by Linsey Ems: Community members’ relationships to smartphones or the internet reflect local values and nuances of group identity…


THROUGHOUT THE INDUSTRIAL age and now in the information age, the Amish have adhered to the long-standing tradition of making as a primary form of work.

The fact that the Amish have also begun making digital technologies, such as the black-box phone that worked as an intended replacement for cell phones, should come as no surprise. The black-box phone, however, is just one of many examples of an increasing number of communication technologies developed for Amish people by Amish people. These devices are crafted to most precisely complete professional goals, while limiting the negative impacts that come with digital communication today. The Amish recognize that this most certainly has political implications. Making in general, and making of digital technologies in particular, further enables the Amish to exercise their creativity, resist surveillance, and control and sustain their way of life in the digital age.

The manner in which the Amish put technologies to use reveals a great deal about the relationship that they want to have to the larger society. In addition to the black-box phone, I have observed an array of Amish workarounds that reflect local values and are determined by social context. The particular assemblage that comprises a workaround can also signal one’s Amishness or shared group identity.

For example, according to multiple Amish leaders, when a technology such as a smartphone or cell phone is used by a member of an Amish community, it is considered impolite to do so ostentatiously. According to my contact Noah, the visibility of one’s digital technology use should be minimized in an effort to show respect for shared Amish values, heritage, and tradition. In a discussion with him and another participant, a business owner who used a computer and the internet daily in work, both men agreed that people used these tools, but because of their desire to show deference to the community and its values, they did so “out of sight” and “they just didn’t talk about it” or they “knew who they could talk to about it and who they couldn’t.” Thus, in an effort to bring about the desired ends of efficient enough communication via a cell phone or smartphone while showing deference to Amish community leaders, these individuals created a workaround of sorts. They used their devices, but only out of the sight of others who they knew were likely to disapprove.

I interviewed Ben, a 30-year-old office manager at a company that sold $2 million dollars’ worth of product per year on a popular online auction website. He sat at his computer under electric fluorescent lights during our conversation. Ben used a flip phone, a computer, and the internet at work. In his church, cell phones were allowed. He said, “I wouldn’t take my cell phone to church or answer it at church or show it to the neighbor and say, ‘Look at what I’ve got,’ if their church doesn’t allow it. You have to use it respectfully.” Ben also believed strongly that if used responsibly, technology “was not a big deal.” He thought that technology was going to keep on moving forward, though, and it was useful in running a successful business. Sure, he said, he and his employer (a family member) wanted to keep their close-knit community together, but they also believed that “you have to make the most of what you have, and this is what we have.” He said, “You know, we can do this without the technology, but why would we? We’re using technology in a way that doesn’t conflict with our morals.”

At the beginning of my fieldwork in one settlement, I was accompanied to a few interviews by the director of a local historical society and museum, who helped get me acquainted with the community. The director was with me when I interviewed Dennis, a successful business owner whose construction company had a website. He told us how he owned (but did not drive) trucks for his business. He described his multiple travels to Europe on a luxurious cruise ship. He told us that he liked the “classy” things in life and impressed us with his extensive volunteer work on numerous elite community and bank boards of directors. His wife used a smartphone at home to keep in touch with family members who lived far away, and his three sons were co-owners of the business now too.

Getting to know Dennis and other Amish businessmen showed me that even the most advanced and savvy adopters of new digital technologies believed strongly that they should use technologies in ways that reflected Amish values and lifestyle choices. They did this as a show of respect for the church and its members. Likewise, Amish library patrons consume information and media in ways that generally align with Amish (and in many cases rural American conservative) values. Instead of owning media or paying for unlimited access to “worldly content,” Amish people go to the library, which makes access temporary and inconvenient when compared to the option of owning content.

It seemed to me as an outside observer that new ways of using digital technologies and accessing information do not seem to indicate that the demise of Amish bonds and culture are on the horizon. On the contrary, informal social constraints seem more powerful in regulating behavior and protecting cultural autonomy than the church’s communally ratified rules. Certainly these forces are compatible and work together to moderate the assimilation of the Amish to the outside world, as noted earlier. Additionally, there are many cherished points of connection, unrelated to technology, that help keep the community together. These include small-scale church services located in the home; time for lunch and fellowship after the service; and a shared history, heritage, language, and common values (or even just the appearance of common values). All these act as symbols that show allegiance and deference to the Amish church. They work to define and reinforce the evolving geographical and informational boundaries that separate the Amish from the non-Amish and act as markers of group identity, helping members of the community feel rooted and known.

It should be noted that the process by which the widespread adoption of Amish workarounds occurs is often contested and negotiated within Amish communities and differs across districts and settlements. There are still noteworthy observable large-scale similarities and patterns, however, that apply across localized areas of difference.

IN MY FIELDWORK it was common for participants to tell me about their work, give me a tour of their workshop, and show me how they made whatever it was that they produced. On one occasion, I showed up unexpectedly at a machine shop to interview its owner, 70-year-old Paul. My close contact Noah suggested that I visit him. I assigned no special importance to the recommendation because Noah often connected me with people in his settlement. Noah did not give me any specific information about why he thought that Paul would be a good person for me to talk to. Later, however, I learned that Paul was something of a celebrity in the community.

