RICHARD
Do you remember that Weird Al song “Amish Paradise”?

DOREEN
Weird Al?

RICHARD
Weird Al Yankovic.

DOREEN
That’s long before my time.

RICHARD
Ok it’s before her time but it was kind of a cool song. Anyhow sometimes we understandably get mistaken for being Amish. Has that happened to you?

DOREEN
Oh yeah, that’s actually kind of a trigger for me because when I was younger, maybe more immature, I would react pretty strongly to that. But we do share the same spiritual tradition - Anabaptism.

RICHARD
I'm glad you've come to peace with the Amish question. Definitely the most striking thing about the Amish (aside from their dress) and the reason they’re so fascinating to people is because they refuse to adopt most modern technology.

DOREEN
Some of that fascination I have to think is condescension. You know, “Look at those uneducated backward people. Isn’t it foolish not to make use of modern conveniences?”

RICHARD
But I think some of it is actually admiring or maybe even envy. A lot of folks are overwhelmed by the breakneck pace of modern life (caused in large part by “modern conveniences”) and also by the glut of often confusing information at our fingertips and I can imagine many of them looking at the way the Amish live and thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to live so simply, to just be off the grid like in olden times?” I know there’s plenty of times I feel sick of technology especially Twitter.

DOREEN
I think actually both reactions are too simplistic. People who thoughtlessly adopt new technologies because they’re sold on this idea that any new invention or improvement is going to make their lives better often don’t ask themselves the question, “What am I losing by doing this?” But then, on the other hand, rejecting technology because it doesn’t fit in with some nostalgic vision of the past also seems wrong. I’m thinking here of my mom’s sister who recently had a baby, Archer, who was born with a heart defect. A hundred years ago he would have died, but after an operation repairing the hole in his heart – and think about it, an infant’s heart is the size of a walnut – he’s thriving. And that surgery was only possible through massive advances in medical technology.

RICHARD
Yeah it’s hard to argue with that. But back to the Amish. Amish’ suspicion of new technology is based on legitimate concerns that anything that changes the way they live might attack the fabric of their faith community and lead them astray. The most obvious example being their use of horse and buggy because cars, to their way of thinking, by making travel easier, would cause them to live further apart from one another and cause their community to erode. And actually when the Bruderhof began in the 1920s, cars were a new technology and it was something the members at that time discussed. Use of cars was an issue of conscience for them, because traffic deaths – which I guess really weren’t a thing until that point – were killing thousands of people every year and they questioned whether the convenience of a car could be justified by this. Obviously we use cars today, but since it’s a technology we’re used to maybe we don’t think about the tradeoffs as much as we should - both safety and environmental.

DOREEN
There’s a great line in CS Lewis’ Surprised by Joy where he says the truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it “annihilates space” because space is among the most wonderful gifts we have. Something to think about.

Anyway, within Amish communities use of technology is regulated through a series of rules or Ordnungen that are updated as needed. I think the approach we at the Bruderhof have taken to technology has always been more dynamic, and the question is less about preserving a particular way of life and more about how a new technology helps or hinders human flourishing and human relationships. So there’s a history of trying things and then setting them aside or reducing the use of them when you see what the effects are.

RICHARD
Just by way of example, decades ago – before the internet, probably thirty years give or take – we installed a robotic welder in the workshop where we manufacture equipment for people with disabilities. It was pretty cutting edge or so we thought (course I was just a kid but we got a special demonstration). The idea behind getting this piece of equipment was to eliminate or reduce a job that requires a long training. But after using it for a year or two it didn’t work out as planned, and the guys running the business got rid of it and developed a rigorous in–house welding training program which ended up giving young folks an opportunity to learn a valuable skill.

DOREEN
So we don’t have hard and fast rules about living without technology. Instead we try to use technology in a considered way. Just by way of another example, the negative aspects of social media - its effects on mental health, sleep deprivation, reduced real–time social interaction - are so well documented and so obvious that most people on the Bruderhof aren’t active on social media. But since we do live in the twenty–first century and there are places where you need a social media account for school or for work or for connecting as an organization with other people and groups, we don’t have a rule per se against social media but we’ve all agreed to radically limit what we use it for.

RICHARD
I know YouTube isn’t really considered social media but I just saw this insane figure that all together people are watching one billion hours of video on YouTube a day. That’s over one hundred and fourteen thousand eight hundred years every single day.

DOREEN
Ok, so we shouldn’t contribute too much more to that and wrap this video up. I think the most important thing to remember is that technology – whether it’s a labor–saving device, or a smart phone – is never “just a tool” if by that you mean it’s a neutral thing.

RICHARD
Tools are never neutral because they change the way you interact with the world.

DOREEN
Right and the change is mostly not completely positive or completely negative. The question is the net effect.

And it also depends on what we consider to be “modern technology.” Remember, even a hammer was cutting edge at one point. So I don’t think we’ll ever be able to answer the big philosophical questions, like “Does technology make us more alone?” or “Can you live without technology?” But we can adopt a mindful approach to what makes our lives better.

Another way to think about it is to keep in mind what it is that makes life good, which is person–to–person relationships, and then adopt or reject technology to the degree that it improves or impairs those relationships.

RICHARD
And to the degree that it leaves you time to connect with the real world and, for example, raise a bunch of cows. Word to the wise: if you want to find true peace just spend some time watching cows go about their lives. Very Amish of me I know.

DOREEN
I'll take your word for it.