Would the Amish Use This Hand-Cranked Laptop?

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The non-profit One Laptop Per Child has engineered laptops for the world's computerless masses. Given that billions of people don't have electricity, OLPC has designed laptops that can operate off-the-grid, perfect for Rwandan cities, aboriginal Canadian settlements -- and Amish colonies.

The Amish live in a constellation of agrarian spots in the northern United States and they're famous for their opposition to some modern technologies, specifically high-voltage electricity. But like many religious close-knit religious communities, they tend to pick and choose which specific products to adopt. If the Amish could have the computer without the electricity, would they use them?

The answer, basically, is yes.

For the Amish, the bigger issue relates to connecting to the outside world. "Not being on the grid continues to be universal in Amish life," explains professor David L. Weaver-Zercher, author of The Amish Way. "There is kind of a symbolic thing with the grid, that the wires themselves are physically connecting your house. That is a clear connection to worldly ways of doing things that we want to avoid."

But that doesn't mean there hasn't been demand for electronics. Back in 2008, a Lancaster man marketed a stripped down computer he called the Classic Word Processor to his brethren, noted Amish expert Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. It was "made specifically for the plain people by the plain people," a coded reference designed to appeal to decidedly agrarian people.

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The flyer's creator knew his audience. Unlike ads for the new Apple product of the moment, this downplays the computer's tech touting it as "just a workhorse for your business." It would provide "unequaled safety" because it had "no modem, no phone port or Internet connection, no outside programs, no sound, no pictures, no games or gimmicks."

As new technologies emerge, the Amish weigh their utility against their danger. Certain technologies threaten the Amish ideology. As Donald Kraybill describes in The Riddle of Amish Culture, "The Amish are suspicious that beneath the glitter of modernity lurks a divisive force that in time might fragment and obliterate their close-knit community."

Ultimately, an individual congregation's bishops decide if an innovation might benefit the community. After passing their judgment, the community votes: If they believe using a computer might improve life, then they might approve its use. Since the process depends on the community, certain Amish people have adopted more new tech than others. Some approve bicycles, while others find those too technologically advanced, instead permitting only scooters.

After a technology gets approved, it doesn't mean people won't use it inappropriately. The Classic Word Processor's whole pitch is that it can't be used to connect to any unauthorized networks, lacking even a modem.

But what about when communication is built into the product itself? While the bishops certainly don't sanction Internet usage, a precedent has already been set approving cell phones. But as phones evolve to contain other technologies -- like the not-Amish-approved Internet -- users gain access to the mobile web. But hey, if the Amish have been able to come to compromises on chemical fertilizer, tractor, car, and electricity use, they can probably figure out how to deal with smartphones.

It's complex, but one thing you have to give the Amish is that they have values outside of base consumer instincts. Unlike most of us, they at least attempt to consider the consequences of new technology in their lives.

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Rebecca Greenfield is a writer based in Brooklyn. She was formerly on staff at The Atlantic Wire.

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