By Ryan Dennis
My housemate brought home a virtual reality headset. Being somewhat behind the times, I still thought they were the imagination of science fiction. Slipping it on, I was amazed at how fast the physical world disappeared. Suddenly I was in a shark tank, and every way I turned I was surrounded by hammerheads. The housemate changed the menu for me and then I was in a special report on refugee camps. The presenter was talking, but I could move around and look at the wrinkled sleeping bags, the scattered debris, and the chain-link fence. Even though I knew I wasn’t actually there, it was the most real the struggles of that population had ever seemed to me. Then I was sitting on the edge of a cliff, talking to the avatar of a random person from somewhere in the world who also had on the VR headset. The housemate showed me that I could watch a movie, just like in real life, except instead of being in our dirty living room I could be in a Swiss villa with a view of the mountains outside.
It was both fascinating and alarming how quickly the incarnate world disappeared in that headset. Being on a college campus, I already find myself decrying how the youth can’t walk on the street without staring into their phones, and how often they are found sitting in groups only to be messaging someone else. It was easy to imagine the coming day when instead of the hassle of leaving the house and meeting people in public, they slip on the headset and meet in a virtual bar. Instead of inviting friends over to watch a movie, one watches it alone in a computer-generated sitting room that changes with a push of a button. One day we may wake up like Keanu Reeves and find out that The Matrix is real.
Agriculture has always been suggested as the antithesis to that which is not authentic. Thomas Jefferson insisted that farming was a more honorable profession than those of the merchants and bankers, because the latter made a living without producing something tangible. Today farming still has connotations of being “honest” work, because unlike most occupations, it involves being outside, handling animals, and turning the ground—things humans have been doing since the last ice age. Since man cannot live on virtual bread alone, it’s the one act that will always be tied to the real, concrete world.
Until recently, anyway.
In the digital age there has arisen a new type of “agriculture” that has drawn attention in the business world. “Click farms” are popping up in developing nations such as India, Bangladesh and the Philippines, from which companies can buy “likes” or “shares” on social media. According to recent research, the number of likes or twitter followers a product or service has earned on social media is becoming increasingly influential in consumer decisions. This has enticed some firms to falsify their presence on these platforms by purchasing popularity. Even though it is against the regulations of most social media platforms and they attempt to write programs to stop it, Italian researchers have estimated that fake Facebook activities alone account for over $200 million dollars in earnings per year for companies.
If the conditions of working on a real farm can be tough, employees of click farms have it worse. In low-tech operations click farm workers can be paid as little as $120 per year to spend long hours sitting on a desktop and tapping on the mouse. Such places that have been uncovered were dingy, poorly lit, and some had bars on the windows. Recently, more advanced setups have been found in which 10,000 smartphones are lined up in rows in “phone banks” that are apparently connected to central computers. Several people sit at desktops and use the phones’ sim cards to generate false data on social media websites. From the pictures of the vast arrangement of phones, the comparison to a field of crops could not be avoided.
It is the nature of farming that cultivates its public goodwill. Although “ties to the land” and “working with the earth” are terms used by urban communities when envisioning farming, they do point to ideas that were once essential in our understanding of ourselves as humans. When people who do not farm say these things it is almost like an ancestral nostalgia, recognizing that if they go back enough in their heritage that they will find that they, too, came from farmers. It lends the occupation a sense of authenticity. The existence of click farms suggest that in a world modernizing away from the dirt and soil, this public goodwill must be harvested artificially. Our perception of the things around us has become commoditized and there to be used for commercial purposes. There is nothing genuine about the virtual farm.
If I remember right, in The Matrix people are hooked up to tubes that nourish them with a solution. The good news is that until that happens, the world is still going to need someone getting their hands dirty somewhere to feed everybody. As long as there is still farms, they will be an anchor for what is real and legitimate and fundamental to being human. In a rapidly digitizing world, that is no small feat.
This article is part of The Milk House column series, published in print across three countries and two languages. It can also be found at themilkhouse.org.