Hack My Tractor. Please.

 

 

 

 

Touch a new tractor with that old wrench and you’re going to court, Elwood. Yes, even if it’s bought and paid for. Yes, even if you’re in the middle of harvest.

 

 

 

 

If you’re an industrial farmer, making a living from monoculture — and that’s most farmers today — your life consists of months of boredom punctuated by weeks of unrelieved terror. The terror comes once in the spring, when you’re trying to get your crop seeded between rains before the window closes on the growing season; and once in the fall when you’re trying to get your crop harvested before the first blizzard. (I am leaving out the brief summertime terrors induced by approaching thunderstorms, they are not part of this story.)

Imagine you’re in the harvest terror, you’re just getting started doing whatever your crop requires, and your tractor starts coughing like a lifetime smoker and falls on its face in midfield, as inert and unresponsive as a power drinker on Sunday morning. Your entire year’s income, maybe the future of your mortgage,  is lying there in those fields and, as they say on Game of Thrones, winter is coming.

But you’ve been working on machinery all your life, and that sure sounded like a failed oxygen sensor to you, nothing that a wrench, a 100-dollar part and a half hour can’t fix. But you can’t do that. If your machine is a John Deere, for example, even though you paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to “own” it, you only rented the software that makes it run.

It’s a cliche now that the average car has more computing power aboard than the moon lander. And everybody’s tired of hearing us old farts lament the passing of the days when we would rip the heads off our Ford flathead V-8, install new rings, and drive it on a date the same night. Today is our car quits and we raise the hood, we might as well be looking at the moon lander.

We’ve all pretty much accepted that we can’t work on our own cars, or phones, or computers or appliances, even though we own them, because to even look at them wrong would void the warranty, or cancel the insurance, or bring on a plague of locusts.

But that is penny ante stuff. We’re talking about a guy about to lose his entire year’s income, and he has to call a John Deere service center, who knows how far away, and schedule a visit from a John-Deere-certified technician, who knows when, because only a called and ordained John Deere technician can talk to the software on the behemoth that is sleeping in your field.

If you ignore the rules (yes, they are spelled out in the fine print of your “purchase” contract), and install a part such as an oxygen sensor, then the software, not receiving the secret password, and not recognizing the part as approved (by which it means sold by John Deere with maximum markup), will continue to sleep through your harvest.

Needless to say, farmers are going berserk. They have created a global market for John Deere software that has been hacked, which is to say rewritten to give the farmer access to his own machine. For some reason, almost all this software is coming out of Ukraine, or Poland, and is being sold on secret Internet sites.

For a time, such tinkering was illegal under copyright laws, but recently an exception was made for land vehicles in need of repair. That’s when John Deere inserted the hands-off language into the purchase contact, making it a breach of contract to save your harvest.

So while some farmers go in search of old machinery with fewer electronic controls, and others go on the Dark Internet in a desperate search for a Ukrainian hacker, could the rest of us maybe take a minute here, and doff our tractor caps in a moment of silent horror for what the Masters of the Implement Universe have wrought?

This is not an example of technology oncology — this technology usually works just fine. It is rather an example of the extent to which the oligarchs are relentlessly bending us all toward serfdom, a condition in which we labor for their profit with no rights of our own. They are working to confiscate property rights for the benefit of the oil and gas industries, to immunize themselves from our lawsuits for damages inflicted by their products.

But in this case as in others, the backlash is building. Throughout the farm states, legislation has been filed that would retain the “right to repair” in the hands of the owners of the equipment. On a clear day you can see them coming, farmers by the thousands with figurative pitchforks and torches.

The serfs are up, dude.