Ground-level, or practical, knowledge, is very hard to develop and very hard to replicate. Amar Bhide writes broadly about three levels of knowledge—at the top you have things like the Pythagorean Theorem that are very easy to replicate and disseminate, especially in our intensely interconnected modern world. The bottom includes things like the effective way to run a mining operation or what it takes to minimize injury and loss of life in the event of a natural disaster.
These are things that are hard to discover to begin with and almost as hard to replicate elsewhere. So what happens when the march of progress renders specific practical knowledge obsolete? Does the knowledge of how to manufacture VHS tapes, or build a Gothic cathedral, eventually disappear forever?
Observations made by Kevin Kelly in What Technology Wants suggest that practical knowledge may be surprisingly resilient, even after we might consider it to be obsolete. His specific insight is about the longevity of old technology—he went through a late 19th century Montgomery Ward catalog to see if any of the items were still being newly produced and purchased today. To his surprise, he found that all of them were.
We’ve seen this with vinyl and we’re beginning to see it with CDs, and I am sure we will ultimately see it with printed books—once a technology’s time has come, people do not stop buying it, and incremental improvements to the form do not end. Once-dominant technologies, rather than disappearing entirely, move from the head of the tail of usage down into the long tail.
Specific practical knowledge goes into the production of particular technologies. Maintaining a long tail of practical knowledge diversifies us as a society. If, in a future where 99 percent of books are digital, a virus spreads to Amazon’s servers and destroys everyone’s ebook copies, we’ll be glad that the practical knowledge required to print physical books had been maintained, and people would likely begin to purchase physical copies of the books they want to be sure they never lose.
We can extend this observation from technology in particular to practical knowledge in general. Kevin Kelly also observes that the Amish, while seemingly autonomous, are also heavily dependent on modern technology and institutions.
They do not mine the metal they build their mowers from. They do not drill or process the kerosene they use. They don’t manufacture the solar panels on their roofs. They don’t grow or weave the cotton in their clothes. They don’t educate or train their own doctors.
If the Amish had to generate all their own energy, grow all their clothing fibers, mine all metal, harvest and mill all lumber, they would not be Amish at all because they would be running large machines, dangerous factories, and other types of industry that would not sit well in their backyards (one of the criteria they use to decide whether a craft is appropriate for them). But without someone manufacturing this stuff, they could not maintain their lifestyle or prosperity.
From this he concludes that the Amish are, to some extent, freeriding on modernity. They selectively choose from the fruits of innovation but do not contribute to the pool.
I think this is mistaken. Beyond the fact that the Amish actually produce physical items that people value and purchase, they also contribute by further diversifying both our practical knowledge and our norms. While it’s true that if modern technology went away tomorrow, the Amish would be much less prosperous than they are now, it’s also true that they have cultivated much more practical knowledge about living off the land the you will find in nearly any mainstream American community. They would likely find a transition away from the modern globalized production infrastructure much less painful than you or I.
The Amish contribution is twofold. First, they offer all of us the option of a particular set of norms and a lifestyle that we can opt into if we wish. Second, they help to hedge society as a whole against specific low probability but high impact events. Let’s say that it ultimately turns out that the Amish norms are much more sustainable in the long run than the norms that currently dominate mainstream American culture—an eventuality that I, at least, consider to be very low probability. Nevertheless, we cannot know in advance whether it will turn out to be the case. For that reason, if nothing else, I am comforted by their existence, the ongoing preservation of their norms, and the continuing cultivation of their practical knowledge.
The Amish are only one small part of the long tail of norms and practical knowledge, though they are among the most dramatic examples. A less dramatic example might be the ham radio community, which persists to this day even in the face of the more efficient communications infrastructure provided by the Internet, computers, and mobile phones. Yet if we ever faced an Egypt-style Internet shutdown, we would be very grateful indeed for the existence of a ham radio community for getting information across large areas quickly. Indeed, we’ve already seen how they increase our resilience during natural disasters.