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New But for Whom? Discourses of Innovation in Digital Agriculture

Wed, September 4, 8:00 to 9:30am, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, Floor: Five, Grand Ballroom B

Abstract

We draw on a literature review and analysis of online media to describe who promotes digital agriculture and how. Promoters champion how big data analytics, automated tools, and decision-support software will optimize yields in the face of narrow margins and public concern about farming’s environmental impacts. At its core, however, the idea of leveraging digital infrastructure to more precisely apply inputs is not a new one, as agronomic research literatures have existed around it for over 25 years. Discourse in digital ag tends to favour technologies themselves over their embeddedness in longstanding precision approaches. Following STS work on promissory economies, we find that rhetorical emphasis on technical innovation is about setting expectations for the value of an emerging “smart” agricultural economy. But we classify three tensions in the discourse: 1) a focus on new tech vs. actual rates of adoption; 2) expectations for imagined users vs. contexts of use; 3) the extent to which digital tools are believed to displace farmer decision-making. Observing these tensions helps us name a larger dilemma: to what extent is this smart ag economy actually about agriculture (and what kind)? While precision agriculture applications represent a way to confront the biophysical heterogeneity of farm landscapes, as “data meets the land” this heterogeneity also provides an experimental technology for the general development of, for instance, artificial intelligence.

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