on the possibility of digital farming

at the media lab, there’s a group called the open agriculture group (mit openag). as far as i know, it was established and is still run by caleb harper (his ted talk is a good summary of the vision of his lab’s work).

one of the main questions they’re grappling with is this: what does the future of farming look like?

lots of people from different contexts are grappling with this question and rightly so. we’re currently in the process of fucking up the planet and without food (which we can’t produce without the planet), some or all of us are going to die (and that’s certainly not to say that people aren’t dying now from hunger and hunger-related issues).

in one part of my community, folks are dealing with this question as justice issue. the openag group is taking a somewhat different angle on it and i actually think it’s worth connecting the two approaches.

up on the fifth floor of the media lab where the openag group used to have a large, wall-size installation, there’s a tv showing an openag promo video. one of the segments has a video of minecraft with a question somewhere along the lines of: “is this how the next billion farmers will farm?”

now, on one hand, it seems a little fanciful and ridiculous to think that farmers might farm video computer simulation. but on the other hand, there are a few examples where ideas or real implementations of things like this have already happened.

there’s lots to critique here, but i think two things could be interesting to watch for in this space. first, if people remain centered in the use of vr technologies, i can see the possibility of huge gains.

second, taking the massively popular game, farmville, as an example, with the right type of gamification, you can get people to spend lots of time doing anything. again, this could be used for evil, but it could also be used for good. can you imagine if all those hours humans spent playing farmville were actual research into farming? if openag built a sufficient model of how to farm and let farmville build their game on the model, billions of person-hours could have been directed towards farming learning. we likely would have uncovered totally undiscovered farming techniques. the best farmers in the game could be paid to run actual farms (or maybe robot-operated run farms). and there could even be different “regions” in the game you could farm in that matched the different climate zones around the world. even as the climate changes, the game could be built to have people farming in as many different climates as are possible to exist on the planet. that way, regardless of what happens, we’d have research on how to farm in those conditions.


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