Amish Hackers

By Clinton Martin

The Amish are some of the best hackers in Lancaster County.  No, this doesn’t have anything to do with scammy emails and extortion through the use of ransomware.  Rather, this is hacking of a technological sense to create “go-arounds” to harness the usefulness of modern tech while still fitting into the moral and cultural norms of the Amish community.  

Many visitors to Lancaster County think the Amish must be very ignorant of technology, but I find the Amish are actually quite tech-savvy.  They know exactly what they want to use, and exactly what they want to exclude from their way of life.  

I can’t claim fame for coining the term “Amish hackers.” That rightfully goes to the foremost academic on all things Amish, prolific author Donald Kraybill.  In his excellent 2021 book, What the Amish Teach Us (Johns Hopkins University Press) he sets aside a chapter on these ingenious inventors, adapters, and “hackers” within the Amish population.  

As an example, he toured an Amish lantern shop, observing how lighting fixtures had changed in the Amish community over the last 50 years.  The lantern shop’s shelves were a veritable chronological museum showing how kerosene lamps had given way to propane models, to today’s LED light bulb creations running off batteries.  

The Amish are known for not using electricity, but in fact, they use electricity in a variety of ways – just a variety of off-grid ways.  As the lantern shop owner put it, “It’s not so much the electric that we’re against.  It’s all the things that would come in with it – all the modern conveniences, television, computers.  If we get electric lights, then where will we stop?”  

Thus, the lantern shop stocks lighting fixtures such as table lamps, floor lamps, desk lamps, flashlights, etc. that run off batteries, which can be recharged using solar panels.  These are the same lamps any “English” (non-Amish) person can buy, but rather than plugging them into the wall and flipping the switch, the Amish plug them into adapters, harnessing battery technology, and ultimately solar when the battery needs charged.  This adaptation maintains a separateness from the world, in a way, that makes it more difficult to bring in the tech they view as a threat to their way of life.  

The Amish lantern shop uses ten 3D printers (yes you read that right) to create a line of plastic adapters, connecting existing DeWalt, Makita, (and other brands’) interchangeable battery technology with mass-produced lamps of the English world.  The printers run off 48-volt electric batteries, which are recharged by, what else, solar panels. Unlike most instances of hacking, this is one case where I wholeheartedly appreciate the creativity, mastery, and flexibility of the actor!