Technology, Agriculture, and the Computational Metaphor

by Lisa Borst

Illustration by Devyn Park

published April 10, 2015


We conceive of the Internet mostly through metaphors. Early imaginings of a globally distributed network of information likened the nascent web’s structure to that of a branching tree, its archival function to human memory. In 1945 engineer Vannevar Bush, who served as director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development during the Manhattan Project, wrote in The Atlantic about a hypothetical machine called the Memex—considered by many to be one of the first imagined incarnations of a computer—that could organize and archive information using “trails and paths,” as if information were a natural landscape to be groomed and tamed. Later imaginings of computers throughout the 1960s and 70s, focusing on their potential to store data and carry out repetitive tasks, rested on analogies of human brains and central nervous systems. The Providenceand New York-based artist Faith Holland focuses much of her work on the ways in which popular conceptions of the Internet visually and rhetorically recall the human vagina, reappropriating sci-fi imaginaries of the Internet as a series of endless tubes and tunnels that are ready to be entered and “penetrated.”

The Internet, often imagined as unanchored in real, physical space, becomes easier to talk about when we bend and stretch it into spatial analogies and metaphors, tethering it to more familiar reference points—the human body, the mind, and especially the earth. Indeed, the rhetoric of the current Internet—despite fantasies of the web as an aspatial site of futuristic progress—rests overwhelmingly on metaphors borrowed from botany, agriculture, and natural history: we discuss the Internet in terms of server farms and data mining, Explorers and Safaris, the rhizome and the cloud. Computers run and die and sleep; they have memory and energy. Digital product names consistently reflect artifacts and systems of the natural world, from the computer mouse to the Macbook Air. Walk through any university library or classroom or office and count the number of apples you see, all missing one bite rounded with digital precision, all emitting a soft electronic glow. Even the word 'web' itself evokes a silky and arachnid structure, branching and converging at endless glimmering vertices.


The Electronic Frontier

This sort of linguistic skeuomorphism (a term that refers to the use of real-life physical metaphors as a way to make the functions of digital technology more comprehensible—consider the clicking shutter sound of an iPhone’s camera, or the faux-soundboard aesthetic of a software like Garageband) is only one component linking the realms of computers and natural history. The relationship between the Internet and agriculture seeps past the rhetorical; historically, the two worlds have consistently collided and converged in material ways. In his 2006 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism, the media theorist Fred Turner discusses the ways in which many early Internet ideals and applications—so often considered the products of Cold War defense research and military-industrial efforts—in fact arose from the very same counterculture communities that, in the 1960s, were largely concerned with eco-friendliness, sustainable farming and “going off the grid.”

Turner traces the development of the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture magazine founded by writer and biologist Stewart Brand that focused on sustainable agriculture, DIY ecology, and building environmentally friendly intentional communities. The catalog, first published in 1968, was a seminal artifact for a generation of counterculturalists who ostensibly used ‘going off the grid’ as a means of protesting post-WWII consumer capitalism. However, Turner argues that, heralded in a large part by the Whole Earth Catalog, many of the communities that initially focused on building small sustenance farms, hippie communes, and other agrarian intentional communities in the 60s quickly found utility in the very same “cybernetic discourses and collaborative work styles”—meaning, namely, a nascent Internet—that had developed through Cold War research. Turner traces the eventual development of the communities surrounding the Whole Earth Catalog into the early Internet community known as the Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link, or the WELL; several users involved in the WELL eventually went on to found the magazine Wired, today a hugely influential, mainstream tech publication.

Much of this shift—literally, “from counterculture to cyberculture”—is evident in the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog itself, which initially functioned as a kind of product review. In issues published in the late 1960s, theoretical texts on cybernetics began to appear within the magazine’s pages alongside reviews of farming tools and holistic medicines; Turner writes that Stewart Brand “published letters from high-technology researchers next to firsthand reports from rural hippies.” That these juxtapositions actually worked to unite the worlds of sustainable farming and early online community-building reflects the twin utopian ideals shared by those two disparate realms; it also indicates the remarkable importance of building shared rhetorics between worlds.

Throughout the book, Turner emphasizes the deliberate process of constructing a shared language to unite digital technologies with the sciences, the natural world, and 60s political concerns—a kind of Esperantic link between fields. Recalling Vannevar Bush’s imagining of the Memex proto-computer as a system of branching trails and paths, Turner writes that the prevailing model within the Cold War-era military-computer-industrial complex was a conception of institutions as living organisms—an ethos and a rhetoric that sat well among intentional communities seeking to integrate life and land, social practices and agricultural labor, into singular sustainable systems.

The rhizomatic and acentralized—but ultimately programmable—architecture of the Internet comfortably straddles this divide between organism and institution. Indeed, Turner cites Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired, as asserting that humans are coming to believe that “the universe is a computer.” Continuing to quote Kelly, Turner writes that, in the 1990s, “Many had believed that ‘thinking is a type of computation, DNA is software, evolution is an algorithmic process.’ Soon enough, [Kelley] argued, human beings would begin to imagine all of biology as an instantiation of computer logic…. ‘We are compiling a vocabulary and syntax that is able to describe in a single language all kinds of phenomena that have escaped a common language until now. It is a new universal metaphor.’”


Data Farming

The metaphor runs both ways. Tech lifts agrarian language from biology and natural history, just as biology and agriculture rely heavily on tech discourse; and beyond rhetoric, too, there is movement in either direction. Inversely to Turner’s model of circa-1960s movement from the farm to the web, there appears to be, now, a parallel motion in the opposite direction: the application of contemporary digital innovations toward creating more sustainable agriculture practices, the seeping east of Silicon Valley.

