Brock on Ems, 'Virtually Amish: Preserving Community at the Internet's Margins'

Lindsay Ems
Caroline Brock

Lindsay Ems. Virtually Amish: Preserving Community at the Internet's Margins. Acting with Technology Series. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2022. 208 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-262-54363-7

Reviewed by Caroline Brock (University of Missouri) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (July, 2022) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

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Virtually Amish: Preserving Community at the Internet's Margins is a thought-provoking and engaging contribution to the scant literature on digital technology adoption decisions within Amish communities. This research distills insightful takeaways from forty-five semi-structured interviews with Amish church and business leaders, farmers, teachers, and other local informants in two Indiana communities, which, for simplicity's sake, I will refer to as the northern and southern settlements. Lindsay Ems commences by dispelling a popular myth that the Amish are uniformly opposed to using all digital technology. Rather, the Amish consider “their own cultural, social, political, and religious autonomy” when making technology adoption choices (p. 2). Ems presents the concept of a Big Other—a “superpower reigning over today’s high-tech society”—in the introduction and conclusion (p. 3). The Big Other seems to be a combination of commercial and governmental forces that “leave behind all the meaning lodged in our bodies” through technologies (p. 4).

The Amish are more reflective overall than mainstream society about technology use and its impact on their values and communities. Rules around technology and other dimensions of church life, known as the Ordnung, are locally developed within individual church districts and are, in theory, malleable as technology and society evolve. The Amish core values of humility, obedience, community, and hard work guide technology decisions. In addition to technologies themselves, appropriate access and use of information more broadly are important concerns for Amish leaders and are incorporated into their discussions about technology.

Ems frames digital technologies as distinctly different than other technologies that the Amish have had to consider in the past, and their overall approach to them has been unique. Digital technologies give users limitless access to information and connections with outsiders with little public accountability given the inconspicuous nature of the transactions due to the technologies' small size and portability. There is a concern among the Amish Ems interviewed, especially with texting/social media posting, that people are not always as guarded regarding the emotional impact of their messages as they would be when talking directly to others. The messages can also be extracted from their meaning and replicated beyond the user’s control. In contrast, a related technology, the land-line phone, involves transactions that are not easily replicated and are limited to voice-based exchanges. The device is not portable, and transactions have a level of public exposure in an Amish context. Ems presents the land-line phone as a “settled issue” in terms of how the Amish use it. The previous Amish approach to controversial technologies was that “empowerment has come from remaining disconnected” by building metaphorical fences (p. 10). Currently, Ems sees a shift to instead being rather selective with how they connect. The nature of digital technologies and the changing economic and social environment that comes with them make it harder for the Amish to be socially and economically disconnected. Ems presents the overall approach to digital technologies within the Amish community as “a program switch that can be opened and closed to prevent unwanted information from entering the minds of individuals and diffusing throughout their communities” (p. 11).

Ems also describes a diversity of ideas and approaches around technology adoption among different Amish individuals and church communities. A common theme throughout these diverse approaches is an emphasis on the importance of face-to-face communication for being fully human. Meanwhile, there is also a need for some level of connection to digital devices for economic reasons. Ems dubs one approach to digital technology the “strong teaching approach,” where social and personal ills associated with particular technology use would be addressed explicitly in sermons, public discussions, and enforcement of rules. In general, older ministers and leaders in the southern settlement leaned toward that approach. Ems frames the other approach as “instilling personal convictions” (p. 46). The convictions involve having an innate sense of how to use the device while consulting others and having them hold you accountable. Church members also need the ability to modify their approach in consultation with others. This approach was generally preferred by younger ministers and individuals in the northern settlement.

Ems also describes strategies toward digital technology that enable Amish communities to preserve their values while using digital technology selectively. One strategy involves not owning the digital technology but rather only having access in public places where behavior can be observed by others (public libraries, business offices shared with other Amish church members, etc.). Other electronic technologies are used with added filters so the Amish can only access certain websites. Other Amish-specific digital innovations eliminate the necessity to connect to the Internet directly, such as using fax machines that can convert to email.

