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Digital burgoo

Some thoughts on the digital age:

–It is the conceit of every generation to think they live in remarkable times. We believe the internet sets us apart from generations past because of the speed and breadth of connectivity. But we forget that over 200 years ago the Napoleonic semaphore known as le systeme Chappe could deliver a message—via a network of hundreds of signal towers–from one end of France to the other in hours. Built to convey military orders, it suffered the same fate as the internet, becoming a vehicle to announce tabloid-cover type news such as the birth of Napoleon’s son then, just before the system was eclipsed by the telegraph, it was used to send news of winning lottery numbers across the regime. Sound like a familiar tawdry use of technology?

I recall, age 19, in 1980, walking by a payphone in Greymouth, New Zealand, where I had gone for my first solo “away”trip, and being blindingly vexed to think that within moments I could be speaking with my family back home in small town Vancouver Island. The world had shrunk to the size of a rotary phone dial a long, long time before the internet.

So: the internet is not so much revolutionary in terms of speed but moreso in terms of access to speed. Now the privilege of announcing to the world the birth of a son is not limited to emperors; we can all do it!

–The wisest thing I ever heard regarding the internet was delivered by a humble market gardener who was an early adopter of social media marketing. “Nothing is free,” he said. Meaning: whenever we retrieve information on-line (as I just did last night while Googling “hog barn ventilation”) there is a form of commerce going on. I have received information, but as payment so too has Google and the like, who can sell that information about me and my tastes and desires to outfits selling barn ventilation. And or course we are all becoming aware of more sinister on-line manipulations of our personal information. 

So: on-line information is not free; it has a price, though the depth and breadth of that price has yet to be determined. But the nature of this commerce is so new it may as well be feudal tithe; it will take time to sink into our brains. Is this search worth the price I am going to pay? Yes? No?

–A common complaint is that access to on-line information and entertainment is leading to a decline in what some people call situational awareness. On our farm this means workers are listening to podcasts or itunes while they go about chores, which in at least one way has a real appeal to me. I mean, who doesn’t like the thought of a young woman listening to Jarrod Diamond talking about the wisdom of traditional societies while mucking out sheep jugs? But this entertainment comes at a cost. Headphones clamped to her head, is this farmhand aware of the water running from the broken line, of the ewe who has broken into the grain room and who is banging a bucket around, of the feed truck backing up to the bin? Access to online entertainment is definitely leading to a decreased awareness on the farm.

But there’s a more obtuse loss of situational awareness, or so some claim. Here’s the argument: the more we run our farms on spreadsheets, GPS, and remote control ventilation systems for barns (you know where that came from) the greater the loss of awareness of what is real, or used to be considered real—the health of the soil, as measured by the farmer’s hand; the feel of the barn, as sensed by the shepherd. 

But, again, that seems to me ascribing more to modern technology than warranted. Yes, GPS is taking the farmer’s hands off the wheel, but the wheel, and the tractor itself, took the farmer off the land in a much greater way, decades ago. The digital era is really just another part of a continuum that has seen farmers step further and further away from the direct action of putting a seed in the ground and tamping it down. How far back do we trace this continuum—to Jethro Tull and his mechanical seeder? To Gutenberg and his press, which took knowledge of farming from people’s brains and put it between the covers of books?

To this farmer, admittedly a bit of a Luddite, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same.