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 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.


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:

[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.


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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
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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.
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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:

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

TECHNOLOGY . Available: Last accessed 25th Dec 2012.

n/a, (2011)  John Deere FarmSight (Online). Available at: 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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