DR OANE VISSER

Digital Farms, Tinkering Farmers, and Enlightened Hackers
Farmers as the Vanguard of Data Activist Movements?
POLITICAL ECONOMY RESEARCH FELLOW: APRIL 2020 – NOVEMBER 2020

Oane Visser is associate professor at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), in The Hague, part of Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He has been visiting researcher at University of Oxford, Toronto University, Cornell University and City University New York.

Building on his long-term research on agrifood issues, his latest research projects study digitization in the sphere of agriculture, natural resources and global development more broadly. He is principal investigator of a Toyota Foundation funded international project on digital/smart farming, emerging farm data cooperatives and changing values regarding data in the EU, Russia and Australia. Another (ISS-funded) project examines the labour implications of new digital technologies in EU agriculture. Further, together with data scientists, he investigates the role of big data and AI in preventing or mitigating land grabs.

Visser also furthers his longer standing research on (super)large farms, farmland investment and financialisation (investigated amongst others within his European Research Council (ERC) project), increasingly seeking to integrate it with environmental history and the study of the impact of climate change. Another important line of research is around smallholders, alternative food networks and (‘quiet’) food sovereignty, in particular in post-socialist countries.

Visser has (co)-edited various special issues, and numerous book chapters and articles in journals like Globalizations, Journal of Rural Studies, European Journal of Sociology, Journal of Peasant Studies, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, Agriculture and Human Values. Visser is coordinator of the Eurasian Agrofood and Land initiative (EURAL), and an editor of Focaal––Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology.

Abstract

‘Digital’ or ‘smart’ farming is heralded as the techno-fix to address the challenge of feeding the world in an era of climate change and shrinking per-capita resources. Cloud-connected combines, drones and other ‘smart’ devices are generating growing amounts of ‘big data’ on farming and farmers. Big Tech and Big Ag firms are building digitally locked farm equipment and enclosed data platforms, making farmers increasingly dependent on their digital (and industrial) products to run their farms (Carolan 2017; Visser and Sippel n.d.). Farmers risk being turn into the rural variant of disenfranchised Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers. This project will investigate how farmers attempt to resist or mitigate rising data-driven corporate control, as well as explore farmers’ alternative data/technology arrangements and their potential for enabling a transformation towards a more equitable and sustainable agriculture.

My thesis is that farmer-activists are at the vanguard of emerging ‘data activist’ movements and practices. The observation that farmers are leading the US ’fair repair’ movement points in this direction (Rogers 2017). In order to ‘test’ this thesis, I will draw on the novel concept of ‘data activism’ (Milan & Velden 2016); that denotes civic activities that interrogate the dominant model of top-down (corporate or state driven) datafication, by developing alternative arrangements and imaginaries. This project will expand research on data activists like civic hackers and open source developers, from the predominantly urban sphere of highly educated, tech-savvy activists, to the countryside. Farmers, often more autodidact, have a long history of tinkering with technologies (Ploeg 2014). Now they have started to crack codes of farm equipment software, and build new data platforms. Theoretically combining social movement literature, critical agrarian studies, and new data (activism) studies, this interdisciplinary project examines four key cases of farmer-led data activism in the US and EU.

The Research Idea

Farming as a highly localized, thousands-of-years old occupation might seem the antipode to both the footloose, digital business models of Big Tech corporations like Google, as well as to the hyper-connected hackers and open-source developers resisting them. In reality, however, these two worlds are increasingly intermeshed through the advance of so-called ‘smart’ or ‘digital’ farming technologies. Cloud-connected combines, drones and other ‘smart’ devices are generating growing amounts of ‘big data’ on farming and farmers. Big Tech and Big Ag firms are building digitally locked farm equipment and enclosed data platforms, making farmers increasingly dependent on their digital (and industrial) products (Carolan 2017; Visser & Sippel n.d.). Farmers risk being turned into the rural incarnation of disenfranchised Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers. However, family farms have a remarkable track record of modifying and/or cooperatively-sourcing new technologies, as well as designing their own (Ploeg 2014). Recently they have started to crack codes of farm equipment software, and build bottom-up data platforms (Carolan 2018), often in alliance with other hackers and open-source makers. Farmers have historically been frontrunners in establishing bottom-up, cooperative structures, although policies and social structures that supported farmer-driven innovation during previous waves of technological change, are under threat.

