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Monday, April 23, 2012

Admiring the Amish

Posted By on Mon, Apr 23, 2012 at 6:00 AM

If you travel to the northeast corner of Indiana, LaGrange County, to be exact, it won't be long before you find yourself in Amish country. In this part of the state, buggies are as common as automobiles. The public library in Topeka actually has two distinct parking lots, one for cars and the other for horse-drawn vehicles. On the Saturday afternoon I happened to be there, horses' hooves clip-clopping on the streets and the occasional whinny provided the ambient sound.

I must confess that the Amish are a mystery to me. I don't know what to make, for example, of their passion for peanut butter. Peanut butter, often cut with marshmallow paste or some other sweetener, is a cornerstone of Amish cuisine. They serve it at all manner of gatherings and get-togethers. Mention peanut butter and an Amish person's eyes light up. It's almost unnerving.

I have nothing against peanut butter. I've eaten it all my life. There is a jar of the stuff in my pantry now. It's the foot soldier of foods, as far as I'm concerned. Handy, but hardly a highlight.

That said, there is one aspect of Amish life for which I have an unqualified and increasing admiration. As far as I can tell, the Amish may be the only social group in America that isn't gobsmacked by technology.

Everyone, of course, is familiar with the stereotypical image of the Amish farmer plowing his field with a team of horses, or the families in those aforementioned buggies. But those are just the most outward signs of what seems to be a deeper skepticism about something the rest of us take for granted.

It's that skepticism that interests me.

We Americans, along with just about everyone else, have a long-running infatuation with gadgets. This took off with the Industrial Revolution. Machines changed the ways we lived and worked. They spurred the growth of cities, illuminated the night and made overheated places cool. Machines extended human senses and reach. They effectively shrunk the planet, while investing individuals with a practically limitless sense of self.

So far, so good, right? That's certainly been the dominant culture's attitude toward the rise and development of new technologies. In part, that's because our inventions continue to drive the growth of our economy. We make stuff (or, at least, somebody does — in China, say, or Bangladesh) and then we buy it. Early Adopters, those who are first in line for the newest phone or pad or operating system, are looked to as predictors of what will eventually be in store for the rest of us.

It's been this way for generations. We call it progress. Never mind that progress often means that things we used to think were important get atomized in the process. Many cities and towns, for instance, used to have bustling shopping districts where people gathered. But shopping malls and, more recently, online retailing, have sucked the air out of many downtowns and town squares, turning them into occasional destinations where, after business hours, the only things left to do are limited to dining in restaurants or attending a one-off sports or cultural event. Simply hanging out in these places is difficult, turning many of them into virtual ghost towns on weekends. But then, we have a term for this, too: "creative destruction."

When it comes to new technologies, our inclination has been to embrace them — and ask questions later. Will ear buds make you deaf? Do cell phones cause brain cancer? Will sitting in front of a screen all day wreck your eyes? Since we haven't lived with any of these things through an entire human life cycle, nobody really knows. But such questions have been made irrelevant by our full-body embrace of these tools. Our homes and workplaces are now unthinkable without them.

All of this is not to say we should chuck our smart phones and laptops. We have enough trouble with e-waste as it is. Times, tools and the behaviors they encourage are bound to change. I'd even go so far as to say our proclivity to lose our hearts to the latest algorithm may be one of our most endearing characteristics.

But, on a planet with limited resources and a growing population, it is also worth considering the extent to which this proclivity makes us prone to unintended consequences.

Our problem is that, when it comes to technologies, we don't know how to say no. There is nothing in our culture — no tradition or value system — to serve as a circuit breaker, saying, in effect, "don't go there," "you'll be sorry," or even, "maybe you should sleep on that."

This is why I admire the Amish. It's not that they are against technology. They actually use plenty of tools, and not just the 19th century kind. Visit an Amish home and you're liable to be amazed by the conveniences they've managed to make room for. This doesn't make them hypocrites about technology. It makes them skeptical. I wish I could spread a little of that on a peanut butter sandwich.

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