Travel through the American countryside and you’ll possibly come across an Amish community. You’ll find no TV sets, no telephones and no electricity in their homes. Ask why and you’ll learn that it’s all about community. This is how an Amish bishop once explained it to Tony Campolo. The Amish aren’t against telephones. In fact many communities have a shared telephone available. A telephone was handy to have in an emergency or to call distant family and friends. But why bring it into the house? “Telephones intrude into the most precious moments of life” the bishop explained. “You may be talking to your children or sharing something important with your wife; if the phone rings, you will allow it to interrupt what you’re saying. The family can be at prayer, and if the phone rings you will stop and answer it.”
Similarly electricity could be a good thing, if kept in its proper place. The Amish in the bishop’s community had electricity in their barns to refrigerate their milk, but they kept it out of their homes. Why? Because they felt it disrupted the natural rhythms of life. With electricity people stay up late instead of going to bed. With electricity people listen to radios and watch TV which involves them with the outside world rather than their Amish community.
What about tractors? If the Amish will use electricity in their barns, why not tractors in their fields? The Bishop explained that with a tractor a person can plow their field on their own. But using a horse drawn plow the whole family needed to be involved. So rejecting the tractor was a way to create family solidarity.
I don’t share the Amish view of technology, and I suspect communities like these entrench some pretty constricting social systems, but I find something warms within me as I hear their story. We live in a culture where I wonder if we have gone to the opposite extreme to the Amish. I know I have become almost compelled to be “on” 24/7, always checking my smartphone for the latest email, news update, facebook post or sports score. Always reachable. When I was in Cambodia it struck me that we thousands who gathered to watch the sunrise over the Angkor Watt temples experienced it through the lenses of our cameras rather than simply soaking up the experience.
I recently heard of someone who throws dinner parties and asks everyone to turn off their mobile phones and leave them at the door. I suspect we need, I need, a little more of that in my life.