Over years of in-depth fieldwork within Indiana’s substantial Amish community, Lindsay Ems discovered that just like for the non-Amish among us, the Amish actively wrestle with whether and how much to engage with technology on a daily basis. Ems’ research was the basis of her doctoral dissertation and now her debut book, Virtually Amish: Preserving Community at the Internet’s Margins (MIT, June 7). It might surprise readers who assume the Amish would opt out of technology altogether. Ems, an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Butler University, spoke to PW about how she found the Amish to be a case study in prioritizing community and shared values while availing themselves of some strategic aspects of the digital world.
What drew you explore technology use within a famously insular religious community?
I was most interested in [the Amish community’s] ability to form, sustain, and maintain strong communities in the face of communication technologies that work to individualize us and make us independent, and not dependent, on one another. I was curious how the Amish were using technologies in some ways to satisfy their basic needs, but really, to build and sustain generational bonds they had developed from hundreds of years ago.
Can you describe the tension between the functionality technology offers the Amish and their fears about technology’s cultural influence?
The Amish are capitalists. They're working and living in a capitalist economy. If it's cabinet-making, they're working to compete against other cabinet-makers, Amish or not. So the tension is, how do we continue to do business and compete and acquire the resources we need to put food on the table and roofs over our head, while also maintaining spiritual integrity?
How do Amish communities decide how to engage with technology?
Each church has a set of governing rules, called the Ordnung, which is not written down. It's modeled through behavior from parent to child and from church leaders to other members of the community. It's a democratically-developed document, so there's voting in each community, like: is the cell phone allowed or not allowed? How is it to be used? There are all kinds of informal mechanisms in place as well. For example, there are no closed-door offices. When I would sit down in an office and have a conversation, usually with the owner of the business, maybe there were 15 to 20 people working there. So the correct responses to the controversial questions I was asking about technology were heard by everyone. That is the kind of learning that happens, just by being around and listening; overhearing and modeling behavior.
You write, “Most of us believe that making deliberate choices about whether to adopt technology into our daily lives is nearly impossible, but the Amish prove that wrong.” Can you talk more about this?
To go offline in today's world is a really, really difficult thing to do. In some ways, you can look at the Amish as a privileged group of folks, because they have established such strong social connections and bonds and economic structures. They don't have to go into a world where they're anonymized and independent. The Amish have extremely rigid gender roles and it's not a diverse community, which makes it difficult to adopt wholesale some of their approaches. But I think there are some small aspects of the way they make decisions that are very informative for those of us who are feeling stressed, anxious, overworked, underpaid, and invisible in the work we do on a daily basis.
What do you hope readers learn from your book?
We all need a sanctuary away from surveillance control, interruption, high anxiety, and fast-paced ways of working that digital technologies encourage us to do. Creating this sanctuary is good for our wellbeing; it helps us make meaningful connections to others, exercise creativity, and feel spiritually grounded and in touch with nature. The Amish perform that as just part and parcel of their daily existence.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and coauthor of ‘The Yoga Effect: A Proven Program for Depression and Anxiety’ (Da Capo / Lifelong, 2019).