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The Art of Hacking: Boundaries and Selectivity

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 7, 2016

Kevin Kelly:The Amish Make Hacking an Art

The Amish don’t usually have computers or high-speed internet access in their homes, and they’re rarely big users of social media.  But they’re not Luddites. In fact, Kevin Kelly, a renowned tech aficionado, thinks we can learn a great deal from the creative ways the Amish use technology.

For example, he says, the strictest among the Amish don’t use public electricity in their homes. But they can get creative use from an electrical appliance, such as a kitchen blender, because they’ve learned to transform it so that it runs on air pressure.  They have also developed refrigerators that run on natural gas and tools that operate pneumatically.  Most don’t own or drive cars and ingeniously crafted battery operated lights and turn signals can make buggies safer.  

Kelly was a co-founder of Wired magazine, where he is now Senior Maverick, and the author of several books on technology and society. In a recent book What Technology Wants, in which he argues that development of technological innovations is similar to biological evolution, Kelly includes a chapter called “Lessons from Amish Hackers.”  He also discusses Amish technological adaptations in his blog The Technium. 

An eWeek story by Todd R. Weiss explains Kelly became inspired by the Amish some 35 years ago when he visited small villages and towns in Lancaster County PA during a cross-country bike ride. He has developed friendships and spent years studying Amish history, beliefs, and lifestyles, which can vary from one region to another.    “I find (the Amish) to be incredibly technology oriented,” Kelly told Weiss. “They’re using technology to hack their own rules.”  He adds that in this case the term “hacking” implies no negative connotation. Originally, he explained, the term meant subverting a rule or exploring a loophole, and that doesn’t have to be bad. The Amish, he suggests, hack within the boundaries of their beliefs, while some other hackers have no boundaries.   

“It makes them artists,” Kelly said. “Regular hackers are hacking because they can while Amish hackers are hacking with more of a goal.”  They evaluate new ideas, try adapting new things and decide what fits with their lives and values.  Kelly says they use technology minimally and selectively, which might be good strategy for the rest of us.  He imagines that Amish communities will become increasingly diverse in their technological adaptations, and that cell phones will impose greater pressure on tradition than past technologies.   Kelly has presented at the Young Center for Anabaptist and  Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, PA. The Center fosters scholarship on the heritage and culture of Anabapist and Pietist communities, which include the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and Moravians.  The Center conducts events that include lectures, exhibits, seminars and conferences.


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