Replacing humans with machines: a historical look at technology politics in California agriculture

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Media outlets, industry researchers, and policy-makers are today busily extolling new robotic advances that promise to transform agriculture, bringing us ever closer to self-farming farms. Yet such techno-optimist discourse ignores the cautionary lessons of past attempts to mechanize farms. Adapting the Social Construction of Technology framework, we trace the history of efforts to replace human labor with machine labor on fruit, nut, and vegetable farms in California between 1945 and 1980—a place and time during which a post-WWII culture of faith in the beneficence of technoscience applications to agriculture reached an apex. The degree to which and forms whereby mechanization gains momentum hinges on whether, how, and among whom a technological frame for mimicking human capabilities and supplanting workers coalesces. These frames, we find, vary considerably across crops, reflecting complex interactions of biology, farmer and farm worker behavior, industry supply chains, agricultural research and development, financial flows, and beliefs about labor, race, gender, and immigration. To tease out these complex dynamics, we draw directly from archival evidence to follow the development of cultivation and harvest machines through four cases spanning a spectrum of outcomes—tomatoes, nuts, peaches, and lettuce. In comparing across these cases, we find that although agricultural engineers, scientists, and their boosters framed mechanization as a triumphal narrative of progress in ‘human vs. nature’ conflicts, this techno-optimist rhetoric camouflaged deeper ‘human vs. human’ conflicts, particularly among agribusiness, farmers, and farm workers. We conclude with several insights that this historical study brings to the study of agricultural automation today.

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Agriculture and Human Values