Future Farmer

The following comes from the first chapter of my dissertation. Part of why I chose to look at farming technology stems directly from my own upbringing. In this section, I am actually trying out my own version of an “un-disciplined” philosophy of technology.


From a climate controlled tractor cab, eye level nearly nine feet above the field, the disconnect between the soil—the object to be worked, tilled, planted, sprayed, and harvested—and I stands out as starkly as the hills and edge of the horizon. I have come to sit in the tractor because my father was a farmer. He still is, of course, but the past tense serves the purpose of delimiting work he did fifteen years ago and work he does now—a topic particularly relevant to my last chapter. He raised me with machines and equipment—farm implements—that kept me warm in winter cold and cool in summer heat as we—the machines and I—performed the tasks set before us.


I learned to drive a tractor before I could ride a bicycle without training wheels. I came to trust the “me + tractor” hybrid (though I certainly did not understand the relationship in that way then) more than I trusted other “me + machine” combinations. On a bicycle or skateboard, for instance, I was conscious of falling in part because I knew I was, largely, in control. With the tractor, I understood it did not need me to balance it, nor did it need my energy to make it move. Indeed, I quickly apprehended that I did not even need to be at the controls for it to move through a field. Learning to drive the tractor well, of course, required much practice, and learning to use it for farming practices like planting and harvesting necessitated even more time. From an early age, though, I learned the perspectives a large tractor affords: elevation, supervision, domination. Climbing into a tractor cab, each step up takes you away from the thing—the soil—that is meant to be manipulated.


Surveying the field from the tractor, the operator can simultaneously feel in control while also experiencing a kind of surrogacy: the tractor and implements will do the ‘work’ of tilling, planting, harvesting, etc., and the operator will guide and manage the equipment. Rather than a neat separation of duties, as clean as the purported separation of the human and the equipment, the operator and the machines work in tandem, although it is not hard to imagine how the person, as farmer, serves as a proxy for the things that perform the labor.


My father, certainly, does not imagine himself as a resource for the objects doing the farming. He does not consider his feeding the tractor—filling it with diesel fuel—on the same level as his feeding the cows that roam the farm’s pastures. When I use such language with him, he laughs and reminds me machines and animals are not the same things. I should not confuse diesel fuel and hay bales; cows do not, so why would I?


Making the familiar less familiar, of taking things/processes out of their quotidian contexts and making them strange—what Viktor Shklovsky (1917/1965) termed “defamiliarization”—allows us to experience those things and processes in greater detail, perhaps revealing a complexity, meaning, and perspective lost through habitualization. Well-trodden ground in Science and Technology Studies,[1] the act of making the familiar somewhat unfamiliar invites us to reimagine how we envision the shared, even co-dependent and symbiotic, relationships between humans and technologies. For Shklovsky (1917/1965),


The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. (p. 5)


I understand classical philosophy of technology[2] as, at least in part, an exercise in making the supposedly familiar less familiar. Classical philosophy of technology challenges readers to question their relationships with the artifacts and techniques that permeate their lives. Its practitioners explore the kinds of experiences we have with, through, and because of technologies—a practice taken up by postphenomenologists and which I examine in Chapter 3. Though I will argue that technologies facilitate and mediate the human experience, and in important ways are extensions of ourselves, I do not make the ontological claim that humans are technologies (or vice versa), that the two are actually one.


The project of classical philosophy of technology—macro analysis and criticism of human-technology relationships—deserves renewed attention, and this dissertation participates in that intellectual project. The normative and speculative qualities of classical philosophy of technology—attempting to understand and explain the “right relations” humans should have with technologies—provide the interlocutor with a substantial position to critique, debate, espouse, decry, etc. Much contemporary philosophy of technology, conversely, offers little more than description. Postphenomenology, for instance, often avoids normative judgments and pronouncements.[3] On a methodological level, postphenomenology is normative: descriptions of human-technology relations require the use of certain concepts, and the investigator should try to imagine numerous perspectives on the issue.[4] It tells us how to investigate human-technology relations, but it offers no guidance on what to do with that description. It does not advise us on how we should act, think, work, play, etc., in relation to technologies. Although I do not agree with the pessimism often found in classical philosophy of technology (see Chapter 2 for more on this topic), I do appreciate its explicit normativity.


