Throughout the industrial age and now in the information age, the Amish have adhered to the long-standing tradition of making as a primary form of work.
The fact that the Amish have also begun making digital technologies, such as the black-box phone that worked an intended replacement for cell phones, should come as no surprise. The black-box phone, however, is just one of many examples of an increasing number of communication technologies developed for Amish people by Amish people. These devices are crafted to most precisely complete professional goals, while limiting the negative impacts that come with digital communication today. The Amish recognize that this most certainly has political implications. Making in general, and making of digital technologies in particular, further enables the Amish to exercise their creativity, resist surveillance, and control and sustain their way of life in the digital age.
The manner in which the Amish put technologies to use reveals a great deal about the relationship that they want to have to the larger society. In addition to the black-box phone, I have observed an array of Amish workarounds that reﬂect local values and are determined by social context. The particular assemblage that comprises a workaround can also signal one’s Amishness or shared group identity.
For example, according to multiple Amish leaders, when a technology such as a smartphone or cell phone is used by a member of an Amish community, it is considered impolite to do so ostentatiously. According to my contact Noah, the visibility of one’s digital technology use should be minimized in an effort to show respect for shared Amish values, heritage, and tradition. In a discussion with him and another participant, a business owner who used a computer and the internet daily in work, both men agreed that people used these tools, but because of their desire to show deference to the community and its values, they did so “out of sight” and “they just didn’t talk about it” or they “knew who they could talk to about it and who they couldn’t.” Thus, in an effort to bring about the desired ends of efficient enough communication via a cell phone or smartphone while showing deference to Amish community leaders, these individuals created a workaround of sorts. They used their devices, but only out of the sight of others who they knew were likely to disapprove.
I interviewed Ben, a 30-year-old office manager at a company that sold $2 million dollars’ worth of product per year on a popular online auction website. He sat at his computer under electric ﬂuorescent lights during our conversation. Ben used a ﬂip phone, a computer, and the internet at work. In his church, cell phones were allowed. He said, “I wouldn’t take my cell phone to church or answer it at church or show it to the neighbor and say, ‘Look at what I’ve got,’ if their church doesn’t allow it. You have to use it respectfully.” Ben also believed strongly that if used responsibly, technology “was not a big deal.” He thought that technology was going to keep on moving forward, though, and it was useful in running a successful business. Sure, he said, he and his employer (a family member) wanted to keep their close-knit community together, but they also believed that “you have to make the most of what you have, and this is what we have.” He said, “You know, we can do this without the technology, but why would we? We’re using technology in a way that doesn’t conﬂict with our morals.”
At the beginning of my ﬁeldwork in one settlement, I was accompanied to a few interviews by the director of a local historical society and museum, who helped get me acquainted with the community. The director was with me when I interviewed Dennis, a successful business owner whose construction company had a website. He told us how he owned (but did not drive) trucks for his business. He described his multiple travels to Europe on a luxurious cruise ship. He told us that he liked the “classy” things in life and impressed us with his extensive volunteer work on numerous elite community and bank boards of directors. His wife used a smartphone at home to keep in touch with family members who lived far away, and his three sons were co-owners of the business now too.