kevin kelly and the amish

Kevin Kelly is one of the founders of Wired magazine, and he has some interesting things to say about the amish and minimalist living, why the Amish are happy and fulfilled, but why their way of constraining themselves is ultimately selfish, even if it works for them as individuals and communities--and ultimately unsustainable.
....In the late 1960s some million self-described hippies stampeded to small farms and make-shift communes to live simply, not too different from the Amish. I was part of that movement....In tens of thousands of experiments in rural America, we jettisoned the technology of the modern world (because it seemed to crush individualism) and tried to rebuild a new world....Our discoveries paralleled what the Amish knew -- that this simplicity worked best in community, that the solution wasn't no-technology but some technology, and what we then called appropriate technology. This day-glo, deliberate, conscious engagement with appropriate technology was deeply satisfying for a while.

But only for a while....One-by-one they left their domes for suburban garages and lofts, and much to our collective astonishment, transformed their small-is-beautiful skills into small-is-startup to billionaire, a la Steve Jobs.

....In retrospect we might say the hippies left for the same reason Thoreau left his Walden; they came and then left to experience life to its fullest....In the past decade a new generation of minimites has arisen, and they are now urban homesteadin....They are trying to have both, the Amish satisfaction of intense mutual aid and hand labor, and the ever cascading choices of a city. [ed-- yes we are.]

....I remain fascinated and deeply impressed by Leon and Berry, and Brende and the Old Order Plain Folk communities. I am impressed that their tightly bound mutual support can reliably resist the perennial lure of modernity. That's an amazing testimony because so few other cultures can boast that.

....But there is one aspect of the Amish, and the minimites, and the small-is-beautiful hippies at their heyday, that is selfish. The "good" they wish their minimal technology to achieve is primarily the fulfillment of a fixed nature. The human that is satisfied by this agricultural goodness is an unchanging human. For the Amish, one's fulfillment must swell inside the traditional confine of a farmer, tradesman, or housewife*. For minimites and hippies, fulfillment must rise within the confine of the natural unhampered by artificial aids.

....For Berry technology peaked in 1940, about the moment when all these farm implements were as good as they got....1940 cannot be the end of technological perfection for human fulfillment simply because human nature is not at its end.

We have domesticated our humanity as much as we have domesticated our horses. Our human nature is a malleable crop that we planed 50,000 years ago, and continue to garden even today. The field of our nature has never been static. We know that genetically our bodies are changing faster now than at any time in the past million years. Our minds are being rewired by our culture. With no exaggeration, and no metaphor, we are not the same people who first started to plow 10,000 years ago. The snug interlocking system of horse and buggy, wood fire cooking, compost gardening, and minimal industry may be perfectly fit for a human nature — of an ancient agrarian epoch. I call this devotion to a traditional being "selfish" because it ignores the way in which our nature — our wants, desires, fears, primeval instincts, and loftiest aspirations — are being recast by ourselves, by our inventions, and it excludes the needs of our new natures.

....Perhaps someday someone will invent a tool that is made just for your special combination of hidden talents. Or perhaps you will make your own tool. Most importantly, and unlike the Amish and minimites, you may invent a tool which will help unleash the fullest of someone else. Our call is not only to discover our fullest selves in the technium, but to expand the possibilities for others. We have a moral obligation to increase the amount of technology in the world in order to increase the number of possibilities for the most people. Greater technology will selfishly unleash us, but it will also unselfishly unleash others, our children and all to come.
For myself, I do seek a middle way. Not quite, as Kevin says, the minimum amount of technology, but just a satisfying compromise. I don't want to be a farmer, but I want to work with my hands, and grow some of my own food. I want to count farming as a hobby. And then I want to play some videogames. Finding fulfillment within the realm of our constructed society will not be simple; it took out ancestors hundreds of generations to more-or-less figure it out in an agrarian context. But there's a lot of good work to be done here, and I'm excited to be a part of it.

*Still the number one reason to not be Amish.


  1. I thought that was an excellent article and may have finally opened the door to explaining my fascination with programming languages and my weird desire to create my own:

    "Perhaps someday someone will invent a tool that is made just for your special combination of hidden talents. Or perhaps you will make your own tool. ... you may invent a tool which will help unleash the fullest of someone else. Our call is not only to discover our fullest selves in the technium, but to expand the possibilities for others."

    I think it's so amazing that machinists/mechanical engineers can design and machine their own machines and that programmers can build their own programming languages.

    I never thought of programming languages from a quasi-evolutionary standpoint but now it seems sort of obvious! A lot of people are driven to make great things because it drives other humans to do the same and gives us all more choices. To quote Pearl Jam, "It's evolution, baby."

  2. :-D yeah! I tend to focus on the level of the IDE instead of the language, but I'm totally with you. I have this image in my head of a programming environment where every keystroke is meaningful, where syntax errors are impossible, and where the computer manages many implementation details automatically... It's where I want to live.

    Tools do get better over time. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, and sometimes you need a generation to die off before you can make real progress... but it's exciting and fulfilling in its own right to make a tool that unleashes someone else.