The Amish, and Strategic Norms around Technology

by Raemon2 min read24th Mar 201918 comments

120

Book Reviews
Curated
This post has been nominated for the 2019 Review
Write a Review

I was reading Legal Systems Very Different From Ours by David Friedman. The chapter on the Amish made a couple interesting claims, which changed my conception of that culture (although I'm not very confident that the Amish would endorse these claims as fair descriptions).

Strategic Norms Around Technology

The Amish relationship to technology is not "stick to technology from the 1800s", but rather "carefully think about how technology will affect your culture, and only include technology that does what you want."

So, electric heaters are fine. Central heating in a building is not. This is because if there's a space-heater in the living room, this encourages the family to congregate together. Whereas if everyone has heating in their room, they're more likely to spend time apart from each other.

Some communities allow tractors, but only if they don't have rubber tires. This makes them good for tilling fields but bad for driving around.

Cars and telephones are particularly important not to allow, because easy transportation and communication creates a slippery slope to full-connection to the outside world. And a lot of the Amish lifestyle depends on cutting themselves off from the various pressures and incentives present in the rest of the world.

Some Amish communities allow people to borrow telephones or cars from non-Amish neighbors. I might have considered this hypocritical. But in the context of "strategic norms of technology", it need not be. The important bit is to add friction to transportation and communication.

Competitive Dictatorship

Officially, most Amish congregations operate via something-like-consensus (I'm not sure I understood this). But Friedman's claim is that in practice, most people tend to go with what the local bishop says. This makes a bishop something like a dictator.

But, there are lots of Amish communities, and if you don't like the direction a bishop is pushing people in, or how they are resolving disputes, you can leave. There is a spectrum of communities ranging in how strict they are about about various rules, and they make decisions mostly independently.

So there is not only strategic norms around technology, but a fairly interesting, semi-systematic exploration of those norms.


Other Applications

I wouldn't want to be Amish-in-particular, but the setup here is very interesting to me.

I know some people who went to MAPLE, a monastery program. While there, there were limits on technology that meant, after 9pm, you basically had two choices: read, or go to bed. The choices were strongly reinforced by the social and physical environment. And this made it much easier to make choices they endorsed.

Contrast this with my current house, where a) you face basically infinite choices about to spend your time, and b) in practice, the nightly choices often end up being something like "stay up till 1am playing minecraft with housemates" or "stay up till 2am playing minecraft with housemates."

I'm interested in the question "okay, so... my goals are not the Amish goals. But, what are my goals exactly, and is there enough consensus around particular goals to make valid choices around norms and technology other than 'anything goes?'"

There are issues you face that make this hard, though:

Competition with the Outside World – The Amish system works because it cuts itself off from the outside world, and its most important technological choices directly cause that. Your business can't get outcompeted by someone else who opens up their shop on Sundays because there is nobody who opens their shop on Sundays.

You also might have goals that directly involve the outside world.

(The Amish also have good relationships with the government such that they can get away with implementing their own legal systems and get exceptions for things like school-laws. If you want to do something on their scale, you both would need to not attract the ire of the government, and be good enough at rolling your own legal system to not screw things up and drive people away)

Lack of Mid-Scale-Coordination – I've tried to implement 10pm bedtimes. It fails, horribly, because I frequently attend events that last till midnight or later. Everyone could shift their entire sleep schedule forward, maybe. But also...

People Are Different – Some of people's needs are cultural. But some are biological, and some needs are maybe due to environmental factors that happened over decades and can't be changed on a dime.

Some people do better with rules and structure. Some people flourish more with flexibility. Some people need rules and structure but different rules and structure than other people.

This all makes it fairly hard to coordinate on norms.


Contenders for Change

Given the above, I think it makes most sense to:

  • Look for opportunities explore norms and technology-use at the level of individuals, households, and small organizations (these seem like natural clusters with small numbers of stakeholders, where you can either get consensus or have a dictator).
  • While doing so, choose norms that are locally stable, that don't require additional cooperation outside yourself, your household or your org.