In the past few years numerous tech companies and startups have emerged with the goals of improving agricultural output, collecting data in order to create predictive models for use by farmers and growers. The startup FarmLogs, for example, was founded in 2012 and allows farmers to store their data in the cloud and optimize production by keeping precise track of scheduling, seeding and irrigation, and other logistical information; it’s now used by 20 percent of row crop farms in the US. In a blog post about FarmLogs published this February, Sam Altman, President of the startup accelerator Y Combinator, wrote that, “Technology is about doing more with less. This is important in a lot of areas, but few as important as natural resources.”

This focus on using technology to stretch the capacities of natural resources falls among the larger tech-industry trend toward “solutionism”—the reliance upon digital technologies to solve real-world problems evident in business models like Uber and Airbnb, which use smartphone apps to solve issues of transportation and housing (although notably only for those users who can afford to take part in the sharing economy). The solutionist attitude was reflected clearly in multinational agricultural giant Monsanto’s 2013 purchase of the Climate Corporation, a San Francisco-based tech company that uses aggregated weather data to create and sell predictive insurance policies based on highly precise variations in geography, season, and crop. The sale brought an unprecedented amount of media attention to the role that digital technologies can play in agriculture, demonstrating big agribusiness’ faith in big data.

However, the ideological overlaps between the agricultural world and Silicon Valley startup culture—even its subsets concerned directly with agricultural production—remain contested. A 2013 New Yorker article about the Climate Corporation takes place largely at the company’s San Francisco office, where writer Michael Specter observes a company-wide game of foosball and remarks upon the Climate Corporation’s characteristically ultramodern, glorified-rec-room tech-campus aesthetic. “It is hard to say which scenario is less likely,” he writes: “that this place, with its brushed-concrete floors and its spare digital ethos, is the headquarters of what is essentially an agricultural insurance company, or that anyone who works here has anything in common with the people who farm the millions of acres that the Climate Corporation currently insures.”

It’s true that our collective imaginaries of the contemporary tech campus (which, in my mind, stands somewhere between the Facebook offices in The Social Network and the exaggeratedly futuristic campus setting in Dave Eggers’ 2013 utopian novel The Circle) little resemble the vast and dusty Midwestern landscapes we tend to associate with the modern agricultural industry. However, the tech campus, at least rhetorically, shares many of its ideals with a 60s-era intentional small-farming community—in particular, the imploding division between work space and leisure space exemplified by something like a company-wide foosball tournament. The Whole Earth vision rested on a unification of labor and life, an attempt to dismantle the delineations between capital-driven “work” and free, pleasure-driven “play.” On a communal sustenance farm, you live where you work, work where you play, grow what you eat. Likewise, the Silicon Valley tech campus ideal promises a similar collapse of this division, with large-scale tech companies providing their employees with residential and transportation arrangements, meals and gyms and childcare, ping-pong tables and foosball tournaments.


Head in the Cloud

This familiar tech campus vision—with its organic in-house cafés, its eco-friendly shuttle buses running from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, its Montessori education for employees’ children—stands as a salient and shiny example of the sort of vague, west-coast, NPR-leftism we tend to associate with the largely youth-driven culture of the contemporary tech industry. However, as many tech critics have argued, the actual business practices and political interests of the tech industry don’t always align with the ideals its office cultures ostensibly encapsulate  (let’s not forget that controlling the Climate Corporation, invested in its foosball tables and trendy treadmill desks, is Monsanto—widely imagined as the contemporary face of corporate evil).

Indeed, many of the ideals and politics that the tech industry uses to describe itself—especially those, such as egalitarianism and openness, sustainability and eco-friendliness, and non-commercial civic engagement, that begin to converge with the utopian idealism of the 60s communes discussed in From Counterculture to Cyberculture—start to deflate when one considers the material realities of the current technological landscape. As tech critic Tom Slee argued in a 2014 interview with the Independent, the architecture of the Internet itself has shifted tremendously since the heyday of the WELL, its political and social potential considerably shaken. Early Internet architecture of the sort championed by Stewart Brand depended on a nonhierarchical and networked model, one that allowed many computers to communicate with each other with no singular central node. The early Internet was, by design, egalitarian; the appealing and broadly leftist promise was that anyone could take part. But now, Slee argues, “That architecture has changed. Now there is this hub and spoke thing, whether it’s Facebook or Wikipedia. You might try and picture it as a network of people, but it’s all peripheral computers talking to a central computer.”

The trouble, according to Slee, is that while these realities of Internet use and tech-industry logic have shifted enormously, the rhetorics of sustainability and egalitarianism have persisted across the industry—so that, for instance, when Indiana passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act last month, effectively allowing state-sanctioned discrimination against LGBTQ individuals by private businesses, it felt only ‘natural’ for Apple CEO Tim Cook to publish an angry editorial in the Washington Post, arguing that, “Our message, to people around the country and around the world, is this: Apple is open. Open to everyone, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, how they worship or who they love.” 

This kind of borderline-utopian rhetoric works neatly to describe a company (with roots in the LSD-fueled counterculture of Steve Jobs’ youth) whose product names, like so many other digital technologies, rest on the language of the natural world—from the earliest incarnations of the Macintosh to newer features like its Retina Display. But by linking itself rhetorically to ideals of nature and counterculture, the tech industry is largely failing to talk about itself with the sort of openness and transparency for which it so often advocates. At a time when the agriculture industry is increasingly influenced and mediated by Silicon Valley, to ground technology in agrarian language becomes a tautological exercise: at some point, technology can only talk directly about itself.

LISA BORST B’17 worked on a farm once, but she grew tomatoes there, not data.