Andy Crouch likes to say that if you want to have a healthy relationship with technology, you don’t have to become Amish, but you might have to come closer than you think.
Before I get to why I think we need to be more Amish when it comes to technology, it helps to dispel a common myth: The Amish are not anti-technology.
The Amish Aren’t Luddites
Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, summarizes Kevin Kelly’s experience with the Amish:
“The simple notion of the Amish as Luddites vanishes as soon as you approach a standard Amish farm. ‘Cruising down the road you may see an Amish kid in a straw hat and suspenders zipping by on Rollerblades.’
Some Amish communities use tractors, but only with metal wheels so they cannot drive on roads like cars. Some allow a gas-powered wheat thresher but require horses to pull the ‘smoking contraption.’ Personal phones (cellular or household) are almost always prohibited, but many communities maintain a community phone booth.
Almost no Amish communities allow automobile ownership, but it’s common for Amish to travel in cars driven by others.
Kelly reports that both solar panels and diesel electric generators are common, but it’s usually forbidden to connect to the larger municipal power grid.
In one memorable passage, Kelly talks about visiting a family that uses a $400,000 computer-controlled precision milling machine to produce pneumatic parts needed by the community. The machine is run by the family’s bonnet-wearing, 10-year old daughter. It’s housed behind their horse stable.”
It turns out the Amish only reject some — not all — technology. Newport calls them the “original digital minimalists.” Why? “They start with the things they value most, then work backwards to ask whether a given technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.”
Values-Based Digital Discretion
This is one of the big takeaways from Newport’s Digital Minimalism: that values are crucial for living a healthy digital life. In the various podcast interviews with Newport I’ve listened to (I’ve yet to read the book), he explains that we should let our values determine and guide our digital lives.
He’s not the only one to draw this conclusion. Jameson Wetmore is a social researcher at the Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society who has studied the Amish doggedly. As one Quartz article put it, Wetmore “suggests that contemporary society needs to take a new approach to technology — one that weighs the value of our new tools before welcoming them into our lives.”
In Technology and the Contemporary Life, Albert Borgmann, one of the go-to scholars for everyone reading and writing about technology, suggests that instead of living our lives according to the values of new technology, we should determine our values first and attempt to use our tools in service of those values.
Christian thinkers have reached the same conclusion and started to lay out what this values-based digital discretion might look like. Two books that come to mind are John Dyer’s From the Garden to the City and Networked Theology, an interesting book I’ve not seen many people cite.
From the Garden to the City
From the Garden to the City, as I’ve written before, is helpful for both understanding technology’s history and applications, as well as its interplay with theology. Unless a better book comes along, I would say that if a Christian could only read one book on theology and technology, this is it. John Dyer is employed by Dallas Theological Seminary but has degrees and a background in both computer science and theology. He has built useful tools for the Internet and thought deeply about how technology affects humans and society.
In his book, Dyer helps you understand technology along the spectrum of reflection (think “creation”), rebellion (think “the fall”), redemption, and restoration. This allows him to cover a range of biblical texts as he traces the theme of technology throughout Scripture and history. He summarizes thought leaders in the area of technology — Albert Borgmann, Jacques Ellul (whom Newport recommends reading) — while providing helpful analysis of their work. He then brings the truths of Scripture to bear on that analysis, helping you see past the limited views of the technological optimist or pessimist, as well as the shortsighted view of the instrumentalist, and gives a more nuanced approach of making decisions based on understanding your values and technology’s values.
After the closing section of the book, he suggests five steps for making these kinds of decisions:
- Valuation – Continually returning to the Scriptures to find our Christian identities and values
- Experimentation – Discerning the effects of technology through actual use
- Limitation – See what happens when boundaries are places on the technology you now understand
- Togetherness – Use the technology together with other believers as you discern the positive and negative contributions in community
- Cultivation – Participating in the creation and shaping of technology and its values.
Like Newport et al, Dyer is telling us to begin with values so our devices don’t become the tail that wags the dog.
Networked Theology, written by Heidi Campbell and Stephen Garner, comes from a mostly substantive (or technologically optimistic) point of view but tries to chart new territory in the theological discussion. More than any other books I’ve surveyed, this one cultivates a new paradigm from which to have a theological discussion.
Its title refers to a new approach to theology which understands persons and religions as forming their identities and values from networks. This understanding differs from historical ones that saw churches and people forming their identities based on familial, institutional, or other tightly controlled forces. Their work charts the way for a discussion of technology that’s not overly optimistic or pessimistic, yet also doesn’t fall into the trap of evaluating technology based solely on its uses (instrumentalism).
The authors do this by tracing the biblical theme of neighbor, and ask, in the digital age, “Who is my neighbor, where is my neighbor, and how should I treat my neighbor?” Through their answers, the authors lay a theological foundation for accepting both online and offline Christian community, but in ways that differ depending on the values of the individuals and the technological forms they seek to employ. This discussion leads to a four-stage framework for evaluating technology and deciding how to use it in one’s life:
- History – The history and tradition of the community that shapes who they are and what they stand for;
- Core Beliefs – Core beliefs of the group that relate to their general beliefs and choices related to media;
- Media Negotiation – The negotiation and decision-making processes they undergo, as it relates to a new technology grounded in the first two areas; and finally
- Community Discourse about Technology – The communal framing and discourses created by a group to justify their technology use in light of their values and identity.
This model is very similar to the Amish one, where they carefully think through how each technological innovation will change their community if adopted. This is a strong decision-making framework, but it makes an assumption that may not be true of many. Campbell and Garner say their model “emphasizes the fact that, when deciding how they will engage technology, religious groups often prioritize communal and spiritual values above technological affordances or advantages.”
While that would certainly be nice, I am not sure that is the case for many Christians, at least in America, though it does seem to be true of the Amish. Perhaps that’s why the Amish way of life has remained largely unchanged while American Christianity has eroded so precipitously.
My contribution to this discussion is what I call the LEDER framework, meaning that Christians consider the use of any technology, they should be LEDERs. They should:
- Learn broadly
- Evaluate biblically
- Discuss communally
- Engage skeptically
- Revisit regularly
You can read more about the LEDER framework here.
Will We Become More Amish?
You need to become more Amish than you might think if you want to have a healthy relationship with your devices. That doesn’t mean you have to give up technology, just like the Amish haven’t abandoned it entirely. It means you’ll have to consider technology’s impact on your values, including your family and community.
What’s unclear is whether we will look up from our phones long enough to realize our values, then ask ourselves whether our technological tools are congruous with them.
Will we consider technology’s impact on our communities, or will we adopt them sight unseen? Will we become a little more Amish in our technological thinking, or will allow technological change to set the course?
 Dyer, From the Garden to the City, 176 – 179.
 Campbell and Garner, Networked Theology, 103 – 104.
 Ibid., 97.