Ruminations of the Calculable Cow
This project studies how new monitoring technologies and calculative devices employed in the dairy industry are reconfiguring generations-old practices and knowledges, and crafting novel socio-technological relations on the farm. Calculative devices, equipped to cows, transform the organic animal into a consistent and auditable stream of data, where the biological and behavioral facts about individual cows and aggregated herds are translated and projected onto computer screens and mobile devices. The cow becomes re-understood as screen-based data, changing the practice of the farmer and rationalizing the messy business of dairy farming. Data points and deviations from herd averages or a cow’s own individual data history indicate the optimal time to impregnate, predict when an animal is unwell, and increases milk productivity. By relying on data instead of the tacit knowledge and visceral, direct physical interactions with cows, the algorithm, cow, and farmer enter into a new sociotechnical arrangement defined by market logics of rational action. While this alienates the individual from the animals, at the same it time gives each individual cow its own “voice” that the farmer can acknowledge and respond to. The rumination of the cow – i.e. behavior around the chewing of cud – is constructed as an index of overall well-being, as a predictive marker, and as an irreducible re-interpretation of the biological cow around which practice is ordered. Before these technologies, rumination was known to be an important heuristic for bovine well-being, but it was never achievable as a numeric value, let a alone a value that is standardized between animals, across farms and farmers, and comparable over time. Tacit knowledge becomes explicit and creates new ontologies where the cow exists (is enacted) in a plurality of states simultaneously: both biological and messy, and technological and rationalized. Rather than the farmer understanding the factual cow differently as he shifts his worldview, the calculable cow exists in a quantum state constituted by its multiple forms.
Questions of organizational agency also arise. As the farmer comes to trust and rely on the data-version of the cow more and more, he risks being punished by the market if he deviates from the algorithmic decision-making (when to breed, when to treat an ill cow, when to cull, etc.). Indeed, if the algorithm instructs the farmer to breed a particular cow and he ignores that command, he risks an economic penalty when the cow fails to get pregnant using traditional practices or heuristic methods of timing estrus. Ultimately, the farmers I’ve interviewed stop second-guessing the system and submit to its instructions. Is the farmer managing the algorithm or is the algorithm managing the farmer? Since the data fed into these algorithms are ultimately bio-sensed from the cows’ physiology and behavior, is the farmer managing the cows or are the cows managing the farmer? What happens if and when the technological system fails – are generations-old knowledges destroyed? Do new knowledges about farm practice arise as algorithms train their farmers? What are the implications for both manual and managerial labor when algorithmic decision-making takes precedent? While the pastoral image of a dairy farm presents a striking and unique case of socio-algorithmic assemblage, these questions are indeed generalizable off of the farm as algorithms pervade every niche of economy and society from Wall Street to Main Street to rural pastures.