Slate on Amish values in technology

Jamey Wetmore at Slate has written an article arguing that new technologies are making us behave more like the Amish, which struck me (as I'm sure was the point) as slightly absurd.  I didn't realize, though, that the Amish values surrounding technology aren't about outright avoidance of electronics or combustion engines -- it's that the Amish take a defensive stance against technology as an effort to protect the family and community.

For many of us, the technology rules the Amish have developed seem arbitrary and silly. But they are actually thought through very well. The Amish meet twice a year in groups of 40-50 families to decide if any rules need to be changed. If someone is thinking about using a new technology, this would definitely be a topic of conversation. What are the metrics for making decisions about technology? Community and family. The Amish believe that the best life is one that is lived in community with fellow believers. The majority of their decisions are driven by the goal of strengthening the ties they have to one another.

So those seemingly arbitrary rules I just mentioned do have a purpose. Why can’t an Amish person buy a car? They’ve seen how our communities have slowly unraveled to the point where many of us don’t even know the names of our neighbors. They think the automobile—which gives us the ability to travel great distances by ourselves quickly—bears a great deal of the blame for this. But they do see the benefit of occasionally using car travel, and if a neighbor wants to lend a hand, spending time with them helps to strengthen their ties.

Jamey makes a lot of solid points in this article.  I mean, I still wouldn't want the rest of civilization to start focusing on family as much as the Amish do.  I think that would be really bad for us, and I think America's reduced emphasis on family is a good thing.

But I like the idea of structuring our relationships with technology to build communities, rather than focusing just on profit and convenience.  This reminds me of one of my favorite TED talks "The shareable future of cities" by Alex Steffen, specifically the bit about halfway through about the drill.

General disappointment

I'm more than usually annoyed at civilization's failures today. According to, the average American spends 25.2 minutes a day commuting.  That's 2 hours a week.  probably enough time to keep up with an online class.  (Especially a class organized for commuters.)  If we had comprehensive public transportation, people could spend the time going to and from work on buses and trains, with their laptops or tablets, learning.

Or they could keep up with another reality TV show.  Or they could get in a nap.  Or they could listen to music and meditate.

Commutes would probably be longer in this paradigm, but that's fine.  That's more free time.  Time blocked out cleanly in everyone's day.

(I mean, ideally our cities would be built in a way that placed everyone close enough to their workplace that their commutes wouldn't take that long.)

I'm sure there are enough people willing to drive for a living to overcome the sudden absence of hundreds of thousands of amateur drivers.  It would reduce carbon emissions.  It would make the roads safer -- by reducing the number of cars, and by having only professional drivers on the road.

And, obviously, when I remember about this particular civilizational failure, I'm reminded of many of the other ones:  the continued existence of the penny, the horrible structure of student loans, the failures of education systems worldwide, the DMCA, American internet speeds, the war on drugs, etc.

We're suffering, in the United States, from a failure to optimize several societal institutions, because the optimization reduces the number of people who can profit from a reformed system.  Our internet isn't being reformed because our ISPs can charge us enough as it is.  Our entertainment industry is fighting against freedom of expression because it maximizes their ability to make billion-dollar, broad-appeal action movies.  Our education system is nearly a method for converting optimistic young adults into revenue streams for loan companies.  Our drug policies primarily benefit private prison owners farming nonviolent offenders for government money.

And our transportation systems are fatally crippled because all the obvious solutions would result in fewer people driving, fewer people buying gas, fewer people living in suburbs and fewer people owning cars.

There are two separate intersections on my commute to school where, no matter how wide a gap I wait for, I'm always terrified that someone is going to crash into me.  Part of it is that the roads are poorly designed, but a bigger part is that the roads are crowded with people who have no place operating a motor vehicle -- including me.  The fact that we expect everyone to do it means we've lowered our standards for who should be allowed to drive.  It's incredibly dangerous, and you really should have to be a lot better at it before they let you do it every day, whenever you want.

I'm pissed about this, because (a.) my life is daily put at needless risk because I happen to live in a country with a fetish for motor vehicles, (b.) I have to pay for this privilege because despite an infrastructure that makes them a necessity our society doesn't treat access to cars as a right, and (c.) it means I start and end every day with stress.  I spend about an hour every day being made anxious and irritated, time I could spend studying, or working, or napping, or listening to fracking music.  Really, anything other than being the person operating the vehicle would be awesome.