Thursday, November 22, 2007

Countryside Code

I gave a talk at the 'Codes and Conduct' workshop at Lancaster University earlier this week. The talk is really the beginning of research into the role of software in the production of the countryside and focused on what difference code makes in farming practices and how food is made traceable and knowable through information systems. The slides are here and abstract is below. Some more details on the workshop is on their Safe Living blog.

[Above illustration by Robin Hursthouse, scanned from Guardian, 21/7/2007. ]


Countryside code

Martin Dodge, Geography, School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester, UK


In spite of the decline in the economic importance of agriculture, rural spaces remain geographically and socially significant – representing, for example some 80% of area of England and home to around 9.5 million people (CRC, 2007). Yet, the countryside is all to often completely absent from stories told to explain information technology, with much of contemporary analysis on pervasive computing, for example, being carried out exclusively in urban contexts. The notion of the countryside as a tranquil alternative to the urban modernity, offering a natural environment in contrast to the man-made cityscape, remains strong. However, the countryside is far from a bucolic idyll and has long been a constructed, intensely managed, landscape resulting from a range of technologies, particularly those designed to improve agricultural productivity. This continues today and it seems to us increasingly clear that contemporary farming practice and governance – including such issues as food safety, animal welfare, environmental protection, and subsidy payments – are coming to depend on software and distributed information systems to function. Particular rural space are now code/space (cf. Dodge and Kitchin, 2005a). The emergence of this ‘countryside code’ is predicated on algorithmic data processing which transduces farming practices, land, crops and livestock in machine-readable objects (cf. Dodge and Kitchin, 2005b). Software is automatically managing rural conduct and insuring safe living; as such it has some distinct similarities in governance effect to the original 1951 Country Code (cf. Parker, 2006).

Drawing on detailed empirical evidence, we characterise countryside code/space in four contexts on a typical small farm, showing how software makes key elements of the farm materiality knowable in new ways. The contexts are (1) regulating safety in the food supply chain by coding livestock (and subsequently parts of livestock) so they are traceable from ‘farm-to-fork’, (2) insuring ethical standard requires new depth of information on the nature of whole production process available direct to consumer, (3) the requirements of environmental stewardship that is continuously and automatically monitored by software models (water quality, flooding); (4) the administration of farm subsidies (single payment scheme) that requires coded representations for all manner of farm related objects, territories and processes.


CRC, 2007. The State of the Countryside 2007. Commission for Rural Communities,

Dodge M, Kitchin R, 2005a. Code and the transduction of space. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 95(1) 162-180

Dodge M, Kitchin R, 2005b. Codes of life: identification codes and the machine-readable world. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23(6) 851-881

Parker G, 2006. The country code and the ordering of countryside citizenship. Journal of Rural Studies 22(1) 1-16


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