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.

Your phone could know how you're feeling

Engineers at the University of Rochester have developed an experimental program that gauges the emotional state of a speaker based on "the volume, pitch, and even the harmonics of their speech." This program achieves 81 percent accuracy in gauging the emotions of the person who's speaking to it, "a significant improvement on earlier studies that only achieved about 55 percent accuracy."

When I got to that part, I began to get worried that this technology could be used to monitor the emotions of your friends on the phone, which strikes me intuitively as invasive.  But when the program is used on a voice other than the one it's trained on, its accuracy drops from 81 percent to about 30.  They're trying to fix that, but it seems to me like it's a good thing -- it'd be great to have a cell phone app that can keep track of how I'm feeling, but which wasn't capable of letting my friends monitor my emotions in the same way.

I also wonder about how this technology might affect society if it becomes ubiquitous.  Would people use it to begin training themselves out of expressing emotion?  Use the phone to give them instant feedback on how to minimize the signs of sadness or anger, or how to fake either?  I'm sure some people would.

But maybe it would lead people to get more in touch with their emotions -- it's easier to keep track of a part of your life like that if you can gather objective statistics about it.  If your phone can tell you "You were more than usually sad this past week," you can get a clearer view about what kind of things make you sad.