In Chapter 4, I identify writers that speculate about our potential futures and offer normative judgments about how humans should live and act in a world mediated by technologies. Though these writers—whom I will label “un-disciplined” philosophers of technology—do not reside in traditional academic departments, their perspectives, their narratives, deserve attention from the community of philosophers that seek to make philosophy of technology relevant to more than just academics (Wittkower, Selinger, and Rush, 2014).


These “un-disciplined” philosophers of technology make familiar techniques and technologies unfamiliar by offering narratives that challenge, for instance, the notion of clean divides between humans and technologies. They propose that we have always been intimately linked with technologies and could not have reached our present states without them (Hayles, 1999; Kelly, 2010), or that we will soon reach a point where biology no longer limits (trans)human development (Kurzweil, 2005). “Un-disciplined” philosophers of technology motivate their audiences to change how they see themselves and their world in the present, but they also urge their audiences to imagine potentials beyond the current horizon. A tractor cab might seem a strange place to reflect on such topics, but it was the feeling of connection with the machines, and the lack thereof at times, that motivated me to seek out thinkers that explored how I should imagine my relationship with the machines. Once I found them, I realized I held a perspective that needed updating, that required adjustment to fit the pieces—me, the tractor, the field, the equipment—together into a coherent whole. This project attempts to explain how I assemble the disjointed chunks of metal, plastic, dirt, and flesh—matter all—into a narrative that helps situate me with the objects that surround, support, and guide me.

[1] C.f., Latour and Woolgar (1979/1986), Latour (1987/2003), and Collins (1985/1992) for studies that ask readers to set aside our preconceptions of, for instance, science “as the locus of certain knowledge” and to imagine it instead “as a cultural activity” (Collins, 1985/1992, p. 1).


[2] Throughout this work, I follow Hans Achterhuis’s (2001) demarcation of philosophy of technology. He distinguishes between classical philosophy of technology, as practiced by Martin Heidegger (1979), Jacque Ellul (1964, 1990), Herbert Marcuse (1964/1991) and Lewis Mumford (1964), from contemporary philosophy of technology, as practiced by Peter-Paul Verbeek (2005, 2011), Don Ihde (1979, 1993), Andrew Feenberg (1995), Philip Brey (2010) and Bruno Latour (1992, 1993a). Carl Mitcham’s Thinking through technology (1994) distinguishes engineering philosophy of technology and humanities philosophy of technology. Though useful distinctions, his “Notes toward a philosophy of meta-technology” (1995) begins to demarcate philosophy of technology in ways that closely resemble how Achterhuis (2001), Brey (2010) and Verbeek (2011) distinguish classical and modern philosophy of technology, now a commonly accepted distinction.


[3] Robert Rosenberger (2015) makes explicit the need to include phenomenological accounts of human-technology relations in our explanation of “phantom vibration syndrome.” He offers a detailed description of how study participants use cell phones, how human brains interpret the stimuli associated with the phone’s notifications, and even how social and cultural norms and motivations impact the person in terms of pressure, stress, and anxiety. He argues that any attempt to understand “phantom vibration syndrome” requires all of these accounts because “what is at issue here . . . is whether pointing to the brain itself as the noun committing the behavior in question is the most helpful way to frame our explanation” (p. 130). At the cusp of shifting from description to prescription, however, he stops. He may not have intended to provide normative analysis; he may have only intended to explicate specific aspects of the issue that have gone unobserved. His account is detailed, insightful, and compelling, but he refrains from making a broader connection to how people in general should use cell phones.
[4] In Chapter 3, I examine this methodological principle further.


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