The Pennsylvania Amish & Their Use of Technology

According to the Amish, "progress" is not assumed to mean "something better." Hence, the Amish do not fully accept the modern conveniences that their non-Amish neighbors take for granted. It is acceptable within Amish communities to use some limited forms of electricity (such as battery power for the lights on their buggies), and some machinery (such as tractors without rubber tires). However, most elements from mainstream society - such as electricity generated by public power lines, TVs, computers and modern tractors - are considered to be tempting elements from an "outside world" that could lead the Amish away from their close-knit community or weaken the family structure.

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Telephones are an interesting illustration of the way that Amish families incorporate technology into their lives. Visitors often mistakenly think the Amish use nothing modern. So, when they notice an Amish person making a call from a pay telephone booth, they might be surprised. They may wonder why Amish sometimes use the phone of their "English" (non-Amish) neighbors. Many visitors are even more shocked to discover that some of the buildings that resemble outhouses sitting near an Amish house or in a field are actually private Amish telephone booths.

The ban on telephone ownership was established due to the Amish belief that it contrasts the spirit of humility; contributes to pride and individualism; is not a necessity; and is a link to the outside world. There was also concern that the phone removed people from the physical, face-to-face communication so important in Amish society. Similar to transportation, though, it is just the ownership of telephones that is forbidden, not the use of them.

The use of the "community phone" or "phone shanty" was permitted beginning in the 1950s, when more Amish were forced to go into businesses and hotels to use phones for emergency purposes and to contact doctors, dentists, veterinarians and food dealers. This community phone building, which often resembles an outhouse, is typically built at the end of a farm lane and shared by several neighboring families. The objective of this concept was to allow access, but maintain distance. Hence, the phone is not in the house and the number is unlisted, to be used essentially for necessary outgoing calls, not socializing.

In the 1980s, the increase in Amish enterprises resulted in more creative phone use. Today, regulations vary by district; some allow phones at businesses and shops; others do not. Many entrepreneurs claim that the phone is critical to their competitiveness and success in non-farming businesses in Lancaster County, and even farmers find that phone access is critical in caring for their dairy cows and contacting the veterinarian.

As is typical of the Amish, when a new technology comes along, its effect on the church and community is examined. The technology should not be an intrusion into the home, but rather serve the social purposes and goals of the group. With that in mind, the Amish often re-purpose the technology, in a sense, to align with their community beliefs.

Learn about the Pennsylvania Amish lifestyle by visiting our Lancaster County Amish attractions.

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