For example, I could imagine an entire household trying out a rule, like "the household internet turns off at 10pm", or "all the lights turn reddish at night so it's easier to get to sleep"

120

18 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:23 PM
New Comment

Promoted to curated: Many posts that we've curated have been literature and book reviews, with the general reasoning being that it's much easier to learn from others who have already thought about a topic than to rederive everything from scratch, and that there is a lot of value in importing other people's models into the broad rationalist ontology in a way that furthers understanding.

This post feels to me like it's roughly doing the same, but instead of it reviewing a book or a scientific field, I would classify it as a "culture review", which I think is valuable for many of the same reasons. In the same way it seems valuable to learn facts and models from established scientific fields, it's also valuable to learn norms and social coordination mechanisms from established cultures.

Even a month later I am still thinking about this post when trying to understand how to build functional institutions, and it has given me a pointer towards a perspective on coordination that I didn't have before.

I think a better version of this post would have expanded more on the cultural review aspects, and possible summarized some more insights into what the Amish actually practice, possibly with some more concrete examples.

This post feels to me like it's roughly doing the same, but instead of it reviewing a book or a scientific field...

Well, to be fair, it is also a book review. :P

I think a better version of this post would have expanded more on the cultural review aspects, and possible summarized some more insights into what the Amish actually practice, possibly with some more concrete examples.

Fair, although worth noting that such an expanded version of the post would simply be the entire chapter from Legal Systems Different From Ours (available here, although I think this looks slightly different than the version I got on kindle).

*nods* I do wonder whether the post would have been better had you used a lot of quotes from the chapter in the book.

I always have mixed feelings when I read book reviews that largely are quotes from the book.

I think that's a useful service when the book is long (especially if it's overly long) and there is some actual intellectual labor in figuring out how to abridge it down to the essentials.

In this case I think the original chapter was pretty close to maximally compact, and if I were to have done lots of quotes it'd have essentially just been a link-post, and I'd feel uncomfortable copying the chapter whole cloth.

I do encourage people who were interested in this post to read the whole thing if they're interested in more details.

(Legal Systems as a whole is quite long and I think individual posts that highlight particular chapters are quite valuable. My reading of the book was directly downstream of this previous, recent LessWrong post about legal systems created by prison inmates, was another chapter that illuminated key group rationality concepts for me)

If you can consistently get to work late enough I think the best time to go to sleep is around 1am. 1am is late enough you can be out until midnight and still have an hour to get home and go to sleep on time. Even if you are out very late and only get to bed by 2am you are only down an hour of sleep if you maintain your wakeup time. There is occasional social pressure to hang out substnatially past midnight but it is pretty rare.

For these reasons I go to bed at 1am and get up at 9am. Of course I don't have to be at work until 10am. But if you can make this work its great to have a sleep schedule you can hold to without sacrafices socialization.

Yeah, this has been quite valuable to me.

I like this post a lot.

I'm noticing an unspoken assumption: that Amish culture hasn't changed "much" since the 1800s. If that's not the case... it's not that anything here would necessarily be false, but it would be an important omission.

Like, taking this post as something that it's not-quite but also not-really-not, it uses the Amish as an example in support of a thesis: "cultural engineering is possible". You can, as a society, decide where you want your society to go and then go there. The Amish are an existence proof, and Ray bounces from them to asking how others can do it? What can we use from the Amish, and what is unlikely to work because the Amish had certain advantages we lack?

But this only really makes sense if the Amish managed to steer their culture successfully. If they put a bunch of effort into social engineering and got random results, such that their society is now different from broader US society but also different from what they started with, they don't tell us much. Or, different from what they started with might be fine, but we'd want it to be mostly deliberately different.

(If the Amish are mostly just trying to keep their society the same, that seems like another advantage they had that the post doesn't mention. Staying still seems easier than moving in a specific direction.)

