Precision Farming: Agri-Culture, Cybernetics and Civilisation

PhD Research Proposal
by James Addicott

Massey Furgeson Fuse

British history has seen several agricultural revolutions, such as the switch from hunter gathering, to land farming during the Bronze Age, or the 16-18C transfers from open field system to a system of enclosure. Along with various ideological and marketing forces; a push for increased profits; and in response to the threat of world population growth and the demand for a 70 percent increase in food production by the year 2050[1], the British farming industry is currently undergoing a new agricultural-revolution; its own emersion into ‘geo-space’ (understood here as ‘cyber-space’) as farmers increase the usage of I.C.T. (information-communication technology) and turn to satellite-guided ‘precision farming’[2]. This research project is concerned with what Jean-François Lyotard (1986) termed ‘The Computerisation of Society’ and the degrees to which human routine is being controlled or automated by cybernetics.

By 2030, the global economy could double in size, and India and China will swell to represent around 40% of global middle-class consumption, up from less than 10% in 2010. This will significantly alter the composition of global diets.
Farming First.org: By 2030, the global economy could double in size, and India and China will swell to represent around 40% of global middle-class consumption, up from less than 10% in 2010. This will significantly alter the composition of global diets.

Precision farming means satellites can now scan the surface of the globe capturing a range of information such as soil moisture levels, soil texture, levels of organic matter and photosynthesis (or leaf greenness). Farmers can process this data with a range of software applications and other data sets to help optimise seed distribution rates and fertiliser application levels in computer-enhanced farming equipment (tractors, fertiliser spreaders, drills, etc.). This information helps farmers to decrease expenditure and increase yield, output and to maximise profits. Furthermore, satellites capture and transmit geometric information that can enable farmers to drive their tractors within a ‘geo-refferenced’ space to a centimetre degree of accuracy to avoid wastage and optimise output. In such a system humans and nonhumans (e.g. soil, stones, crops, pests, trees, hedgerows, hills, technologies and clouds) can be understood or optimised in ways that increase overall productivity. Paul Conway, points out, ‘there can be little doubt that the transformation of ecosystem to agro-ecosystem produces well-defined systems of cybernetic nature’ (Conway in Bawden, 1991: 2370). How might the social sciences respond to this?

Cybernetics-Norbert-WienerSince its inception in World War II, cybernetics has both concerned and delighted the social sciences, polarising theorists into two camps that can be labelled as “cyber-optimists” and “cyber-sceptics”. When the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, discovered that cybernetic technologies blurred the former divisions that separated humans from their nonhuman environments, while governing human behavior by way of feedback and regulation, he began to worry about technological control, automation and domination. Peter Galison (1994) offers the reminder that: ‘Wiener repeatedly stressed the power of cybernetics to save, enslave, or destroy humanity’ (254). Lyotard stated that cybernetics: ‘has no way to correct in the course of it’s functioning’ and the ultimate goal of cybernetics revolves around ‘maximizing its own performance’, thus: ‘the system seems to be a vanguard machine dragging humanity after it’ (1986: 16). The real-time simulation in precision farming offers a working example of Jean Baudrillard’s “hyper-reality” since the fourth order of simulacra was ‘founded on information, the model, the cybernetic game’ with the ‘aim of total control’ (1994: 121). As cybernetically-inspired theories and technologies are deployed in genetics, computer-simulations, architecture, business and economics, agriculture and the social sciences itself, these concerns suggest that ethically-engaged research needs to be undertaken to understand how people are being affected by these communication-theories and technologies.

