­one could shift their en­tire sleep sched­ule for­ward, maybe. But also...

Peo­ple Are Differ­entSome of peo­ple’s needs are cul­tural. But some are biolog­i­cal, and some needs are maybe due to en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors that hap­pened over decades and can’t be changed on a dime.

Some peo­ple do bet­ter with rules and struc­ture. Some peo­ple flour­ish more with flex­i­bil­ity. Some peo­ple need rules and struc­ture but differ­ent rules and struc­ture than other peo­ple.

This all makes it fairly hard to co­or­di­nate on norms.


Con­tenders for Change

Given the above, I think it makes most sense to:

  • Look for op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­plore norms and tech­nol­ogy-use at the level of in­di­vi­d­u­als, house­holds, and small or­ga­ni­za­tions (these seem like nat­u­ral clusters with small num­bers of stake­hold­ers, where you can ei­ther get con­sen­sus or have a dic­ta­tor).

  • While do­ing so, choose norms that are lo­cally sta­ble, that don’t re­quire ad­di­tional co­op­er­a­tion out­side your­self, your house­hold or your org.

For ex­am­ple, I could imag­ine an en­tire house­hold try­ing out a rule, like “the house­hold in­ter­net turns off at 10pm”, or “all the lights turn red­dish at night so it’s eas­ier to get to sleep”