The Surprising, Ingenious Amish Gadget Culture

No electricity? No problem.

Amish tradition disallows electricity, cars, and television. It shuns modern lifestyle, culture, and values. But they aren't total Luddites — in fact, the Amish community has developed a tech gadget culture all its own.

"In the Amish mind, technology itself is not considered sinful or immoral," writes Donald Kraybill in his new addendum to his book The Amish. "Like a knife which can cut bread or kill someone, tools can be used to help or to harm, to build up or tear down communities."

So, instead of flat-out rejecting all technology, modern Amish just hack it to fit their needs.

With major technological advancements, from the car to electricity to the telephone, different Amish churches have come up with their own methods of adaptation. Each church community votes on their guidelines and rules, dictated by Amish tradition.

Cars are generally banned, for example, but some churches have made exceptions to allow drivers for business or emergency needs. There are no phones at home, but some have built communal "phone shanties" — essentially wooden outdoor phone booths. Some are even allowed non-smart cell phones as long as they aren't brought inside the house.

"Amish are all about the loopholes," says Chris Weber, who works with Amish youth. "The best way to create an exception is to have it be dependent on business." Rules about what is kept in the home and what is actually owned by an Amish individual are strict. There is a wide variety of leniency, but amongst the more liberal, there is lots of wiggle room.

Amish prohibit electricity, largely because connecting to the grid literally connects Amish homes to the outside world, through electric wires. So, instead of plugging in, they rely on "Amish electricity": combinations of diesel generators, batteries and car batteries, solar panels, hydraulic pumps, and compressed air pressure to run appliances, pump water, and power electric fences.

Another trick: To pull electric motors out of power drills and other small machines, and replace them with pneumatic motors, which are driven by gas-powered air compressors. Generators are used to charge car batteries that run signals on buggies (required by law).

One of the most recent — and most controversial — hacks is the Amish computer.

Allen Hoover, an Old Order "horse and buggy" Mennonnite, invented what he calls the "Classic Word Processor" that's "made specifically for the plain people by the plain people." Since then several others have created similar computers.

Hoover, who lives in rural Pennsylvania, makes his living retrofitting woodworking tools to run on alternative power, mainly for Amish clients. As word processors were being replaced with computers that had internet capabilities, he saw a need for a stripped-down machine for Amish, according to the Farm Show newsletter.

He consulted local Amish church groups to find out the rules and what they wanted; the most popular request was for spreadsheets for inventory, tracking and creating receipts. Then he teamed up with computer programmers, using open-source software, to built the ultimate Amish computer.

"This is 10 times as fast and has 100 times the memory of old word processors," Hoover told Farm Show newsletter in 2007. (Hoover was unavailable for comment.)

"Not just a locked computer; no modem, no phone port or internet connection, no outside programs, no sound, no photographs, no games or gimmicks" reads the black-and-white advertisement. "Nothing fancy. Just a work horse for your business."

Introducing the Amish computer

There's no easy way to add third-party apps; he had to include drivers for over 600 printers to compensate for that. The screen is extremely small, in part so it doesn't evoke a television.

Out of the box, the machine can create Word documents (with auto spell check, auto word fill, and 40 fonts) and spreadsheets compatible with Excel, and draw pictures and blueprints. Hoover even created a series of training seminars.

The lack of connectivity was the draw of the Classic. But that was six years ago. Today, it is nearly impossible to run a business without being online. Some have gotten around the rule by using computers owned by non-Amish in the workplace. Others hire non-Amish to run websites, answer email, interact with customers, and place orders. "In more progressive communities, getting online access is a really debated thing," says Kraybill. "They worry [that] if it is accepted, it will lead to greater access to other parts of life."

As with the car, phone, and electricity, each Amish community now has to decide whether to accept the web. History suggests a compromise.

Perhaps there is something to be learned in the Amish approach to technology. Instead of blindly embracing everything new, they take a minute to figure out whether it interferes with how they want to live their lives. Instead of letting it dictate how they do things, they make it work for them.

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