Opinion and Return on Technology and Technology

ALTOM: How the Amish make technology work for them

February 13, 2010

BusinessWeek (www.businessweek.com) has a recent story about a growing $1.8 million enterprise that’s doing just fine without the Internet, Web site, texting, customer-resource-management software, a fax machine or a single computer. In fact, the company doesn’t even have electricity.

Miller Farm doesn’t have those things because it’s run by the Amish, a religious sect that refuses to incorporate modern conveniences into their lives until they must, or until they’re convinced the gadgetry poses no threat to their way of life. The owners are riding the wave of “nutrient-dense” foods, which have a high nutrient-to-calorie ratio. Whole-grain bread is generally nutrient-dense, because it has vitamins, fiber and other nutrients along with the calories. Candy bars are not nutrient-dense, because they’re mostly sugar and fat and provide little more than calories.

Miller Farm is cleverly capitalizing on the public’s impression of the Amish as healthier than most, and that their foodstuffs are part of the reason. Amos Miller of Miller Farms says he can’t begin to keep up with the demand for their nutrient-dense offerings. Miller Farm has to modify a bit the stricter Amish rules against technology. The farm bought a generator to power refrigeration, and it has a phone. But those are for the business, not for personal use.

Miller Farm is far from the only example. Today, some 25 percent of Amish people are business owners, mostly in industries where the Amish have long been considered excellent, such as furniture and simple foods. Fewer than 10 percent of all Amish men are actually farmers. The rest are entrepreneurs or employees. None uses more than the bare minimum of modern technology.

I’m heartened to see any company resisting the lure of high-tech for its own sake. I’ve always championed the idea that a pair of scissors is perfect for a job a pair of scissors can do. I hate the term “cool” when applied to business technology. It either works for a living or it’s a toy.

Just as the Amish question whether every bit of new whiz-bangery is really necessary, so I squint critically at every new smart-phone application. Most contribute little or nothing to what’s essential. Miller Farm is just an extreme example of that principle. As Albert Einstein is quoted as saying in another context, “Make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Einstein was right, and it means there is much more to this story than BusinessWeek included. There are opportunity costs to buying too much into the Miller Farm paradigm. Miller Farm has plenty of labor, thanks to the Amish tendency to have lots of children who stay around the farm when they’re grown. For them labor is, if you’ll pardon the expression, dirt-cheap, which is why they often specialize in industries that are labor-intensive.

For most of us, it would be too inefficient to keep filling oil lamps so we could work at night, or hauling everything around by wheelbarrow or by hitching up a horse team, which itself has to be fed and cared for. There is a reason modern agriculture quickly jettisoned the horse—maintaining machinery is much less expensive than maintaining horseflesh, and machines can do much more work per hour. The same pressures have caused most of us to rapidly adopt the computer and pay the price to keep upgrading. Without that force multiplier, we’re not efficient enough to compete. Most of us can’t afford to do business like Miller Farm does.

Even Miller Farm doesn’t quite do business as it appears on the surface. It may not directly employ technology itself, but it’s utterly dependent on others who do. Miller uses FedEx, for example, a company with all the modern amenities. Miller Farm attends food conferences, and to get there the company hires non-Amish drivers to transport both the Miller Farm representatives and their goods.

So it’s not as if the Amish have rejected complex technology altogether; they simply pick and choose what they need at the moment and don’t burden themselves with its upkeep or its incessant demands for culture changes. Miller Farm is indulging in outsourcing in its most visible form. Miller Farm can flourish only because the rest of the world is willing to provide air travel, highways, cell phones and e-commerce. The food company piggybacks on the modern infrastructure.

Amish entrepreneurs have no inherent gripe against modernity; they just don’t want to be ruled by it, as so many of us are. Miller makes conscious choices about what’s needed, and what’s just shiny baggage. Useless tech has to be fed (just like horses)—in licenses, upgrades and bandwidth. I suspect that, if we were all more aware of what we buy and how we use it, we’d be a lot happier, less confused and certainly less dependent.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant.His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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