This time, I will write a summary and some insights on Diane Zimmerman Umble’s “Sinful Network or Divine Service: Competing Meanings of the Telephone in Amish Country,” in Lisa Gitelman, and Geoffrey B. Pingree’s 2004 book New media, 1740-1915.
Umble’s argument revolves around the idea that (new) media possesses no deterministic, one-sided cultural meaning but that creates multiple meanings and different responses. Thus new media does not solely shape the identities of the communities where it reaches but these same communities have the ability to change the cultural meaning offer by the media.
In this case, Umble takes the example of the Old Order Mennonites and Amish communities of Pennsylvania at their strife over the telephone between 1905 and 1910. The new media then, directly threatened the Mennonites and Amish idiosyncrasy. As Umble puts it, “[the telephone] entered the home at the heart of Amish faith and life, in essence, sacred space.” (152) These Old Order communities based their religious beliefs in communal activities with the home as the center for worship.
In both communities there were problems. The phone companies advertised the goodness of their product: “To have a telephone is to live,” “You can increase your circle of desirable acquaintances,” or “How pleasant it is to make a telephone visit.” However, for Umble these very same positive attributes of the telephone caused division among the Old Order communities. For example, gossip became an issue among the Amish after “the object of the gossip” heard the conversation in a party line. Another issue of conflict provoked the loss of one-fifth of the community for not being willing to submit to the elders by giving up their telephones. The Mennonites came to compromise, not without internal divisions, with the Pennsylvania Ruling of 1907 that excluded church leaders from owning telephones or telephone companies’ stocks.
The cultural meaning of the telephone as a faster and better way of communication among friends and relatives did not quite fit in the views of these two communities. Moreover, the meaning that the telephone received was a devilish one. In addition, the battles for the use of the telephone in both communities resulted in the triumph of the more conservative groups that still today rule the lives of its members. (The Pennsylvania Ruling was enforced until 1994 and the Amish ban on telephones at home currently persists.)
Several lessons drawn from Umble’s article could be reformulated in the context of our “new” media panorama. First, the promoters of new forms of communication have their own interests (sell telephones), and these may not match the users’ interests (preserve their community identity). Second, new media suffers a stage of adaptation between the “old” and the “new” system (the ravages of party lines), in which social changes may occurred (internal divisions among the Old Order). And third, the separation between the realms of the private and the public may grow thinner or larger.