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However, cyber-optimists would reject some of the concerns detailed above. Bruno Latour claims that socio-technologies have always had agency and have always possessed a ‘delegated human character’ (1998: 300). Furthermore, he argues that networking technologies are simply exposing the ‘nature-culture’ networks that pre-existed the Modern Constitution’s attempts to purify society, politics and culture from natural networks (see Latour, 1993). Likewise, N. Katherine Hayles (1999) dismisses Wiener’s worries as the outdated ideas of liberal humanism and possessive individualism[3] and argues that because cybernetic feedback-loops ‘flow not only within the subject but also between the subject and the environment’ then cybernetics will help posthumans to ‘fashion images of (themselves) that accurately reflect the complex interplays that ultimately make the entire world one system’ (1999: 84-85; 290). Donna Haraway also supports the cybernetic breakdown of outdated ‘dualisms’ that ‘have been persistent in Western traditions’ and ‘systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, (and) animals’ put in place by ‘White Capitalist Patriarchy’ (Haraway, 1991: 117; 197). From this perspective, not only is the shift towards cybernetics helping to sustain nature-culture networks but cyber-culture may also allow humanity to go beyond the domination and dogmatism synonymous with modernity.

cyborg-love-addicottIn response to all of this, the social sciences have a duty to conduct a more ethically engaged investigation into the relationship between cybernetic technologies and human beings for several reasons. Firstly, to understand how societies are being transformed into “nature-culture hybrids” “posthumans”, “trans-humans”, “Humanity 2.0”[4] or “cyborgs” – if indeed this is the case. Secondly, by mapping the associative forces, or as Latour says: ‘the work, and the movement, and the flow, and the changes’ (2005: 143), we can begin to understand how nature-culture networks are either being exposed, or, how capital, nature, landscapes, technology and humans are becoming entwined, “entangled” (Callon, 1998), “mixed up” (Latour, 1998) or “mangled” (Pickering, 1995); causing debates within the social sciences such as “human exemptionalism” (see Murdoch, 2001). It will help us in defining “natural” and “artificial” nature-culture networks. More importantly, in response to Wiener’s utopian, dystopian or apocalyptic dreams and nightmares, the agricultural sector can be used as a site whereby an ethical model concerned with human and cybernetic interaction can be researched and conceived. To address these issues, the substantive question this project will address is: to what degree are cybernetic systems beginning to automate society? Beyond this overarching concern, I will address the following questions: why and how are farmers being driven towards precision farming? And, how do cybernetic technologies affect the role of the human agent(s)?

Researching this agricultural shift into cyber-space will be essential for contemporary and future generation’s understanding the role human beings play in cybernetically automated spaces or environments in which ‘distributed cognition’ provides us with a systems ‘whose total cognitive capacity exceeds our individual knowledge’ (Hayles: 1999: 290). Furthermore, if society becomes increasingly automated by such technologies, this information and the theories it develops will help to determine a critical and un-systematised stance towards information-communication society.

Note: (19th of November, 2013):

This is the working title of my current PhD research at the Department of Sociology, the University of Cambridge and supervised by Peter Dickens. It represents “work in progress”, literally. Research is currently underway but hopefully this brief synopsis will give you guys (the online blogging community) some idea of the issues that my research is aiming to address. And, admittedly, these are theoretical concerns and at times rather “abstract” or “arbitrary”. (Good!) My research will aim to “ground” the theory and learn from my research “fields” – “ground” and “fields” offering me two nice words to use in relation to researching farming!

I will be posting a much more reader-friendly version of this proposal at some point. Because this is an interdisciplinary research project it is easy to get bogged down with jargon and subject-specific languages taken from astrophysics, computer sciences, social and cultural theory, or agriculture itself. Keep up to date with my page or follow me on twitter for an announcement of when this will be posted.

Keep up to date with my research by following my blog or on twitter:
@james_addicott
https://jameseaddicott.wordpress.com/


[1] In The World Bank’s  (2011) report entitled ICT in Agriculture claims that: ‘The growing global population, expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, has heightened the demand for food and placed pres- sure on already-fragile resources. Feeding that population will require a 70 percent increase in food production’. ICT, that ‘includes anything ranging from radio to satellite imagery to mobile phones or electronic money transfers’, or, ‘satellite imagery to mobile phones or electronic money transfers’, etc. is optimistically embraced as a potential ‘solution’ that could ‘improve agriculture in developing countries specifically’ (2011: 3).

