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”