The Slippery Slope of Technology Keeps Us Working

Forty years ago when I was a teenager it took 3 of us all day to plant a 50-acre field.   Now, with planting season on my doorstep, I can plant 160 acres of soybeans by myself on a good day.  Time is moved on and so has technology.  The question is does it all work for our benefit?  Or, are we all just working harder?

I ask that question a lot, especially when I talk to people about computers.  Does it make us work harder or does it make our work easier or is it something in between, like making it more convenient.  I think we could have that debate forever.  I don’t know if we’d come to any good conclusions.  What we do know is that progress is unstoppable, whether that means more computers or leaving yesterday behind forever.  The good old days weren’t always so good.

I recently read an article by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail newspaper regarding how technology is putting us out of a job.  It was a very interesting read, especially when she said there is software available now, which can write articles.  This software can even add tone to an article, which would put your loyal scribe out of a job.  She listed several other examples with her comments somewhat defending the Royal Bank who recently had a bit of a PR nightmare over hiring offshore workers.  At the end of the article, I wasn’t quite sure if I’d have a job in another couple years.

In the piece she quoted Andrew McAfee, a research scientist at MIT who specializes on how technology affects business.  McAfee pointed out in his blog that Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google have a combined market capitalization of more than 900 billion, but yet only employ 200,000 people.  In other words, all that money doesn’t produce a lot of work for people and many of us are left behind.  It makes you think.  Is this good economics?  Or is there something wrong with this equation?

For those of us in agriculture, we are very used to the advance of technology.  For instance, as many of you know I write feature articles about Heritage farm equipment produced between 1960 and 1985.  At the dawn of that era, the big challenge was to get your land seeded within a set period of time.  Today, with our huge air planters, many of us have no problems planting thousands of acres; the challenge is more how to harvest those acres.  That challenge has been met to some extent with GPS technology that guides our combines through the dark, regardless of how tired you are.  The question is, what is next?

I have often said that the classic 50 acre Southwestern Ontario farm field is obsolete, in fact a relic of times past when 3 members of my family would work all day to get it planted.  I now can plant 3 of those fields myself in one day.  We have combines in my neighborhood with 40 foot flex heads that spin off 50 acres of soybeans in a matter of hours and could probably harvest another 15 acres in the time it takes to drop the head and move to another 50 acre field.  Unfortunately in that case, efficiency might lose out.  Is there a limit to bigger and bigger?

In many ways the advance of technology in agriculture is a trade-off between tangibility, practicality and real reward.  At the end of the day, we want to be very cognizant of the needs of the grocery retailer and commodity end-user, while using technology to its greatest efficiency.  Unfortunately, getting there is surely pockmarked with typical considerations.  For instance, next week I will take the delivery of a new tractor with an auto steer system integrated into it.  In many ways, this is like my grandfather starting up the tractor and leaving the horses in the barn.  My driving should be sub inch accuracy. However, at the end of the day, what will that be worth?  Or will it simply mean that I need to farm more acres and work much harder?

I dunno if I have the energy for that.  Of course, you all know my feelings about this technology being more a toy than a practical solution to real problems.  Of course, I haven’t mentioned how some of this new computer technology makes high-frequency commodity trading so volatile.  I haven’t mentioned all the new biotechnologies, which are mutating common weeds into super weeds.  The list could go on and on.

What I do know is that it’s a slippery slope.  It’s a vicious cycle and there is no turning back.   I have written this column every week for the last 27 years.  Each and every week farmers are trying to get more efficient, usually through the use of technology and they are succeeding like gangbusters.   The hard part sometimes is living life to the fullest.  Sometimes we are just working too hard to notice.  Thank goodness for technology.  What would we do without?