A topic that was discussed a while back in my column was why people living in rural communities exhibited the same pathological effects from modern technology as people living in modern urban environments. The explanation that was given was that people everywhere today immersed themselves in the fields of experience of their screen realities: in their movie screens, televisions, video games, computers, smartphones and tablets. In rural communities, this meant that people were constantly experiencing the sensory distortion both from the understimulation of the numbing screen that separated the viewer from the content behind the screen, as well as the overstimulation from the tension pockets of the content on the screen: the bombardment from the streams of data, the sites dealing with membership in extreme social and political groups, and pornographic sites. So rural people like urban people had their minds reconfigured by the overwhelming presence of this new screen reality such that they could more effectively absorb the stimuli emanating from this new screen reality. Finally, the rural people like the urban people lost their capacity to effectively absorb the organic stimuli from more natural environments, even though they were living in more natural environments than urban people. This explains why so many people in rural communities in places like Ohio and West Virginia have gotten addicted to opioids. Like the abrasive streams of data, violent web sites and pornography on the Internet, opioids present an abrasive tension pocket stimulation that can pull modern rural residents out of their deep numbness.
This disconnect from nature offers us an explanation for why so many rural residents, or people in general for that matter, are no longer interested in doing farm work. Why so many farms have difficulty finding the people they need to do many of the tasks that have to be done on farms. And this explains why people are looking at robot farmers with such great interest.
So now we have the development of robot farmers that are being created to plant crops, prune crops, attack weeds, harvest crops, and transport large quantities of crops. Many observers embrace this technology and feel that this is the only effective way to deal with the world’s growing population. Maybe this is so. But work is not only a vehicle for producing products and services. It is also a vehicle for producing validating vibrant life experiences in which we make, receive and preserve organic imprints, create meaningful life narratives and prepare for death by developing personal surrogate immortalities. And farming provides a vehicle for connecting to the original template that allowed humans to make organic imprints – a natural environment, one that in this case has been reshaped by humans in order to provide a predictable supply of sustenance. If we all can’t live on the farm anymore, it is at least nice to live vicariously through some human beings who do. It becomes a vicarious model for more natural behavior. What kind of model is going to be left, if robots gradually take over more and more of the work functions on a farm? For a young person, it will be one more example of the idea that if a person wants to get significant labor or management, for that matter, work today, he very likely has to model himself after a machine.
The people who make these robots have indicated that there will always be a place for humans in farm work. Perhaps, but what percentage of workers are we talking about? The trend in situations like these is to permit modern technology to take over more and more segments of the operations. And as this happens, it is not only the rural folks, who are still predisposed to farm work, who lose the opportunity to engage in it, who are affected by this technology takeover. It is also everybody else who loses the opportunity to vicariously engage in these more organic farm activities through observing these workers on visits to farms, or on television programs, or in articles that discuss them. Simply being aware of human farm workers gives everybody else a sense of the possibilities that still exist, even if the possibilities are presented in a somewhat indirect truncated form.
Perhaps what we can say is that there are two categories of behavioral models. There are those behavioral models that we consciously or unconsciously directly try to imitate and that have a direct focused impact on who we become and what we do in our lives. And then there are those models that remain in the background of fields of experience as potential sources of imitation and that, nevertheless, add an atmosphere, an influence, a flair to those activities that we do focus on. So that even if our work is in information technology, we can still maintain a somewhat organic flavor to our lives, dreaming sometimes of professions where people are more organically connected to the world. And there are some people who do give up engineering or other more conventional professions in order to go back to the land. But with robot farmers encroaching on more and more of the farm work, what is there left to dream about, to fantasize about in terms of connecting to nature?
But you say, the whole reason that farms are turning to robot farmers is that there aren’t enough humans to do all the farm work. Modern technology has gradually reprogrammed people to be less capable of absorbing organic stimulation and thus engaging in more organic work. And now that same technology is replacing the people that it has reprogrammed. And as I have pointed out, this is an unfortunate situation not only for potential rural farm workers, but for all of us who like to fantasize about the natural connection provided indirectly by these farm workers.
(c) 2019 Laurence Mesirow