Distraction: Insights from an Amish Man and a Professional Blogger

amish on train.jpg

An Amish man sat down next to me in the train’s observation car. As the train climbed out of Denver we began pointing out amazing sights to each other. It was great to share the moments with someone as enthralled by the mountain vistas as I was. Part of me was just as excited about something else. An internal voice said, “Mark! You read and discuss an article about the Amish and technology every time you teach Discipleship and Ethics. Talk to him! See if the article is accurate.”

I asked questions, trying to get a feel for how direct I could be in our conversation. Harvey told me his parents were from Napanee, Indiana. He was born in Iowa where he still lives with his wife and seven children. He runs a business putting up metal pole buildings. We talked about language: was the low-German he spoke the same as the Pennsylvania Dutch my grandfather spoke? He was warm and friendly; I plunged in…

I asked him about his community’s approach to phones. He told me they did not have landline phones in their homes because they thought they would disrupt low-key family life. (They have a phone in a shed which they share with neighbors.) “How about cell phones?” He replied, “We think they would lead to a faster pace of life, which we do not want.” In addition, smart phones would open them up to inappropriate things, so not having phones acts as a helpful buffer.

Amish avoid some technology, but they are not technique adverse. As I say in class, they use a lot of technique to work around the technologies they opt not to use. So, I was curious what he would say about my thoughts on efficiency. I told him I am a seminary teacher and in my ethics class we talk about these themes. I explained my thinking about efficiency. To do something in the most efficient way means to do it in a way that uses the least amount of time, money, energy, space, etc.  Efficiency is not evil. Yet today the most efficient way is generally assumed to be the best way. It is this confusion—this equating “efficiency” with “best,” or “efficiency” with “effective”—that enables technique to act as an enslaving power.  In reality “efficient” is one of a variety of characteristics we could use to evaluate what method or approach is best or most effective. He agreed.

I told Harvey about the article on the Amish we read for class (“Look Who’s Talking,” by Howard Rheingold). The article states that a key question the Amish ask when reflecting on whether to adopt a new technology is: “Will it bring us together or draw us apart?” Harvey affirmed the authenticity of the question. I asked him about the discernment process. He replied, “I am not involved; that’s above me.” Not involved, but it impressed me that Harvey did know the “why” of decisions made. Apparently, those above did not simply hand down edicts, but explained their reasoning.

We continued talking about other things, including shared Anabaptist convictions and connections with Mennonite Central Committee. I am grateful for the opportunity to have spent time with Harvey. It made personal and concrete what I have read. I did not feel a pull to become Amish, but it reaffirmed my conviction that they have valuable things to teach us: a commitment to ask questions before adopting new technologies, the willingness to value something else above efficiency, and the practice of explaining the “why” of our decisions are worth emulating.

Part II 

“If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation.” Andrew Sullivan

Not surprising that Harvey, an Amish man, would warn us of the downsides of smart phones. Increasingly, however, we hear some people deeply embedded in the tech world sounding warnings as well. A. J. Swoboda, Pentecostal pastor and professor, recently gave an impassioned lecture at the seminary on the value of times of turning off our phones: “Distracted: The Holy Spirit and Paying Attention.” He referred to an article by Andrew Sullivan, which I just read. (I recommend both the lecture and the article to you.)

In, “I Used to be a Human Being” Sullivan, an early blogger, tells what happened to him as his life became more and more absorbed by the Internet.

For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week . . . Each morning began with a full immersion in the stream of internet consciousness and news, jumping from site to site, tweet to tweet, breaking news story to hottest take, scanning countless images and videos, catching up with multiple memes. . . Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades — a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise. So much of it was irresistible, as I fully understood. So much of the technology was irreversible, as I also knew. But I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living. . . If you had to reinvent yourself as a writer in the internet age, I reassured myself, then I was ahead of the curve. The problem was that I hadn’t been able to reinvent myself as a human being.

He pulled the plug, stepped away from his lucrative blogging activity. Read the article to hear more of his story of how he sought healing and how he is trying now to live with internet moderation. He does much more, however, than just tell his story. I share with you just a few of his insights—flowing from research and reflecting on his experience.

Some point out that every new revolution in information technology has caused panicked shouts of apocalyptic doom. Sullivan observes, however, that the change this time is rapid and exponential. Think what has happened just in the last ten years.

“Not long ago, surfing the web, however addictive, was a stationary activity. At your desk at work, or at home on your laptop, you disappeared down a rabbit hole of links and resurfaced minutes (or hours) later to reencounter the world. But the smartphone then went and made the rabbit hole portable, inviting us to get lost in it anywhere, at any time, whatever else we might be doing. Information soon penetrated every waking moment of our lives.”

“We absorb this ‘content’ (as writing or video or photography is now called) no longer primarily by buying a magazine or paper, by bookmarking our favorite website, or by actively choosing to read or watch. We are instead guided to these info-nuggets by myriad little interruptions on social media, all cascading at us with individually tailored relevance and accuracy.”  

He digs deeper.

Automation and online living have sharply eroded the number of people physically making things . . .Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and “wasted” time in the achievement of practical goals. But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity. . . If we are to figure out why despair has spread so rapidly in so many left-behind communities, the atrophying of the practical vocations of the past — and the meaning they gave to people’s lives — seems as useful a place to explore as economic indices.

And shares some observations about church…

If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.

But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.

What can you do today, this week to lessen distraction and open up spaces for silence, for listening to God? What can you do to help others in your family, in your church, those you teach or counsel lessen distraction and open up spaces for silence, for listening to God?

Posted on October 7, 2019 .