Archive for October 4th, 2006


I ran across this article tonight (A link from a link from a link related to the shooting of the Amish schoolchildren). The article, which discusses Amish views on technology, focuses on the questions which the Amish ask in relationship to their technology and lack thereof. The Amish, for those of you who won’t read the article, largely avoid telephones (keeping “communal” phones in the field, or occasionally the outhouse) and are currently debating the use of cell phones. Highlights of the article:

“What would that lead to?” another Amish man asked me. “We don’t want to be the kind of people who will interrupt a conversation at home to answer a telephone. It’s not just how you use the technology that concerns us. We’re also concerned about what kind of person you become when you use it.”

What happens with daily use? Does it bring people together? Or have the opposite effect?

In the 1910s, when the telephone was only beginning to change the world at large, the Old Order Amish recognized that the caller at the other end of the line was an interloper, someone who presumed to take precedence over the family’s normal, sacred, communications. Keeping the telephone in an unheated shanty in a field, or even an outhouse, was keeping the phone in its proper place.

How often do we interrupt a conversation with someone who is physically present in order to answer the telephone? Is the family meal enhanced by a beeper? Who exactly is benefiting from call waiting? Is automated voicemail a dark hint about the way our institutions value human time and life? Can pagers and cell phones that vibrate instead of ring solve the problem? Does the enjoyment of virtual communities by growing numbers of people enhance or erode citizen participation in the civic life of geographic communities?

The struggle of Old Order groups to mold technology in the service of community

If we decided that community came first, how would we use our tools differently?

Now these are interesting questions. What kind of people do we become when we use our technology? Do we serve our technologies, or do they serve us? Do they promote or discourage community? And why– why?!– aren’t other Christians asking these questions and having these conversations?

This is an increasingly poignant question for me, as I’ve begun to notice the interference my cellphone poses to my daily life: I get 5-10 calls during any given day, before text messages, more on weekends. Now, I love my cell phone, and living far away from my family and oldest friends I greatly appreciate all the potential benefits. But of course, like all things, there can be too much of a good thing. I noticed it interfering with my ability to get work done, to relax, even to socialize with the people I’m actually with in person. My quasi-solution has been to put my phone on “vibrate”… it still interupts my life, and I’d still say I use it more than I’d really like to. But it’s a start, a step away from dependency on technology and toward actual in-person communication and conversation. And as I’ve started moving in that direction, I become more and more aware of people and their technologies all around me. For example, I ate dinner with a group of people from church Sunday night: I noticed partway though the meal that all the people sitting on one side of the table (facing the TV) were watching the television… while the people sitting on the other side of the table (backs to the TV) were all sitting there with their phones out either talking or text-messaging. I even commented on it, and while people laughed no one turned away from their technology to engage with the people around them. And I do it to…and it frustrates me. It’s really a slight to the people who are with us in person– I’m sorry, you’re not interesting enough, not engaging enough, to maintain my attention. I’m more interested in this disembodied voice or this text message than in you. What does this do for our sense of community? Can we legitimately claim community under such circumstances? I think I’d like to go back to not having a cell-phone at all for a while… just to see what things would be like if people really did interact with teach other. Or perhaps to store my phone– and my television, and my internet– out in an outhouse for a few weeks. I think it might be enlightening. I think it might find us really relating to people, and forming real relationships in the real world. And perhaps we would even reach out more to the people around us and really engage them. Because I suspect, rather strongly, that Christ wouldn’t have interupted the sermon on the mount to take a call on his cell… or said sorry, pardon, I’ll turn water into wine when I get done with this text message. I think that, perhaps, the essence of Christ was to really engage people on a level most people wouldn’t… and I think that as Christians we need to consider how we can do the same thing. I think we need to ask those questions the Amish are asking… I don’t know what the answers are, but I think how to make technology a servant to the community– rather than ourselves a servant to technology– is something that we all need to answers. And when we find those answers, we need to follow where they lead us… wherever that is.


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