FREE WILL

The Amish can teach us how to take power back from Google and Facebook

The Amish see technology as a choice, and not an inevitability.
The Amish see technology as a choice, and not an inevitability.
Image: AP Photo/Mike Groll
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After years designing gadgets and services to monopolize our attention and extract our data, tech giants face a mounting backlash. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, long under fire for “programming people’s brains,” will testify before the European parliament next week about his company’s use of data. Not long after, transformative new European privacy rules go into effect that will give EU consumers far more visibility into what companies know about them.

Now tech CEOs insist they want to be part of the solution. On Tuesday, Facebook-owned Instagram confirmed a feature that will let users track their time spent on the platform. A week earlier, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced a Digital Wellbeing initiative geared at helping people moderate their use of Google’s products and services by suggesting breaks from YouTube or batching notifications. He cited the concept of “JOMO,” or joy of missing out.  

There’s nothing wrong with tech giants discovering (or appearing to discover) their scruples. But it’s worth remembering that the choice to use technology is ours too, and we can choose differently. Just ask the Amish.

Before accepting any new innovation, “the Amish use us as an experiment,” says Jameson Wetmore, an engineer turned social researcher at Arizona State University. “They watch what happens to people in the outside world and decide if that technology is something they want to adopt for themselves.” Unlike Silicon Valley, the Amish recognize that there’s no such thing as value-free technologies.

Wetmore notes that the Amish have also been steadily rejecting our own society in greater numbers. In the 1960s and 1970s, 75% of Amish children went on to become Amish adults. Today, it’s 95%. “To some extent, it’s a bit of an indictment I think,” he says. “The Amish have always rejected our world, but now they’re doing it in record numbers!”

Perhaps they wouldn’t, if the rest of us saw technology as a choice, and not an inevitability. It doesn’t take a return to the past to realize that people, not just governments and companies, can decide how technology enters our lives.