How might technology change life on the farm? (and not always for the better!)

Today, we published a paper looking at how both technology and agricultural society can be re-scripted by use in practice (apologies in advance for the slightly complicated writing style: Latour + Geography journal isn’t an ideal recipe for simple language). In other words, we looked at what happens to both technology and agricultural society when new technologies are launched into a farm environment. While the relationship between technology and society is a common subject of research, interactions on individuals farms have rarely been looked at in a spatial way.

This research formed part of Defra’s Sustainable Intensification Platform. Firstly, we looked at how decision support tools were being used by farmers and advisers in practice. We wrote a previous article on the good design features of decision support tools, which was always interested in whether farmers used them or not. The question of whether they are used, however, is not sufficient to gain a full picture. For example, an affirmative answer given by a farmer might give a system developer confidence that the system was being used as intended by the designer. Yet, we found little evidence that decision support systems would be blindly followed by users; instead, they would use them alongside their own situated, experiential knowledge. Systems could be resisted, negotiated, and changed, and used in ways not intended by the designer. Think of how you use technology in your own life here – Apple has designed the iPhone to perform many functions – phone calls, whatsapping, internet browsing, texting – and many of us will do all of those things. My father owns a smartphone though and he usually only ever makes phone calls! So while the product could do lots of things, we all use it in different ways! It’s the same with decision support systems in agriculture – each farmer will use them differently.

The most interesting part of the study concerned how the introduction of technologies could affect life on the farm. There has been lots in the news recently about the potential side-effects of new technology – from autonomous vehicles and robots taking jobs from humans to sex robots fundamentally changing human relationships to the potential for armageddon. Back to our own lives once again and the same example of the smartphone – think about how that has changed your lives. Does it make you interact with people less in the real world, including your partner? Does it make you less likely to think for yourself? The introduction of the technology into your life has simultaneously changed your life.

Our study found that the introduction of technologies had the potential to change life on the farm. To some extent this is well-known – with the mechanization of agriculture, technology has replaced human labour and hence changed agricultural society. However, we also found that it could change things at the individual farm scale. We found, for example, that the use of decision support tools could change how farmers interacted with their land, spending more time in the office instead of in the field. The changing workflow required to use new technologies might be welcome for some, but we found evidence that some farmers might enjoy their life less if they were forced to accept some systems. There is certainly much more work to be done in terms of understanding how agricultural society might be affected by new technologies. But, the crucial point of our paper is that technology DOES change agricultural society – and therefore when researchers, designers, and policy-makers find the next big technological innovation, the farming community should be considered. Yes, there may be benefits to production, but is progress worth it if there are social side-effects? We hope that developers of technology think of their users, and wider society, when designing tools, and develop a social conscience. A large body of literature in STS might help them! In agriculture, talking to farmers would be a good start…

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