John Deere and the Rise of the Solarpunks
Growing up, I loved Pokémon. I wanted to live in that world, but it's not possible from a fundamental standpoint because Pokémon are not real.
What if we could live in fictional worlds though? What if they're only fiction because we're just not doing them yet?
I've been chewing on Cyberpunk versus Solarpunk a lot lately. Cyberpunk being the social norms resulting from centralization and the oppression it causes. Solarpunk being social norms in a bespoke, decentralized world and the freedom that provides.
Looking at our current landscape, our current future trajectory for the year 2077 is leaning closer towards Cyberpunk.
I'd like to focus on a single case of this tug of war between ideals. Let's say John Deere is on the side of the Cyberpunks and Farmers hacking their tractors on the side of the Solarpunks. Every thing I'm about to discuss is in reference to the Vice article, Why American Farmers Are Hacking Their Tractors With Ukrainian Firmware.
I'm of the mind that when someone buys a product, they own the product and can do whatever they would like with it. This includes repairing it themselves or hiring someone they trust. Restricting repair to authorized dealers is an exploitative practice.
Tractor hacking is growing increasingly popular because John Deere and other manufacturers have made it impossible to perform “unauthorized” repair on farm equipment, which farmers see as an attack on their sovereignty and quite possibly an existential threat to their livelihood if their tractor breaks at an inopportune time.
One farmer mentions that the nearest dealership could be 40 miles away. I imagine for some farmers it could be even further. If the dealership is busy handling other tractors that might be suffering from a similar issue, how much productivity is lost due to this artificial monopoly?
You want to replace a transmission and you take it to an independent mechanic—he can put in the new transmission but the tractor can't drive out of the shop. Deere charges $230, plus $130 an hour for a technician to drive out and plug a connector into their USB port to authorize the part.
I'm at a loss for words.
The farmer hires a mechanic, swaps out a part and the tractor is bricked. Can't drive it. It's not a mechanical issue, but an intentional lock up using software. To fix it, all you need is the sign off from John Deere himself and you're gonna thank him with $490, plus tax.
This is the future with centralized power. The dystopian future described by the Cyberpunk genre, where power is enforced through technology.
But there's hope.
Since John Deere is exerting their control using software, what if the tractors could run different software?
Installing alternative software violates the agreements that John Deere forces customers to agree to, making the software illegal. The problem I see is that a corporation is exploiting and risking the livelihoods of individuals for a business model.
The only way we can fix things is illegally, which is what's holding back free enterprise more than anything and hampers a farmer's ability to get stuff done, too.
Still there's an underground network used to distribute modified software that the tractors can run. This gets around the artificial limitations that comes from the factory. In 2015, an exemption was added to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, effectively allowing tractor owners to legally modify the software.
It's no surprise, then, that John Deere started requiring farmers to sign licensing agreements around the time the exemption went into effect. Violation of the agreement would be considered a breach of contract rather than a federal copyright violation, meaning John Deere would have to sue its own customers if it wants the contract to be enforced.
This tug-of-war can go back and forth indefinitely. Is it illegal, is it not illegal, what is the right of a company, what is the right of an individual, do we own things we buy or does the company own the things we buy. I'd like us to take a step back for a little perspective.
Farmers are the backbone of society. Without food, the entire world screeches to a halt. What if instead of needing to fight these petty battles against deep, relentless pockets that control the supply chain our farmers rely on, we could instead empower farmers?
What ingenious solutions can they come up with to solve their everyday problems?
It's quite simple, really. John Deere sold farmers their tractors, but has used software to maintain control of every aspect of its use after the sale. Kluthe, for example, uses pig manure to power his tractor, which requires engine modifications that would likely violate John Deere's terms of service on newer machines.
“I take the hog waste and run it through an anaerobic digester and I've learned to compress the methane,” he said. “I run an 80 percent methane in my Chevy Diesel Pickup and I run 90 percent methane in my tractor. And they both purr. I take a lot of pride in working on my equipment.”
What if Kluthe could legally run a shop modifying any John Deere tractors to run on pig manure? What if instead of going to sketchy lengths to circumvent restrictions on the tractor, software was easily accessible?
This is the future with decentralized power. The idealistic future described by the Solarpunk genre, where people have power over their technology instead of the other way around.
I'm realistic. I know we'll never be able to live in a world with Pokémon.
However, we can absolutely live in a world where we own and control the hardware and software we purchase. The only reason we don't live in that world is because society is choosing not to.
The farmers just trying to maintain the tractors they've bought legally, but are forced to take a stand against an oppressive corporation on the long tail of their purchase—they're Solarpunks to me.
The world I want to live in? It's the one where we're all Solarpunks.