Are we perfecting our means and confusing our aims?

Fodder for Thought

Technology is important to agriculture but we shouldn't let it become our master.

Published on: July 19, 2013

Ranching is a business reliant on natural processes and principles to make a profit.  Everything we do relies on a few very basic natural processes – photosynthesis, transpiration, evaporation, gravity, soil microbial life and herbivory by grazing animals, just to name a few.

As I've said before, when you get right down to it, ranchers ultimately are in the solar energy business.

Those who can most effectively and efficiently maximize their land’s ability to capture, convert and sell sunlight in the forms of food, be it plant or animal, fiber or fuel, in the end are the most profitable and successful.

 To do this we use personal skill and technology. In the technology aspect, our society has progressed quite rapidly over the past century. Along with this progress have come increased constraints on our own resources, such as time, energy, materials and money. We must do more with less.

In addition to these resource constraints, passage of more government regulations affecting management practices and intervention of environmental activist groups in activities such as public lands grazing are making management of land and resources more and more challenging endeavors. Many of the current and emerging technological trends today offer avenues with which to more effectively and efficiently monitor these land bases and resources.

It is up to the manager to choose wisely when considering which technologies will benefit him the most. To be useful, these technologies must perform efficiently, be affordable, and provide useful information that will assist in making better management decision. Anything less only creates extra work and adds stress onto our already busy daily lives.

However, sometimes I wonder if all these technologies are really a good thing. I see several trends emerging in our industry when it comes to these advancements. This applies for agriculture across the board as well.

The first is remote observation. More and more we are relying on methodologies that allow us to "be there" without actually being there. Technologies such as GPS, GIS, remote mapping, video surveillance, drones, and invisible fencing allow us to monitor things without having to be on-site. We save time and get things done faster. Yet, there is also the chance we can become too reliant on such means and let our "boots-on-the-ground" perspective suffer.

In addition to observation, we want mobility. The ability to record, plan, store data in the field and access it from anywhere is invaluable to us. There's no need to be chained to a desk or need to run back to the office to look up a cow's health records or our grazing plan. "Just give me a moment and I'll pull that up on my iPad!"

Even so… I'm beginning to wonder if it is all for naught. Are we becoming so reliant on technology in certain aspects of our management that our critical thinking and memory skills are suffering?

I recently listened to a TED talk on NPR by Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein. He discussed memory competitions and how some individuals spend their entire lives pursuing ways to master the skill of memorization of random numbers, names and other trivia.

The one comment that stuck out to me the most in Foer's talk was his reference to the "outsourcing of our own memories." This outsourcing can be seen in our inability to remember phone numbers (we now rely on our cell phone contacts) or the fact that if you don't know something you can just "Google it."

It makes me wonder, has this outsourcing emerged as an unintended consequence of our use of certain technologies? Are our critical thinking skills suffering? If the plug on our industry (technologically speaking) were pulled today could we live off the grid?

At this point, I don't know. What I do know is this: While technologies are a necessary means to our end goals, our application of this tool must be one directed at critical thinking and consideration before making the choice of whether or not to use them. In addition, we must constantly strive to keep our intended end goals in mind. 

As we go forward in agriculture we must be cognizant of these unintended consequences and ever watchful that our own use of any tool does not exceed our own humanity. I think Einstein said it best when he stated, "A perfection of means and confusion of aims seems to be our main problem."