Saturday, 11 April 2009

From "Amish Hackers"

By Kevin Kelly.

The boss, Amos (not his real name: the Amish prefer not to call attention to themselves), takes me around to the back where a huge dump-truck-sized diesel generator sits. It's massive. In addition to a gas engine there is a very large tank, which I learn, stores compressed air. The diesel engine burns fuel to drive the compressor that fills the reservoir with pressure. From the tank a series of high-pressure pipes snake off toward every corner of the factory. A hard rubber flexible hose connects each tool to a pipe. The entire shop runs on compressed air. Every piece of machine is running on pneumatic power. Amos even shows me a pneumatic switch, which you can flick like a light switch, to turn on some paint-drying fans.

The Amish call this pneumatic system "Amish electricity." At first pneumatics were devised for Amish workshops, but it was seen as so useful that air-power migrated to Amish households. In fact there is an entire cottage industry in retrofitting tools and appliances to Amish electricity. The retrofitters buy a heavy-duty blender, say, and yank out the electrical motor. They then substitute an air-powered motor of appropriate size, add pneumatic connectors, and bingo, your Amish mom now has a blender in her electrical-less kitchen. You can get a pneumatic sewing machine, and a pneumatic washer/dryer (with propane heat). In a display of pure steam-punk nerdiness, Amish hackers try to outdo each other in building pneumatic versions of electrified contraptions. Their mechanical skill is quite impressive, particularly since none went beyond the 8th grade. They love to show off this air-punk geekiness. And every tinkerer claimed that pneumatics were superior to electrical devices because air was more powerful and durable, outlasting motors which burned out after a few years hard labor. I don't know if this is true, or just justification, but it was a constant refrain.

I visited one retrofit workshop run by a strict Mennonite. Marlin was a short beardless man (no beards for the Mennonites). He uses a horse and buggy, has no phone, but electricity runs in the shop behind his home. They use electricity to make pneumatic parts. Like most of his community, his kids work along side him. A few of his boys use a propane powered fork lift with metal wheels (no rubber so you can't drive it on the road) to cart around stacks of heavy metal as they manufacture very precise milled metal parts for pneumatic motors and for kerosene cooking stoves, an Amish favorite. The tolerances needed are a thousand of an inch. So a few years ago they installed a massive, $400,000 computer-controlled milling (CNC) machine in his backyard, behind the horse stable. This massive half-million dollar tool is about the dimensions of a delivery truck. It is operated by his 14-year old daughter, in a bonnet. With this computer controlled machine she makes parts for grid-free horse and buggy living.

One can't say "electricity-free" because I kept finding electricity in Amish homes. Once you have a huge diesel generator running behind your barn to power the refrigeration units that store the milk (the main cash crop for the Amish), it's a small thing to stick on a small electrical generator. For re-charging batteries, say. You can find battery-powered calculators, flashlights, electric fences, and generator-powered electric welders on Amish farms. The Amish also use batteries to run a radio or phone (outside in the barn or shop), or to power the required headlights and turn signals on their horse buggies. One clever Amish fellow spent a half hour telling me the ingenious way he hacked up a mechanism to make a buggy turn signal automatically turn off when the turn was finished, just as it does in your car.

Nowadays solar panels are becoming popular among the Amish. With these they can get electricity without being tied to the grid, which was their main worry. Solar is used primarily for utilitarian chores like pumping water, but it will slowly leak into the household. As do most innovations.

The Amish use disposable diapers (why not?), chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and are big boosters of genetically modified corn. In Europe this stuff is called Frankenfood. I asked a few of the Amish elders about that last one. Why plant GMOs? Well, they reply, corn is susceptible to the corn borer which nibbles away at the bottom of the stem, and occasionally topples over the stalk. Modern 500 horsepower harvesters don't notice this fall; they just suck up all the material, and spit out the corn into a bin. The Amish harvest their corn semi-manually. It's cut by a chopper device and then pitched into a thresher. But if there are a lot of stalks that are broken, they have to be pitched by hand. That is a lot of very hard sweaty work. So they plant Bt corn. This genetic mutant carries the genes of the corn borer's enemy, Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin deadly to the corn borer. Fewer stalks are broken, the harvest can be semi-mechanized, and yields are up as well. One elder Amishman whose sons run his farm told me that he'd only help his sons harvest if they planted Bt corn. He said he told them he was too old to be pitching heavy broken corn stalks. The alternative was to purchase expensive, modern harvesting equipment. Which none of them want. So the technology of genetically modified crops allowed the Amish to continue using old, well-proven, debt-free equipment, which accomplished their main goal of keeping the family farm together. They did not use these words, but they considered genetically modified crops as appropriate technology for family farms.

Artificial insemination, solar power, and the web are technologies that Amish are still debating. They use the web at libraries (using but not owning). From cubicles in public libraries Amish sometimes set up a website for their business. So while Amish websites seem like a joke, there's quite a few of them. What about post-modern innovations like credit cards? A few Amish got them, presumably for their businesses at first. But over time the bishops noticed problems of overspending, and the resultant crippling interest rates. Farmers got into debt, which impacted not only them but the community since their families had to help them recover (that's what community and families are for). So, after a trial period, the elders ruled against credit cards.

One Amish-man told me that the problem with phones, pagers, and PDAs (yes he knew about them) was that "you got messages rather than conversations." That's about as an accurate summation of our times as any. Henry, his long white beard contrasting with his young bright eyes told me, "If I had a TV, I'd watch it." What could be simpler?


The Amish are steadily, slowing adopting technology. They are slow geeks. As one Amish man told Howard Rheingold, "We don't want to stop progress, we just want to slow it down," But their manner of slow adoption is instructive.

1) They are selective. They know how to say "no" and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ban more than they adopt.
2) They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.
3) They have criteria by which to select choices: technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
4) The choices are not individual, but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.

This method works for the Amish, but can it work for the rest of us? I don't know. It has not really been tried yet. And if the Amish hackers and early adopters teach us anything, it's that you have to try things first. Try first and relinquish later if need be. We are good at trying first; not good at relinquishing – except as individuals. To fulfill the Amish model we'd have to get better at relinquishing as a group. Social relinquishing. Not merely a large number (as in a movement) but a giving up that relies on mutual support. I have not seen any evidence of that happening, but it would be a telling sign if it did appear.

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