[2] Farm machinery manufacturer John Deere states about their FarmSight wireless system that in the future, ‘FarmSight will connect equipment, owners, operators, dealers and agricultural consultants in order to enhance productivity and increase efficiency, by sharing information as well as sustainable practices to help reduce overall input costs’ (2011a). John Deere’s i-Solutions packages offered farmers the ability to purchase the rights to unscramble American satellite networks. Their website explains that, ‘Real Time Kinematic (RTK) satellite navigation is a technique used in land survey and in automatic guidance (agriculture) based on the use of carrier phase measurements of the GPS signals where a single reference station provides the real-time corrections to a rover vehicle (tractor, combine etc.) to a level of accuracy down to a centimeter’ (2011b).

[3] Liberal humanism can be traced back to Aristotle’s ethics, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke’s social contract theory, and of more recent, C.B. Macpherson’s economic theory of “possessive individualism”. In essence, liberal humanism declares that: ‘what makes a man human is freedom from dependence on the wills of others’, and possessive individualism presents the idea that the individual is ‘essentially the proprietor of his own person and capacities, for which he owes nothing to society’ (1962: 263). These are the ideas of the Modern Constitution that Latour also rejects by stating We Have Never Been Modern.

[4] Fuller, S. (2011) Humanity 2.0: What it means to be Human Past, Present, and Future. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.

Bibliography

Alrøe, H and Noe, E. (2003) Farm Enterprises as Self-Organizing Systems: A New
Transdisciplinary Framework for Studying Farm Enterprises?, in International
Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food (11)

Bawden, R. (1991) Systems Thinking and Practice in Agriculture, in Journal of Diary
Science, 74 (7):  2363-2373.

Baudrillard, J. (1994) Simulacra and Simulation, The United States of America: The
University of Michigan Press.

Callon, M. (1998), ‘Introduction: The Embeddedness of Economic Markets in
Economics’, in The Laws of the Markets, ed Callon, M. Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers.

Fuller, S. (2011) Humanity 2.0: What it means to be Human Past, Present, and Future.
Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillian.

Galison, P. (1994) ‘The Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic
Vision’, in Critical Enquiry 21 (1): 228-226.

Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. London: Free Association Books.

Hayles, N, K. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetic, Literature
Informatics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Latour, B. (1998) ‘Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a
Door-Closer’, in Social Problems, 35 (3): 298-310.
Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social – An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, New
York: Oxford University Press.

Lyotard, J.F. (1986) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester:
Manchester University Press.

Luhmann, N. (1995) Social Systems, California: Stanford University Press.

Macpherson, C.B. (1962), The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Oxford: Oxford
University Press.

McNamara, K. Belden, C. Kelly, T. Pehu, E. Donovan, K.  (2011) ‘ICT in
Agricultural Development: Connecting Smallholders to Knowledge, Networks,
and Institutions’, in ICT in Agriculture, Report Number: 64605,
Available for Download from: www.worldbank.org

Murdoch, J. (2001) ‘Ecologising Sociology: Actor-Network Theory, Co-construction
and the Problem of Human Exemptionalism’, in Sociology, 35 (1): 111-133.

n/a. (2011) NEW JOHN DEERE STRATEGY FOR WIRELESS
TECHNOLOGY . Available: http://www.deere.com/wps/dcom/en_INT/our_company/news_and_media/press_releases/2011/jun/2011jun07_farmsight.page. Last accessed 25th Dec 2012.

n/a, (2011)  John Deere FarmSight (Online). Available at: http://www.deere.co.uk/common/media/images/product/equipment/agricultural_management_solutions/farmsight/r2/hero/farmsight.jpg. Last accessed 30th Nov 2012.

Pickering, A. (1995) The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science, Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press.

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Review: Silicon Valley Comes to the UK: the “Big Data Summit” at Cambridge University

Venue: Lady Mitchell Hall, the University of Cambridge. 8th November: 2013.

“Silicon Valley Comes to the UK brings leading Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders to the UK to explore ideas and to ignite local entrepreneurship.” (http://www.svc2uk.com/about/)

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Social and cultural theory is inherently pessimistic and shrouded in pessimism and this becomes ever so apparent when attending talks and conferences that showcase new techno-scientific innovations. Silicon Valley Comes to the UK was a display of sheer technological-optimism that innovators, developers, entrepreneurs (or “capitalists”) radiate when discussing current realities and future possibilities. The question that rattles through the brain is: “is this just blind-faith in technology?” The even more worrying question for anyone critically in-tuned is: “What is being hidden?” or: “What aren’t we being told here?” As a starting point, the very fact that six speakers can speak of a unified vision of entire world change without challenge is extremely disconcerting.