So, in what ways is Amish culture different since the 1800s? Have changes been deliberate (like "it would be good to change like this"), or forced (like "we can't stay the same in the face of X, we need to make one of this set of changes, we choose this one"), or accidental (like "whoops suddenly we have a completely different opinion on some important question")? What would the Amish of each (say) 50-year time period think of the Amish from the next one? 

I think if I tried to answer these questions here, this review would never get posted. I don't know much about the Amish myself. But they seem worth flagging. Depending on the answer to them, the post might turn out to have important omissions.

Thanks to Jacob Lagerros for comments on this review

Some other things that come to mind:

  • Dragon Army previously tried the thing this post recommends trying. I don't know quite what to make of this; it seems like at least weak evidence that social engineering is hard.
  • I've seen discussion about whether MAPLE is harmful to its members' epistemics/ability-to-interact-with-the-world (despite being at least rat-adjacent). I don't have a strong object-level opinion on that. And even if it's true, that doesn't mean we can't take good ideas from them. But it might mean we want to be careful about it?

Random partial thought:

An outstanding post I have in the works is "Everything is leadership bottlenecked" (with "Intentional Community is leadership bottlenecked" being a special case).

It took a long time to even get one instance of Dragon Army, because you had to get someone who A) had a coherent philosophy, B) was willing to sink huge amount of time and money into a project. And then the project didn't work out, which isn't too surprising because most projects don't. But, we don't a huge surplus of leaders will doing to organize something like this.

I considered organizing something like Dragon Army, and eventually realized it wouldn't actually provide enough value relative to other things I could do. What leadership energy I have is invested in things like improving LessWrong (i.e. causing things like the Review to happen). 

While [at MAPLE], there were limits on technology that meant, after 9pm, you basically had two choices: read, or go to bed. The choices were strongly reinforced by the social and physical environment. And this made it much easier to make choices they endorsed.

Important context for this is that morning chanting started at 4:40 am, so going to sleep at 9 pm was a more endorsable choice than it might appear.

Nod. I think if I were to translate the concept into my actual environment it'd look more like going to bed at 11pm.

THIS. TIMES 1000.

I want more people to know this about the Amish! More people should have the concept of "distributed community with intentional norms that has a good relationship with the government and can mostly run on their own legal system" floating around in their head.

For followups, I'd want to see

  1. discussing the issues without proposing solutions
  2. a review of the history + outcomes of similar attempts to take the benedict option
    • this could turn out to be a terrible idea in practice, and if so I want to know that so I can start harping on about my next terrible idea

It's simple, which is not the same thing as easy. Not every attempt to try something different with norms has to look like Dragon Army.

But in the context of "strategic norms of technology", it need not be. The important bit is to add friction to transportation and communication.

Returning to this post, I feel like this is the real core of the value here.

The add friction strategy looks like it would work on arbitrary combinations of choices. Given choices A and B, we rationally prefer A but frequently choose B, then add friction to B until we begin to choose A consistently. By adding different amounts of friction, we can arbitrarily sort A, B, C etc.

This is basically Beware Trivial Inconveniences applied systematically to achieve the desired norms.

I've definitely benefited from having control over how much friction something had; adding a cost to visiting reddit made it less likely I'd waste time there all out of proportion to how large the cost actually was.

This post has caused me to read many more things about the amish and actually had some substantial effects on how I am now thinking about how to relate to technology as a society. It also cleaned up a lot of misunderstandings I have about the Amish, that caused me to be pretty confused.

I am interested in hearing more about what other things you've read.

I have definitely gained from having a set bedtime, even in the time that I was in recovery for another run at polyphasic - having a time (01:00) when I am *in bed*, every day, makes life easier to plan, and the sleep itself better. (I'm fairly sure I can support this with studies.) It's been a good policy to start.

It’s a very simple post, but I’m glad I read it. The question is one I am asking myself often.