This project will investigate how farmers attempt to resist or mitigate rising data- driven corporate control, as well as explore farmers’ alternative data/technology arrangements and their potential for enabling transformation to a more equitable and sustainable agriculture.

My thesis is that farmer-activists are at the vanguard of emerging ‘data activism’ movements and practices.

Background

Digital farming is widely heralded as the techno-fix to address the challenge of feeding the world in an era of climate change and shrinking per-capita resources. A few studies examine the social organization of emerging data arrangements in agriculture. Yet they fall short of investigating bottom-up initiatives by farmers, and the wider political economy context. These tendencies resonate in the research grant landscape, where digital farming tends to be boxed as a topic for applied research. It is my contention that the (digital) future of our food system is too important to relegate exclusively to policy-oriented research that sidelines unsettling questions. Critical research on this topic (including the publication track record) is still in its infancy. Right now, however, is the moment to accelerate critical, interdisciplinary research. The (corporate) arrangements around farm data have not yet crystallized. This opens a unique window for steering debates and practices into a more equitable, imaginative direction, an opportunity that might be short-lived. The ‘network’ effect of data platforms, with their winner-takes-all tendency (e.g. Facebook, Uber), means that alternative farm data initiatives will be crowded out rapidly if they fail to attract visibility and support. An ISRF grant is exactly what would give my research ‘wings’ now (not a multi-year grant with a laborious start-up phase such as my previous ERC). I already collected most of the empirical data (financed by various grants covering fieldwork costs), and would now hugely benefit from effective research time to achieve a big leap in writing up findings.

The Focus

This project focuses on farm data activists, as constituting an emerging type of social movement. Social movements in and beyond agriculture have to re-invent themselves to remain effective in a digital, algorithm-led society.

Emerging studies on ‘data activism’ have predominantly investigated reactive data strategies; civic hackers trying to expose or mitigate the excesses of corporate or state digital power, such as increased surveillance (e.g. Anonymous, Wikileaks). Most recently pro-active data activism (compiling/creating alternative data sets ‘for good’) has received attention (Milan & Velden 2016, Daly et al 2019); ‘Syrian Archive’ for instance creates data sets on war crimes combining witness reports, social media and satellite data. The exciting data activism research features two gaps this proposal seeks to address.

First, whereas current research heavily prioritizes cities, as supposedly the frontier of technological innovation and activism, this proposal ventures into the supposed rural ‘backwaters’. I contend, following the architect Rem Koolhaas (2012), that ‘the countryside is now the frontline of transformation’, where dispersed sites of – sometimes radical- innovation blossom under the radar.

Second, focusing on farmers and their allies forces us to look beyond purely digital/ virtual worlds of activism (sometimes reduced to meagre ‘click-tivism’), and ground digital activism – literally, in the mud. Farmers’ data activism seems to be driven foremost by bread-and-butter concerns around repairing (or substituting) their digitally-locked tractors, and controlling the data their milk robots generate, rather than by more ephemeral/abstract notions of privacy, democracy and transparency on which the urban middle classes’ data activism centers.

Theoretical Novelty

Within critical agrarian studies, a long-standing literature focuses on agrarian social movements, more recently the transnational agrarian movements, arguing that they are among the most inclusive and best-networked contemporary social movements (Borras 2010). With one recent exception (Carolan 2017, 2018), the discipline has virtually ignored the rise of farmers’ data activism (Bronson and Knesevic 2016). Therefore, this proposal draws on recent insights from new strands of Science and Technology Studies; big data and data activism studies. A key insight, used here, is that enhanced economic exploitation in the data economy, is enabled through increasingly diffuse and non-transparent ways of algorithmic governance (Kitchin 2014, 2017), mostly taking on some form of ‘platform capitalism’ (Srnicek 2017). Thus, activists and unions/cooperatives have to untangle codes, break digital locks and change algorithms in order to discern, fight, and build alternatives to corporate interests and top-down value chain transformation.