The big word I was alerted to in tonight’s discussions about Big Data is not ‘data’, ‘algorithms’, ‘communications’, ‘storage’, ‘volume’, ‘velocity’, ‘adaptability’, ‘talent’, ‘access’ or ‘aid’ but the unchallenged, inconsiderate and unjustified use of the word “We”. Ethnocentrism – i.e. imposing a culture’s values and beliefs onto other groups – has been a debate raging at the heart of culture studies, anthropology and sociology and a problem that remains widely discussed but entirely unresolved. Nevertheless, technological-optimists of the military and corporate world seem to override these issues as they crack on with converting everyone and everything into data, algorithms, pixels, nodes, blips, stats, charts and PowerPoint presentations, for “Our” own good “We” are told.

Firstly, let me just outline the fact that I have at no stage offered consent to being included under the umbrella that the word “We” represents. Therefore, anyone wishing to use to word “We” in reference to every human being around the world would need my consent before doing so. Furthermore, I would just like to add, that if I do decide to opt out of “The Singularity”, then I would also like to hold the right to sue anyone claiming The Singularity to be entirely singular, since without my participation, it wouldn’t be true.
Therefore, I find it incredibly difficult then when John Katzman from Noodle Education states, without any hesitation, that: “It turns out that We all agree on what the K12 system is supposed to do!” – referring to the data analysis software which will monitor the performance of students after they leave school to offer a more flexible or adaptive learning environment: algorithmic software that “learns your learning style”. His justification we that ‘We want students that are going to survive and thrive in the world economy… who are going to have jobs and not be unemployed and make enough money to be happy with those jobs. We want people who are giving back to the community, they vote and they treat each other well, and, give to charity, and finally we want happy people who have low obesity, low alcoholism, low suicide rates, and, err, high metrics for contentment’.

Personally, I don’t quite remember “Us” being asked about whether or not “We” wanted any or all of those things? In regard to Katzman’s comments on the moderated consumption of alcohol, I personally know a few hardened drinkers who would fail to agree on his comments: lessening the extent to which his “We” statements hold to be universally true. Furthermore, How I interpret the use of software that monitors students income levels, alcohol consumption or classroom performance is: “if you are a non-performative student without talents to suit our system then your after-school, career-life (working in McDonalds, perhaps) can be better predetermined by our talent-seeking software.” Again, if “We” are implementing such a system to improve our performativity, I don’t quite remember opting, voting or offering consent for inclusion. It is just going to happen since “We all” want it. At this point in the talk I began to loose faith in democracy of the digital sort – this just sounds like American top-down dictation of the sort Henry Ford used to promote.

It is not just “Us” that are being affected by this big push towards the “We-society” but it seems that “We” are also busy extending “Our” global embrace into areas of “Our” globe that we have left untouched. Megan Smith from Google (x) pointed out that ‘Europe is incredibly connected and 900 million people in Africa are not in the conversation’. Smith then refers to these people as “our colleagues” while explaining how in the future the global embrace will be extended towards these disconnected regions. ‘Also NGOs’, she claims, ‘will no longer kind of boss people around with an aim of what you should do, but instead transition that to the talent networks and find out what those guys want to do’ – I am presuming here that Smith hasn’t asked the 900 million disconnected people in Africa whether or not they wish to connect to our Western “innovation network” or not. It would seem that without any kind of democratic procedure or qualitative assessment, like Katzman, their consent is already presumed or taken as a granted.

