Hay Rockets and Phone Sheds

September 23rd, 2009 by Christian

For the class “Communication Technology and Society” I asked some of my students to drive to Illinois Amish country (about 40 minutes) and investigate communication technology among the Amish there.  All sorts of gripping things have been written about the Amish and communication technology (like Howard Rheingold’s short thing a few years back Look Who’s Talking about Amish cell phone users).

Interestingly, if you want to contact the Amish in my area you can call 1-800-45-AMISH.  Note that I did assignment with the full cooperation of the Amish hosts.

The Amish are fascinating because they are not Luddites in either the correct or the vernacular meaning.  They seek out and embrace high-tech at times, but only if they decide that it would enrich their way of life.  There is a process of consideration before new technologies are used — an idea that is very foreign to most of us, especially me.  So the Amish are big fans of advanced solar power because they don’t believe in the centralized power grid, for instance.  But paradoxically they use this sort of high-tech solar to do things like operate running lights on low-tech horse-drawn carriages.  New plastic rollerblades are OK.  Being in pictures is not OK.  Taking pictures for other people is OK.

Here’s an Amish telephone box.  They historically didn’t allow landline phones in their house (low-tech) but check out that awesome solar panel (high-tech).

My students learned facts:  the telephone was adopted in Arcola, Illinois in 1994.  Lots of facts.  Students took some very creative approaches to their questions, too.  One tried to figure out how the Amish in Arcola figured out about the 9/11 attacks without direct access to the media.  (It took them about 1 day to hear the news via word-of-mouth).

One student asked a lot of questions about rumspringa and I gather this really pissed off his host.

They also uncovered some Amish technofetishists.  They found a really tricked out horse-drawn carriage.  Instead of Tuner Cars or Low Riders I guess you could call them Hay Rockets? (groan. sorry.)  This WSJ article reports dark-velvet lined carriages equipped with showy LED lights tooling through rural Pennsylvania, so maybe this is not so unusual.

The best part of the assignment for me, though, was the student writing about awkward conversations and the feelings that this encounter provoked.  It was a very popular assignment but in the description there was a lot of fascination, shame and embarassment. One student wrote that she desperately wanted to ask her Amish host questions about which celebrities she knew but became paralyzingly embarrassed and could not do so. It wasn’t, I think, that the students saw the Amish as deprived or pitiful.  Not at all!  If anything they were very impressed.  I think what embarassed them were the incredible efforts that the Amish have taken to organize their lives around ideas that they thought were important.  Most college students don’t have something quite so forceful to work with or push against.  Maybe they should.

Here is the assignment I wrote.  Here’s a nice response: You Can’t Even Imagine the Evil Things That Are Done With Cell Phones.

http://pactlab-dev.spcomm.uiuc.edu/red/tour.html#devon

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