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Editorial: Amish Networking

As we awaken on this New Year’s morning, pour the coffee and check Facebook to see how much fun everyone else had last night, we offer a resolution for 2013: Be more like the Amish.

This is not to say that everyone should convert to plain clothing, navigate Route 12A in horse-drawn buggies and send that brand new cell phone straight from the stocking to recycling. Instead, focus on a subtler quality of the Amish approach to using telephones, automobiles and other technology: Before powering up, the Amish ask themselves, “Will this strengthen the ties of family and community, or weaken them?”

A visitor to a big-box electronics store during the rush before Christmas was struck by the long line of shoppers waiting for the chance to buy the latest smart phones. And it’s impossible these days to watch a football game or holiday movie without being made to feel that we’re somehow lagging behind if we don’t own a shiny car or a gizmo that brings us our friends’ latest updates and houses a genie that promises to answer every question.

In recent years, many of us have either succumbed to the hype or resigned ourselves to a “connectivity” that seems not only expensive but also mandatory. (When was the last time you were able to call home from a pay phone? How many schoolchildren get homework that does not include some element of online research?) But there are signs that some people are at least tapping the brakes.

Commuters tired of high gas prices and lonely rides find carpooling a way to save money and build community. Families declare the kitchen table a device-free zone. Airports turn down the volume on once-omnipresent televisions. A student home from college leaves her smart phone in the suitcase when the family goes out for spaghetti, saying she’s realized it keeps her from being in the moment.

On this brand of enlightenment, the Amish are way ahead. Contrary to stereotype, Amish people do use cars, electricity and telephones. They simply do it in a way that is much more sparing, and thoughtful. In an article published in last Wednesday’s Valley News, Jamey Wetmore of Slate described how Amish communities regularly gather to consider whether to allow a particular piece of technology to enter their lives — and to set rules to keep it from running amok.

While Amish communities frown on car ownership, for instance, many have decided it’s fine to catch a ride with non-Amish neighbors or hire a taxi when needed. Why? Because while owning cars tends to isolate people as they make their lonely drives to work or the shopping center, sharing them gives people a way to get acquainted while traveling from one place to another.

Similarly, telephones have traditionally been forbidden inside Amish homes, seen as a noisy intrusion into the quiet rhythms of family life. But in cases where a family needed a way to communicate with the wider world — a dairy farmer arranging for a truck to make a delivery, for instance — a phone hung on the wall outside was deemed a reasonable compromise.

Unsurprisingly, cell phones may present the Amish with their greatest challenge. Small and quiet enough to be tucked inside a pocket or a kitchen drawer, the devices offer the tempting opportunity to connect quietly with family and friends. As many of us know, however, they can also quickly become a source of junk food for the brain and a way for people gathered in the same room to be utterly somewhere else.

Even as we share this bit of wisdom with our Amish brethren, though, we suspect that we have much more to learn from them. As their lives attest, the richest social networks don’t run on Wi-Fi.