In a recent conversation with a fellow student who had spent three months cycling down through Africa she told me a story about how while in Ethiopia the children there came running up to her and were laughing out loud as she tried to cycle up a hill. She described them as having fresh skin, healthy bodies and bright white teeth with massive smiles. – My reaction to this was wrong, therefore, I apologise in advance but this mistake itself is significant. – I was taken back by her story, shocked, since what has been imbedded in my mind when hearing the word “Ethiopia” is images transmitted through the mainstream media in England during the 1980s – around the same time that Band Aid had released their number-one pop song Feed The World. During that time, images to famine and starving children were pumped into the living rooms of families thorough the UK. To hear her reports of healthy children in Ethiopia, then, contradicted this collective-memory stored in my mind. That was significant. Without the media, without being connected, it was only her words, her personal account or her personal experience, that challenged this preconception in my mind.

Although I am not immediately connected to these people in Ethiopia, I wish for it to remain this way. Although I am not immediately connected to those children, I am happy they are smiling, running, jumping and happy. In light of this, I can not help but wonder, where is the qualitative evidence can prove that there is a fundament need for these children to be connected to Western media networks to improve their lives and increase their happiness? Where is the comparative qualitative evidence to suggest that Western children are far happier than these Ethiopian children? It seems that we are hell bent on refining and understanding Big Data but have yet to consider further the philosophical or qualitative question regarding human-happiness. In terms of human welfare, I would rather approach that question first before encoding everyone of “Us” into a data-riddled format with the aim of securing and standardising a lifelong happiness for All – regardless of individual or collective consent. Agree with them or not, Western, democratic-ethnocentrism is going global and “We” are all onboard.

James E. Addicott: jea56@cam.ac.uk
@james_addicott
PhD Student @ University of Cambridge #cybernetics #culture#sociology #semiotics #actor-network #criticalrealism #posthuman

On Studying at the University of Cambridge

Dumbfounded. The only word to describe the feeling I had when I discovered that I would be studying for a postgraduate PhD at the University of Cambridge. I began my academic career at the age of thirty, studying at what some Brits refer to as a “red-brick” university – an old “working-class” polytechnic that later transformed into a “prestigious” university (English classism, I know, I know). After doing fairly well there, I went back to work and felt that laborious “9-to-5” lifestyle slowly grinding me down and sapping me of the will to live. I returned to the University of Bristol to study for a masters of science (MSc) in social and cultural theory, which was a real step up the social ladder for me. Again, my results there were fairly good too.

My advice to anyone applying to do a PhD course is to take a gap year out after finishing their master’s degree to get in touch with a range of potential supervisors, network, email and visit departments, while at the same time taking a look around for funding options, working out expenses, etc. Doing a master’s degree is very stressful and with some universities closing their application deadlines in December – the time when most master’s students are in the thick of their studies! – delaying your application by a year can reduce that stress and give you time to get a cracking PhD proposal together. What is more, you can really take time to think about what it is that you really want to study for three years, and, discover what niches there are in the knowledge market. That would be my advice.
While discussing my PhD application with a friend, I mentioned, cheekily, that I was considering applying to Cambridge. Their response was: “Well, someone’s got to do it: so why not you?” This prompted me to email the sociology department with my research idea, to, which they replied: “Yes! Very interested. Please apply a.s.a.p.” It wasn’t as easy at that, after applying online I had to negotiate my place and make sure that my project sounded realistic and theoretically/methodologically viable. This must have been the case because after going back and forth with my potential supervisor for months, I was eventually offered a place. And, like I’ve already said, the only way to describe my feeling was: “Dumbfounded!”

Welcome to Cambridge
So, in terms of climbing the academic ladder, I have gone from the University of the West of England (#56) to the University of Bristol (#15) to the University of Cambridge (#1). – see here. There are several important reasons I have been able to climb this ladder, too in depth to mention here now, but my advice to any students looking to get on and up would be just to believe in your own talent, be realistic about your abilities and goals, be prepared to interrogate yourself and an academic with ideas and a human with real feelings and real bills to pay.
Anyway, this is the next part of the blog. I will keep anyone out there in the online “Blog-Sphere” informed about life at Cambridge and helpful advice on what to do and what not to do. Furthermore, I’ll be dropping some social commentary on the differences between studying and living at the top of the University League table as compared with being further down the bottom. Bottom line: “Stay tuned!”. Peace.