Must technology dictate the nature and quality of our future? Or should we make a New Year’s resolution to become bigger players in determining how technology shapes our lives, and what advantages might be best to surrender?
As we enter a New Year we do not need to see technological change as the deterministic force it is often revered as. What we do need to do is think deeper and more reflectively about the transformative capacity of technology.
In November 2015 a Bank of England report estimated that robots could replace some 15 million workers in what it terms the ‘third machine age’. That works out to about half of the approximately 31 million people employed in the UK. However, what is telling about the report is its focus on the likelihood of automation across a range of industries. At the top of its list were jobs in administration, clerical and production. Meanwhile, the caring, leisure, service, retail and skilled trades are predicted to have an ‘average probability of automation’ approaching 80%. Robots have stopped being the stuff of science fiction in the public eye and are now the subject of serious social, legal, economic, and existential debate.
If we want to think more expansively about how technology is reconfiguring entire societies, redefining the nature of work, and debasing the value of labour, we should look more seriously at how technological change might be better managed and look to the Amish.
The Amish are a traditionalist Christian denomination that can be found primarily in the US States of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana and the province of Ontario in Canada. They share the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament as their primary scriptures and more or less share the theological beliefs of other Protestant churches. While some might know them for their long beards, antiquated dress sense, propensity for travelling via horse and buggy or the disingenuous Mafioso image cultivated by television, there is more to the Amish than some might assume.
Often characterized as technophobic or Luddites par excellence the Amish provide remarkable testimony for how socio-economic equilibrium can be maintained during turbulent periods of technological change and industrialisation. Far from being Luddites, the Amish are remarkably tech savvy. One of the most defining aspects of the Amish belief system can be traced to the writings of church father Menno Simons, who advised his nascent community to:
Rent a farm, milk cows, learn a trade if possible, do manual labour as did [the Apostle] Paul, and all that which you then fall short of will doubtlessly be given and provided you by pious brethren, by the grace of god.
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At the heart of every decision the Amish make about technology there are two interconnected goals. First, when deciding whether to allow a certain piece of technology into their community they ask whether it enables behaviours that are compatible with their values. If a particular technology threatens to displace the importance of their religion, community or family it is likely to be prohibited.
Second, the Amish ask how a particular technology will help them separate from the non-Amish (“English”) world. This is why it remains common in Amish communities to see identical horse-drawn buggies as some communities believe that car ownership causes community members to focus too much on themselves at the expense of the community, particularly those responsible for buggy making.
Nonetheless, there is no religious ordinance prohibiting cars in communities. Instead, the decision to purchase a car must be made by the community and directed towards purposes that help strengthen their social cohesion. Because most Amish communities are self-contained and families live in close proximity to each other, there is often little need for vehicles but their use is not prohibited and they do use bespoke taxi services when needed.
Each scenario is legislated for in a community’s Ordnung taking into account the unique values and norms of respective communities. Electricity is almost entirely shunned by Amish communities, but not out of any belief that it is evil or dangerous, but in order to remain energy self-sufficient (such as through the use of natural gas reserves) and to avoid being entangled with the energy companies in the “English” world. Again, it is communal work that is emphasized.
The Amish are also remarkably adept at adapting to social and legal pressures from the outside world. For instance, one of the primary means of revenue in communities is agriculture, particularly milk production. In the 1950s and 1960s when Pennsylvania law required farmers to install electric powered cooling systems in order for milk to maintain its Grade A rating, the Amish were forced to rethink their production and business models. They resisted what other farmers in Pennsylvania were compelled to do by installing costly electric coolers and mixers and eventually used battery power instead to handle the stirring.
The greatest challenge for the Amish, however, was that the State wanted milk to be collected every day to minimise waste. Under no circumstances would the Amish accept their Sundays being interfered with. Because they were such prolific producers of milk, eventually the state of Pennsylvania relented and consented to two collections on Saturday. One consequence of these non-Amish farmers complying with the new law was that farm workers were laid off in numbers because the new techniques were more expensive.
While 50 years ago a non-Amish family may have made a special trip to a furniture broker to custom order something for their home, the Amish have adapted to technological change by brokering agreements with non-Amish businesses to transport their wares and sell them online without having to be personally involved in the logistics of shipping and e-commerce.
The Amish accept responsibility for the adoption of particular technologies or techniques and they stay true to their notion of the ideal life. Can we expect the companies that stand to profit from building the robotic workers that will replace human labourers to do the same? What about Google, Facebook, Uber, or the pioneers of the erstwhile sharing economy which have instrumentalised entire societies by instituting a race to the bottom over the value of human labour?
What are the foreseeable trade-offs of embracing this change? By asking these questions, foregoing change becomes a means of stabilising communities that is seen as a greater victory than modest or massive gains in productivity or profit.
These are the questions that will not be asked by the titans of industry, governments afraid to be seen as oppositional to innovation, or indeed by individuals who readily — but uncritically — embrace technological possibilities. But whereas the Amish keep our world at arms-length and construct theirs with a clear sense of who they are, what they value, and knowing the importance of embedding those values with the decisions they make about technology, our world, and indeed our economic future, is increasingly constructed around us.
As we enter 2016 we need to reflect on the very same questions that the Amish have asked themselves for centuries. If we are to be the authors of our future, we must correct the democratic deficit that exists over what technologies will construct our world, or it could be constructed to exclude us.