In 2014, Kaiwei Tang joined the inaugural class of a startup incubator in New York. It was backed by Google, among others, and its goal was to turn Tang and his classmates into creators of viral apps and world-changing tech companies.
Given his experience designing phones for Motorola, Nokia and Blackberry, Tang was more than qualified. Yet he thought about technology differently from his teachers and peers. For them, he says, success was about users spending more and more time on their phones, engrossed in the founders’ new apps. But to Tang, who describes apps and phones as ‘tools’, this sounded perverse. Would the maker of a hammer boast about how long his customers spent using it?
By now, Tang’s gripe is solidly mainstream: millions of people feel (and are) addicted to their phones and social media. We worry about checking email during family dinners or about the fact that we spend more time documenting vacations on Instagram than enjoying them. Unlike most of us, though, Tang was in a position to do something about it. He co-founded a company, raised millions of dollars, and released a new product: the Light Phone.
The Light Phone made phone calls. That was it. It couldn’t even text. It was the phone you bought because you wanted to stare at the clouds or notice the flowers blooming when you walked to work. Tang’s target customers were desk workers who downloaded meditation apps and people who paid for digital-detox camps. But other people wanted the Light Phone, too. Tang found himself speaking with parents who sought a stripped-down phone for their young teens – and, in a development that surprised him, members of ultra-Orthodox Jewish families.
Tang’s Orthodox-Jewish customers live near the Light Phone offices, but in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – a neighbourhood increasingly associated with art and hipsters – they stand out, not least for their conservative black garb. While many use the internet regularly, their rabbis have vigorously debated avoiding it entirely.
‘I respect that,’ Tang tells me. They are customers, yes, but also peers in thinking critically about how to use technology.
Tang didn’t expect these unorthodox customers, but perhaps he should have. Because, in certain parts of the United States, you can find vendors selling new computers that can’t connect to the internet, and home appliances that must be powered by batteries, instead of conveniently plugging into an outlet. These customers are a group that’s approached technology for centuries with a focus on intentionality and on creating tools that align with their values. Better known for their horses, buggies and farms, that group is the Amish.
Despite growing up within driving distance of Amish Country, I never expected to see the Amish as a source of tech-savvy guidance. A decentralised religious group with roots in Germany and Switzerland, the Amish immigrated to the US in the 1700s – mainly to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where they remain a regular sight, sporting simple outfits, working on family farms, and driving horse-drawn buggies. Many Americans think of them as Luddites who make nice wooden furniture.
For years, I viewed them (naively) as a society frozen in time. Had they just picked a year, I wondered, and refused to use any technology invented later than that?
The Amish make slow and deliberate decisions as a collective. Rather than rushing optimistically or blindly into the future, they move forward cautiously, open but sceptical
My interest in the Amish began in a way that surprised me. A while ago, I started to feel like my days were too undirected, spent scrolling, scrolling, scrolling through Twitter and news aggregators and apps in a habitual, unfulfilling way. I didn’t have a breaking point, exactly, but I knew something was up when I realised I’d developed a habit of pulling out my phone on the toilet. With fresh eyes, as I started reading up on the business model of addictive technology and the advice for resisting it, I found myself reading about the Amish.
The fear that technology is changing us for the worse – by speeding up the world beyond our ability to cope – has been around for a long time. Decades ago, white-collar workers bemoaned the frenzy of after-hours faxes and the pressure to check their PalmPilots. Even further back, conservative intellectuals fretted over the ‘confusion’ and ‘froth’ unleashed by the printing press. For students of these silicon-induced inquietudes, the Amish have served, quietly, as an intriguing model of resistance.
‘The Amish communities of Pennsylvania, despite the retro image of horse-drawn buggies and straw hats, have long been engaged in a productive debate about the consequences of technology,’ noted Wired magazine in 1999. In 2013, an NPR reporter observed that the ‘Amish community [is] not anti-technology, just more thoughtful’. Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired, spent time geeking out with ‘Amish hackers’ and peeking into workshops whose modern machines are powered by compressed air for his book What Technology Wants (2010). He concluded that: ‘In any discussion about the merits of avoiding the addictive grip of technology, the Amish stand out as offering an honourable alternative.’