How the Amish are more tech savvy than the rest of us

If you go to Amish country in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania you will see something astonishing. Horses are out in the field pulling modern farm equipment behind them. There are tractor engines on trailers powering modern balers, seeders and other implements. Modern machinery is being dragged through the fields with horses.

It would not be so hard to understand if the Amish just wanted to farm the old fashioned way using only horses and old fashioned equipment. But if you are going to use a tractor, why take the wheels off?

There is no Biblical teaching that says you have to use horses. “Look around at this world of diesel powered possibilities”, God did not say to Adam in the Garden of Eden. “All of this I give to you, but there is this one exception...”

To haul a tractor engine through the fields with horses looks like a laughable bending of the rules, whatever those rules are. The Amish seem to do this sort of thing in almost every aspect of life: They don’t have phones in their homes, but they have no problem going over to the neighbour’s place to use the phone. They even keep freezers in their neighbour’s garages because they aren’t allowed to have them in their own homes. They ride horse and buggy with their families, but they catch rides in their non-Amish neighbours’ cars all the time.

It sounds like hypocrisy but actually Amish people are not against new technology. They are not scared of new inventions any more than the rest of us. And just like the rest of us, they adopt new technology when it looks like it’ll serve their goals, and proves to do so after adoption.

One of the core values of Amish people is community. This includes knowing and befriending the people they have economic relationships with, to have multi-dimensional relationships with the people in their lives. This should sound familiar: The idea of buying local has come into vogue for the rest of us recently for a host of interconnected reasons.

If you’re churning butter in the countryside of Pennsylvania, a car or a fast tractor enables you to easily head into town, or the next town on your own. You are less likely to make a group trip out of it if you don’t have to go through the effort of hitching up the buggy. You are more likely to do business with people who aren’t so local, people who you don’t know so well, that you don’t care so much about and don’t care so much about you.

There was a day when the Amish were allowed to use their tractors in the fields, but it was determined that a tractor off the farm yard would lead to a gray area and a slippery slope towards private motorized transport as tractors get faster.

Amish people also see status symbols as a threat to their community and they see that car ownership is highly driven by this intangible value. Of course, they are right about this.

It is not a fear of tractors or progress that prevents Amish folks from grippin’ grain down the country roads. It is because they fear the individualism, the pride and the faceless business that comes along with cars and faster transportation. They have, despite our crinkled foreheads, quite reasonably, concluded that putting engine power to wheels in the fields might weaken the ties of their community. They have decided to prioritize community over increasing economic efficiency. The Amish see themselves as doing just fine economically and, quite frankly despite depriving themselves of what many of us would consider basic needs, it is not them that are the ones left wanting. It is us.

The rest of us

We are a fair amount less organized in our collective decision making about what transportation technology we adopt and how. We all make our individual choices based on individual values. Sort of. Maybe if you think of it in a certain way.

The people who live in Canadian cities often say they live in a “driving city”, implying that that’s just what people here want to do. We’re driving people. We like our cars. Yes, but if you transplant a Winnipegger to Copenhagen, they will begin to ride a bicycle. Same person, different choice. What happened to those driving people?

So maybe people who are already dead chose our transportation for us.

Regardless of who you lay responsibility on for our choice in transportation technology, like the Amish, the choice has been made based on values. Amish value community.

What do we value? It’s not safety: We all know if that was the concern we wouldn’t have 4000 lbs death machines running around. It’s not economic efficiency: We ignore all the studies saying that public transportation and active transport are more efficient than cars. It’s not comfort: We all know that sitting so much makes our backs hurt and how much we dislike commuting. All the above factors are considered, but they are subordinate to another goal: speed.

Marchetti's Constant

Throughout history, since the Neolithic times, humans have travelled approximately one hour per day. This phenomena is referred to as Marchetti’s Constant. Even though our transportation has become faster in the kilometers-per-hour sense, we still commute on average one hour, 30 minutes there and 30 minutes back. With every speed-related enhancement to our transportation technology and systems, whether it was the move from walking to horses to cars, increasing speed limits as cars have become safer relative to speed, new overpasses or more lanes for traffic, we not saved ourselves time; we have only increased distance.

We live farther away from our friends, farther from work and farther from where we shop. Thanks in part to faster transport, we no longer know our neighbours.

We shop kilometers from home at Superstore where we get cheap food and thus are not known by name by the cashiers. We shuttle our children to our preferred school whether the school is in our neighbourhood or not.

Some call that progress.

Not the Amish.


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