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Dear John: Farming and technology in the near future

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Dear John.

It started with the tractor. Or, rather, it stopped with the tractor. John Willis climbed down from the cabin of his dead machine and removed the cowling. Everything looked fine. The diesel engine shined, its green accents still brilliant.

After years trading his skill with a wrench and a soldering iron for access to his neighbors’ equipment, he finally owned a tractor of his own. The latest model, too. Not ostentatious, but with just enough comforts to make up for the last ten years. The tractor was new, bought debt-free through the Farm Act and a decade of careful planning and backbreaking labor. Expensive, but built to last.

Except it didn’t last. For the third time in an hour, the engine seized, the wheels locked, the console went dead. Willis sighed. He had acres to till and he wasn’t in the mood to spend a day stripping the engine, hunting for some tiny defect. He could send it to the service yard, but he couldn’t afford to wait for an authorized repair. The quote alone would set him back a week.

He couldn’t afford another late planting. Not this year.

He started the tractor. It roared back to life, the engine purred but the console beeped and flashed with panic, a thousand different alarms. The manual, a massive, multi-gigabyte document, was sitting on his work computer, back in the barn. For whatever reason, he couldn’t get it to download to his field tablet. He put the tractor in gear and continued down the field.

Fifteen minutes later, the tractor was dead again.

Well, he thought to himself, at least there’s a rhythm to it. He limped down the rows in quarter-hour bursts.

There was nothing wrong. Willis knew his machines as well as he knew his own soil. It was perfect.

He resigned himself to an hour on hold, waiting for a service agent.

“Yes, sir. How can I help you?” Willis described the problem. “Ah, I understand, sir. What probably happened is you triggered the anti-theft program. It prevents someone from stealing the hardware. You might have tripped it on boot up, or maybe you triggered it while plowing. Are you using only fully compatible attachments?”

“I use the T7 tiller head, if that’s what you mean.”

“Yes, sir. Very good. A classic but still compatible with our outdrive. Are you interested in upgrading to the T16?”

“No, I just want my tractor to work again.”

“Certainly, sir. Is the tractor’s data uplink active?”

“I think so.”

“Excellent, sir. Let me bring up your file and take a look at what is going on. Please hold.” Another 10 minutes lost.

“Ok, sir. I’ve just pulled up the tracking map for the last day, and it looks like you left the designated operational area at 7:32 this morning.”

“The designated what?”

“Sir, the way the anti-theft system works is that when you leased the tractor we assigned the boundaries of your property to the onboard computer. That way, if anyone tries to take the equipment out of those boundaries, they won’t get very far. It’s state-of-the-art theft protection. We provide it as a free service to you.”

“Stop. First off, I didn’t lease the tractor, I bought it, free and clear. Second, how am I supposed to work my fields if the damn thing shuts off every time I leave my property?”

“Yes, sir. I see that you’ve purchased the tractor, but you license the software that runs the tractor from us, so that we can keep it updated and make sure that the machine is working perfectly.”

“But it’s not working perfectly. Shut it off.”

“I understand your concern, sir. But as a safety feature, you cannot turn off the anti-theft. It’s there to protect you from criminals and hackers.”

“Who in the heck would hack a tractor?!?”

“You would be surprised, sir, our equipment is valuable and there are many misguided activist in the world that want to do farmers harm.”

My equipment!

“Yes, sir. And our software. The anti-theft protects us both.”

Willis sighed. He had already wasted half a day on this and wasn’t ready to waste the rest.

“Just tell me how to fix it so I can finish tilling my fields.”

“Of course, sir. What I’ll do is add a half-mile buffer around your property. That way, the next time you wander too far from your designated area, you’ll have a bit more room to get back on track.”

“Wait, hold on. What happens when my neighbor borrows my tractor?”

“All users of our tractors, earth movers, lawnmowers, and other heavy equipment must purchase their own license to use our software. Unauthorized use is not permitted. If your neighbor want to use the tractor, he’ll have contact us for an additional software license. It’s all in your user agreement.”

What?!”

“I’m sorry, sir, but this is all clearly spelled out in the licensing agreement you signed when you leased the tractor. You are, however, permitted to let other users operate the tractor within your designated operating…”

Bought! I bought this tractor. I own it and I can do whatever I damn well please with it.”

“Yes sir, of course. We respect the rights and self-determination of America’s small farmers, you are free to do whatever you wish with the tractor. But you cannot interfere with our software. It’s there for your safety, security, and convenience.”

“And if I choose to take the software out?”

“Unfortunately, our tractors are far too complex to run without our proprietary software, removing it would not only permanently disable the equipment, but would void the warranty.”

That is insane.”

“I understand your concerns and will make a note of them in our customer feedback database. I have unlocked the tractor and extended your buffer. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“I doubt it.” Willis terminated the call. He briefly wished for the old days, when he could slam the handset back down on the base with a satisfying clunk. Thumbing a virtual button on the touchscreen just didn’t have the same effect.