‘Countryside Code’

Martin Dodge – University of Manchester

Thewells Countryside code cartoons

The original country code was published in the 1950’s and illustrated by Norman Thelwell. Download more cartoons here>

The VMS DeLaval robotic milking machine promotional video. This robot now enables the farmer to use a touchscreen and robotic arms instead of actually physically milking the cow in the cowshed. In automatic milking systems, there is massive investment in changing the nature of working with animals. No one touches the cow. It becomes a machine-readable entity. Is farming a code/space? Is a cow only a cow through code?

Download Martin Dodge’s presentation slides>


Notes written by students of Theo Vurdubakis -Department of Organisation, Work and Technology, Lancaster University:

Martin’s presentation explored the ways in which codes and codification are entangled in the English countryside and, in particular, the difference that code makes in farming practices. 

Two contrasted images inform the way in which the English countryside is socially constructed. On the one hand, it is portrayed as a natural, peaceful and safe place in contrast to the urban and modern, and on the other as a place saturated with the materiality of the political economy of industrialisation. This idyllic image of a safe and secure environment is also challenged by images of the ‘otherworldly’, as pictures from the mass destruction of livestock caused by the recent epidemics of ‘foot and mouth’ and bird flu were reaching the public’s attention. Perhaps, we need to think of the countryside as a hybrid; an entanglement and interaction between the human and non human, the natural and the artificial; a network of heterogeneous entities that are made and constantly remade. But what about the code? How does code figure in this and what about the everyday practices of farming? It is the invisibility of codes and software in the constant interplay of the natural as opposed to the artificial that makes it such an interesting case.

 We need to challenge this appearance of an unmediated, uncoded nature. As to the degree to which everyday computing makes a difference we need to look for software in the ‘wild’ and undertake a socio-technological analysis of code in rural areas. Evidence of code, which will ensure the safe-living of outputs and of agricultural activities, is beginning slowly to emerge.

Is the countryside a coded/space, that is, a space where software and code produce its specific character under the pretext of the elimination of risk through perfect knowledge?

The codification of farming aims at making it knowable and safer. It includes coding the livestock to increase safety in the food supply chain, coding the whole production process to meet the demands and ethical standards of the consumer, and finally, coding to enhance automation of farm labour by taking ‘precision farming’ to the animal.

Cattle tracking services (tagging the livestock) aims at making the animal’s life traceable and readable at every moment in order to ensure its safe living (the prediction of disease) and strengthen the consumer’s confidence in the product. ‘Google your grub’ aims at the ethical eating of eggs, where the consumer is empowered to know not only the method and the place of production but also the initial place where the egg was laid. Delaval is an automated milking system that alters completely traditional milking practices through the introduction of code. The farmer now works through a screen and robotic arms, while the cow becomes a distanced and a machine-readable entity.

These examples are an indication of the ways in which software is becoming a necessary part of modern farming practices and how it transforms land, crops and livestock into a machine readable code. The questions that need to be addressed are the extent to which code is now automatically managing the farming conduct and if code ensures safe living.


Notes written by Adrian Mackenzie – CESAGen, Lancaster University

There are codes of conduct for the countryside. But there is also software in the countryside. The countryside is important for various reasons. But it is also problematically bound up with national identity. It seen as safe as compared to cities. Yet it is an industrially managed landscape. It is no sense natural. It has a particular range of social problems. It has produced images of fear, and disgust. At the moment, there is another outbreak of bird flu.

The countryside is quite a complex place to analyse. It is hybrid. It is made of entanglements between global-local, human-nonhuman, and digital-nondigital. To what extent does software code make a difference in the countryside? To a large extent, code in the countryside disappears. Most analyses of software and code focus on the urban. The ubicomp literature hardly ever mentions code. The countryside is seen as devoid of code. We see sheep, cattle, and fields. Actually, there is a lot of software on the farm, particularly in relation to safety of the products.

Geographers have something to contribute to software studies. Thrift’s work on technological unconscious is important. Steve Graham’s work also. His idea of software sorting is also highly relevant. His examples are focused on discrimination in the city, and how they are made invisible. We don’t know when we have been software sorted. David Beer’s notion of ‘thoughtful territories’ describes places where decision technologies take matters in hand. Kitchin/Dodge’s notion of code/space describes the different kinds of spaces that software beckons into being. The distinctions between code/space, coded space and background coded space allow us to begin to see the different roles that code has in shaping space. Machine-readable world also describes the ideal of complete coding.

So how does this make a difference to the farm? In regulating food safety, producing ethical standards, and in changing the nature of farmwork, code is active.

In food safety, the tag on the cow is really important. The animal becomes knowable and visible. Cattle are tracked and traced. For ethical eating, food is made knowable. Every egg has production information laser-printed on it. But the farm-ID codes are not accessible. An FOI to DEFRA was denied. An appeal to the Information Commissioner failed. The risk was identified as animal rights activists treating the farm as a target.

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