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Opt Out

As a culture, we have anecdotally, though incorrectly, placed farming and technology at opposite ends of the spectrum. Particularly with organic farming, our first visuals stem from old black and white pictures of grandma and grandpa, with one holding a pitchfork, the other, some corn stalks. Or there was the Back-To-The-Land Movement in the 60s and 70s, where we opted out of most of the modern comforts and efficiencies to do things “how they used to be done”. They were labeled “Hippies” in that era, and they still exist today, but now they’re called Recovering Millennials.  

It wasn’t an accident that this movement began in the 60s. As the war ended and troops returned home, the country shifted its industrial prowess from producing tanks, bombs, and planes, and these talented individuals turned their sights on the next fastest-growing industry: the American family. Many of the companies we know and put up with today have their roots (and patents) incorporated around the forthcoming advancements and inventions. The deep pockets of the military budget (then, and now still) enabled the research and development of many things we hold dearly, but none more so than nearly every invention along the way to our first digital computers, and even the early Internet, known as DARPANET. 

Our modern computer would not be possible without both the war and women. You see, our computer was simply the response to very large, technical, and complex problem, and few had the resources at hand to solve it besides the US    military: how do you accurately target dropping bombs from airplanes, or firing shells from moving ships? Known as ballistic trajectories, you can imagine all the variables that go into these calculations: wind speed, type of shell, angle of the turret, speed and direction of the ship or plane, gunpowder used, air pressure, distance to target, and the ever-present Coriolis Force. These weren’t so much problems of war, but problems of math. With miniscule changes to any one of the variables, each trajectory needed to be re-computed. As the overall range of the shells greatly increased in the early 1900s, you could no longer depend on sight to determine the accuracy. And so we hired computers. No, not machines. Just like we call people who swim, swimmers, and people that build, builders, people that computed were computers. Most notably, women. Teams of women. Entire buildings of women, computing ballistic trajectories. Talk about war heroes! They would later be hired to calculate flight trajectories for early space travel, as shown in the movie Hidden Figures.

As the 50s roared on and machines took over computing, the American Machine drilled its way deep into the home, then it went straight for our food. The Back-To-The-Land Movement, and later the organic label, was simply a reaction to the unnerving trend towards quantity over quality. We’ve long worshipped at the altar of scale, where the products that rise to the top of our food system exist mainly because they are long-lasting, uniform, shelf-stable, processed, transportable, consistent, and cheap. Unfortunately, there are many hidden and deferred costs

to cheap food, and it turns out scale has downsides as well. Prioritizing foods that sell well over foods that digest well might not be very smart in 10 years. 

We now have terms for firms that operate at unprecedented scale: Big Pharma, Big Data, Big Tech, Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Banks. We even say they’re too big to fail! On the contrary, my peach tree would argue that when I neglect to trim and thin and it gets too many big peaches, it fails spectacularly! Snap, Crackle, Pop! 🙁

We have gone through a vicious cycle of scaling up our homes (cookie-cutter subdivisions), our food (big-box, fast food), our work (computers, skyscrapers), our sports (TV), our shopping (malls, ecommerce, China), our travel (freeways), and now we seem to be stuck in a season of scaling our entertainment, distraction, and notifications (phones, streaming). When we get bored of one, we move to the next, and there seems to be a lot of unnecessary suffering created in the margins near the altar of scaling anything. The low-hanging fruit of endless ramping-up appears to have served us well, but there are rumblings and groanings that the consequences are coming back to balance out the scales.

The organic movement was simply a conscious choice or discipline to do things how they should be done, rather than how they could be done. Plenty of our technology exists simply because we can, with precious little thought as to whether we should. But just like our need for organic labeling came about, we’re now seeing our technology wrestle in the same arena with things like the Center for Humane Technology and Time Well Spent. Organic farming and now our technology are together, oddly, pushing back on similar encroachments. 

When a system is too big to fail, that’s a good indicator that something is broken, deeply, at the root. And a broken food system can hardly be fixed by calling your senator, attending a conference, choosing a diet based on book sales. Sometimes, all that’s left is to simply opt-out. By getting your Box of Good, you are opting out.