In summary, Ems’s book is currently the most extensive and in-depth analysis of digital technology adoption decisions in Amish communities. Many books written about the Amish are published through the Johns Hopkins University Press by a core group of scholars who generally focus their research on Pennsylvania and Ohio. In contrast, this book is based in Indiana and is part of an MIT Press series titled Acting with Technology that covers a variety of technology and ethical/social related contexts. Ems distills thoughtful insights about how the Amish navigate technology choices. The images and descriptions of digital technologies that were designed/retrofitted to meet the Amish context make the concepts come alive in a more tangible sense. It is also refreshing to have a study based on in-person interviews, mostly with Amish people, especially church and business leaders from two different settlements. This is a challenging task that required people skills, planning, and patience.

While Ems provides some general background on the Amish for the reader, it would have been helpful to include more on their faith/cultural background and how that connects to the conceptual framework as well as the distilled insights on technology adoption. For example, the reader does not have any direct evidence that the Amish are a Christian group until page 15, though this information is central to understanding the Amish. It also would have been helpful for the reader to understand better how the idea of the Big Other/high-tech capitalism integrates with the Amish perspective, more specifically in the main body of the book. Ems explains well the unique nature of digital technologies and the issues they pose for the larger Amish social and religious context. However, it is challenging to fully understand how their approach to these technologies was entirely distinct from previous technologies. Therefore, more explanation on that front would have been helpful. For example, with the land-line phone, there was access in a shared phone shanty or a business office but not in the family home, so it does not appear that they focused on gaining empowerment from total disconnection, as the author implies was the case for Amish approaches to technology adoption decisions that occurred prior to digital devices. Thus, a fuller explanation of those historical examples and how they illustrate a fence-building approach versus a switch approach would have been instructive.

Different Amish communities handle technology adoption decisions in diverse ways. Ems does an impressive job of illustrating some of this diversity by incorporating the views of two contrasting Indiana settlements. This alone is an ambitious task, especially as the more southern settlement has not been incorporated in many studies in the past. She provides some context for these settlements in the appendix, but it would have been helpful to include more contextual background about each settlement and relate that background even more specifically to the different perspectives on technology. For example, it is not always clear which settlement's perspectives are being discussed, and someone reading closely may wonder if the majority of the research is based on the more northern settlement, given issues Ems encountered with access in the southern settlement. Another example where additional contextual background would have been helpful to understand diverse perspectives is when Ems summarizes two different Amish perspectives expressed in an Amish business newsletter. One writer was more adamant that the Amish should have clear rules prohibiting digital devices, and the other argued that the Amish should selectively use digital devices after evaluating the pros and cons for themselves and their communities. More context on the background of these informants would have helped the reader to understand their positions better. For example, I suspect both of these individuals are Amish converts and/or are trying to be performatively Amish in some sense, that is, they did not grow up Amish. This is not to discredit their views, but at least anecdotally, through conversations and personal observations, I have noticed a handful of converts who write in public forums like these about lifestyle choices. It should be noted that conversion is relatively rare, and converts' viewpoints are not always wholeheartedly embraced by others within Amish communities.

The wider context of technology adoption among the Amish can serve as a springboard to a fuller analysis of the personal, community, and societal ramifications of mainstream society’s technology and information use. That possibility has led me to reflect on the structure and process of the book review that I am currently writing. The purpose of a book review, based on my understanding, is to offer a summary and an evaluation from a fellow scholar so other scholars can assess how to use the book in their work. While there is value in gleaning thoughtful insights from someone other than the author, would not interacting directly with the author about their work before constructing a book review lead to a much more informed perspective? Currently, the book review is akin to a social media post in that there is no direct interaction between the scholar and the author before it is publicly available. This one-on-one conversation would likely lead to a more accurate summary of the work and perhaps would close some of the gaps in understanding that often emerge in book reviews of this nature. Both the author and the scholar writing the book review could learn a lot through these exchanges. It also could have broader social and academic value by building community networks and new avenues for future interdisciplinary cross-institution collaborations. Academia can be an especially isolating world and that isolation has been enhanced by the pandemic. It is time to start rethinking our collective approaches, and perhaps we could learn something from the Amish examples offered in this book in that effort.

Citation: Caroline Brock. Review of Ems, Lindsay, Virtually Amish: Preserving Community at the Internet's Margins. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. July, 2022. URL:

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