Thinking Amish

Amish boyWhen I’m thinking about making a major purchase, I try to imagine how it will fit into my life. That’s often difficult, especially if it requires a fundamental change in lifestyle. For example, my sister avoided Netflix for a long time because it didn’t match her current habits (deciding to watch a specific movie and then going to Blockbuster for it). Once she tried it out, though, she realized that she liked being able to watch a good movie immediately more than she valued being able to watch a specific movie after going to the store.

It’s even more obvious with bigger items like houses and cars. How would your life change if you got rid of your car? Or moved to a different house or apartment? It’s hard to say, which makes really difficult to shop around for those things.

I think I often take it to extremes that most people don’t. I usually agonize for months before buying anything that costs more than $50-60. It took me about a month to get my current $90 running shoes (and that was only after trying and failing to get some cheaper ones online). I annoyed Maggie on and off for at least six months while I was deciding whether or not to get a DSL camera.

It turns out that there’s a whole group of people who are even more extreme than I am about evaluating life-changing technology: the Amish. For one thing, they think all technology is life-changing. I don’t disagree but I’ve already bitten the bullet as far as things like electricity are concerned.

Kevin Kelly has an interesting post up about Amish hackers, where he describes how the Amish decide which technology to accept and which to reject. In particular, Kelly says that the Amish have four main pillars that make their evaluation process successful (for them):

1) They’re not afraid to say no.
2) They ban (or accept) things based on the experience of their early adopters
3) The technology they accept must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
4) They make their decisions communally.

That works for a relatively close-knit homogenous society. If you want to know whether or not genetically engineered corn will be good for you, it’s easier to see how it’s working out with Bob down the road than if you can only look at the results for strangers in far-off places.

Or, to go back to my personal examples, my sister only got Netflix because my parents tried it out first. She was able to see that a lifestyle working around Netflix was better than one built around Blockbuster.

There are so many different things out there that it can be hard to evaluate them all. I’m currently drooling over the new netbooks. Their low weight and long battery life (not to mention the low power consumption) are all very attractive. On the other hand, I’m almost always near an outlet and I only really take my laptop anywhere twice a week. Would it really be worth it to get a device dedicated to mobility when I already have a laptop that works okay?

Since my friends and family have no experience with them, it’s difficult to evaluate along the Amish criteria. I have found that laptops are worth the money. I remember a decade ago when I got my first laptop that I had the same qualms. If I have a perfectly good desktop, is it worthe spending extra money for the portability? Then, I could look at the experience of others around me to figure it out. Now, I’m making a similar decision in a vacuum.

The most important thing to the Amish is that new technology enhance family and community. It doesn’t make sense to analyze all of my purchases that way (my camera, fun as it is, doesn’t do much for the rest of the family), but I think it might make sense for a computer. Would having a more portable computer increase my connection to my community? Probably some, since I’d be more willing to bike or bus downtown and work there. But is it worth paying almost $400 for that increase? That I’m less sure about.

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Andy said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 12:41 am

    Almost a year ago, everyone told me I was silly for buying a 7″ laptop. I did my research, knew that I could handle Linux and maximizing a small screen, and was planning on selling my car and biking everywhere. This is my primary computer, and it goes with me a lot of places, especially since 50% of the time I am on-call for work and need to be near internet. With this computer, I can still attend my city, town, and permaculture meetings downtown without a problem. With my old 8 pound 15″ laptop, that would have been extremely difficult on a regular basis. I’ve biked almost 500 miles so far this year already.

    But now netbooks are all the rage, and I don’t understand why. I know several people with them now, and in every case it is an additional laptop for them, they drive for most every trip, and it’s essentially a toy for them. Unless your old laptop is on the fritz and in need of replacement, or you plan on biking places that you also need a computer for, is it really worth the money? $400 could get you halfway towards a permaculture certification, or pay for a few conferences, or insulate a water heater, etc. There’s nothing green about buying a new computer if it’s just for the neatness of a small laptop. So that’s my two cents.

    -Andy

  2. 2

    Will said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 12:54 am

    I’m glad that a netbook has worked out so well for you!

    How much benefit I’ll get from it is the real question. My current computer is still working fine, so a netbook would be a supplementary computer. I did like having a separate personal and work computer for a while last year, so it might be useful in that sense. I haven’t been biking since it got cold and wet, but I’ve been taking the bus (and then walking) a lot recently, and the extra weight of my current laptop puts a real strain on my shoulders and neck.

    That makes it sound totally worth it but I’m only on campus for this semester, so I’m not sure I’ll be carrying a laptop around as much after this spring. We also weren’t living here last year, so I don’t have any historical behavior to fall back on. I might end up biking and walking a lot since we’re much closer to downtown. Or, I might end up working from home all the time and not take my laptop anywhere.

    Thanks for the thoughts! Talking it out helps put things in perspective.

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