Paul was very humble and unassuming. On the winter day when I showed up at the workshop, which was located across the street from his house, I walked into a dark but warm retail store where small metal contraptions such as hardware, carabiners, lamp parts, plumbing parts, and spare machine parts were for sale. After explaining to the Amishman behind the counter who I was and why I was there, I asked if Paul was available for an interview. He told me he was. While I waited for Paul, I admired an old wood stove that warmed the room. Although it looked old, I learned that it had recently been converted to burn natural gas instead of wood. The items for sale in the shop were obviously highly specialized but mostly unidentifiable to my untrained eye. A few customers came in to chat with the clerk as I perused the merchandise.

When Paul was ready, we went back to his office. He was a slight man with a gray beard and bright, engaging eyes. I quickly realized that Paul was used to providing tours of his business. Over the course of an hour, he showed me his machine workshop and his design studio where he created custom, handcrafted machines from scratch. On his business card, it says that the business is composed of machinists and steel fabricators. They manufacture farm equipment including “hose assembly and fittings, power transmission products” and “all types of pneumatic components.” On the day that I visited, just before lunch, it appeared that there were 10 other employees working in a large shop with about 20 different pneumatic machines. (Paul and his colleagues used them to create other machines.) Paul and his coworkers built custom machines for highly specialized tasks. Some of the machines were electronic, and some were hydraulic or pneumatic—made for non-Amish as well as Amish customers. His workshop, however, was powered entirely by hydraulics and pneumatics; there was no electric power used to operate computers, lights, or mechanical devices of any kind.

His customers come to him if they need special custom machines, he said. Over the years, he has built many machines. “Often,” he told me, “people will bring in one piece, and I will build a machine that will make that piece work.” Although he designs and builds both computerized and noncomputerized machines, he prefers to contract out the computerization to a local non-Amish company. He told me that he understood electronics but chuckled as he said, “I’m too old to learn how to master it now.” He said that he makes automating machines one by one. He and his colleagues do the soldering, cast all the metal pieces, and assemble them. They also produce custom machine parts on request. For example, he showed me a heavy metal cylinder about 4 inches tall and 6 inches wide with thick walls. It had grooves dug into the outside of it. Paul said that he could sell this device for $500 to $600 cheaper than his competitors who used automated machines. It took a lot of time to program the automated machine to make a custom piece, according to Paul. He said, “I can do it cheaper because all the programming’s in my head.” Paul’s primary advantage over his competitors was his ability to make a custom piece at an advantageous price.

Seventy years old at the time of our meeting, Paul learned his craft by working alongside his father as a young boy. When his dad started out, they mainly made farm equipment and machinery, Paul said. On my tour, Paul showed me how they still make metal tires for Amish tractors using his handmade machines. In many conservative Amish communities, tractors can have only metal tires so they cannot be driven on the roads or used for motorized transportation. Metal tractor tires were one of Paul’s best-selling products. His company shipped them to Amish communities in Wisconsin, Missouri, and other places across North America.

For Paul, the philosophical and religious values of his clientele determined both what was produced and how it was designed and manufactured. Paul’s customers, who adhered to Amish rules limiting the type of tire that one could install on a tractor, created enough demand for Paul to make a living producing metal tires. If his customers valued efficiency and profits over religious tradition, they would certainly purchase rubber tires for their tractors from anonymous mass producers instead of the metal ones, which cost more and encourage slower farming processes.

Paul also uses hydraulic power instead of electricity to make the tires, based on his dedication to Amish values. In this case a dedication to Amish values is a competitive advantage when serving Amish customers. By signaling one’s Amishness through technology use, one’s values are on display to others. Paul’s Amish customers admire this and show their support through market-based transactions (among other feedback channels). Thus, in contrast to an economy in which purely rational logic drives buying decisions, in this case spiritual, political, and ideological motivations guide buying decisions and determine the economic success of a proprietor.

PAUL’S DECISION TO utilize older design and production methodologies to create custom machines and machine parts is constrained by his religion, his family, and his community. Yet these “constraints” have acted as a framework that inspired Paul’s creativity and talents over decades. Paul became motivated to engineer machines by working alongside his father when he was young. Learning to design things by hand, as his father did, fueled his passion for designing high-quality custom metal products. When I asked him how he learned to do his work, Paul said that someone brought a broken spring from a buggy into his dad’s old shop. The person needed it replaced. His dad drew a blueprint of the spring by hand. Paul copied the blueprint over and over again. He told me he was so amazed and excited by the drawing that he became obsessed with it and started drawing blueprints of all kinds of things.

Paul believes that an important art has been lost because engineers today learn how to design only on a computer. “[Today’s engineers] can push buttons and draw up designs, but they don’t know if they could ever build it,” according to Paul. He told me that designing and building machines by hand allows him to learn more about the engineering process than he could have known if he had simply learned to configure a blueprint using computer-aided design (CAD) software and sent it off to a manufacturer to build, as most machine builders do today.

As Paul shared blueprints and photographs of his completed devices, I got some understanding of the depth of the personal fulfillment that he felt from creating something that was well designed and useful to his customers while adhering to his religious beliefs. Although Paul is an extraordinarily humble man, I could see that he also felt happy when he solved customers’ problems, and he was content knowing that he conducted his business according to Amish values. For example, he was particularly fond of a motorized scooter that he had made for a wheelchair-bound friend. He showed me photos of the scooter, which allowed the user to roll a wheelchair up and down a ramp onto and off the scooter. Thus the scooter could be operated and steered while the user was comfortably seated in the wheelchair. Paul was particularly satisfied with this device because it was useful and helpful for people who experienced isolation and immobility due to health problems. By adhering to more traditional production methods that were in agreement with church rules, Paul came to embody a lifelong archive of practical design and mechanical knowledge. This made him a valuable resource in his community.