In order to grasp these novel forms of digital-era farm activism, besides drawing on new typologies from data studies (Milan and Velden 2016), I will build on longer-standing agrarian studies research on commons (and property more broadly), including my own, in order to historicize and deepen current studies on ‘digital commons’ and ‘platform cooperativism’ (Scholz 2016). In studying the disruption upcoming in property arrangement around farm data, I will draw on my research on changes in property rights and relations (Visser 2003; 2006; 2009), and forms of cooperation (Kurakin & Visser 2017; Mamonova & Visser 2014) during Eastern Europe’s abrupt and massive post-communist transformation.

Methodology

Qualitative methods, with their open approach, are well-placed for studying new, dynamically changing phenomena (Silverman 2004), such as the topic at hand. I will employ a largely qualitative methodology using methods from anthropology, development studies and communication sciences, namely: 1) Multi-sited ethnography, building on my experience with multi-sited study of multinational investors and transnational agrarian movements. It includes face-to face and Skype interviews and participant observation both offline (at farm hacks, meetings) and online (webinars/online discussions), 2) content analysis of (web)documents and images and conduct ‘digital ethnography’ on the intersection of online and offline actions (e.g. how farmers apply data in their offline, daily activities and vice versa). I will draw on my network of scholars in the sciences (AI scholars, agricultural engineers) through my involvement in hackathons, for consultation (and potentially co-publishing).

This research aims to capture the variety of actors under the label farm data activist (farmer activists and their allies such as ICT practitioners, hackers and makers). Many farm hackers hack digitally-closed corporate equipment to further farmers’ control over technology, yet do not necessarily oppose industrial agriculture, or might represent large family farms themselves. Simultaneously, there are farmer activists who experiment with tech/data arrangements that radically depart from conventional agriculture. Further, Eastern European (Ukrainian) hackers are key participants in transnational farm hack networks (Koebler 2017). Hence, my Russian language skills will be helpful.

Work Plan

This 7-month research will cover two cases in the Netherlands (leading with vibrant farm data initiatives in Europe), and two in the US (home of the farmer-led ‘fair repair’ movement and the leading agricultural maker movement). The four cases together represent key types of data activism differing along the dimensions of practices, strategies and realms of action (see table). After mapping the main movement features, subsequently the potentialities and limitations (and resulting tensions) of each case will be assessed in-depth. One tension constitutes technical/ data expertise as empowering farm data movements yet potentially limiting their constituency (do these movement manage to include less tech-savvy and/or smaller farmers?).

Most data for the Netherlands I have already collected, this ISRF project primarily focuses on collecting data on the US cases, including through fieldwork, in collaboration with professor Michael Carolan (State University of Colorado), with whom I have long-standing contact.

Timing: Two months of data collection (3 weeks online search plus 3 weeks fieldwork on US, 2 weeks Netherlands/EU), is followed by 5 months of writing up two or three articles and disseminating findings (a report, blogs and presentations).

Outcome

Envisaged outputs over the award period include at least 2 high-ranked academic articles. One article will focus on the Marker movement (US), as this form of data activism has not been studied at all in agrarian studies until now. The other article will compare the four key types of farmers’ data activism. Further, a policy paper – likely in cooperation with the Transnational Institute (TNI) or ETC Group, as well as blogposts and presentations for farmers, data cooperatives and policy makers are envisaged. My ongoing collaboration with various European and transnational farm movements, NGOs and data initiatives, will greatly help in effective dissemination. In the medium-term, envisaged steps and outcomes are the following: 1) submitting a larger research proposal on this theme with a group of critical researchers that I hope will crystallize through this ISRF project, 2) contributing to an exchange between scholarly insights and practical experiences from farm data activists, through the formation of a transnational FarmDataActivist network, 3) a series of scholarly articles, which will include cases from emerging economies/global South. The overall issue at stake in terms of social movement literature is in what ways the studied movements are (dis)similar from both earlier agrarian movements, and data activist movements in other spheres, and how effective they are. In terms of agrarian studies, a crucial question is whether digital agriculture is at odds with inclusive, sustainable farming, or, with the right support, might offer unthought-of possibilities for bottom-up re-imaging and re-shaping of agriculture.