Oh, the joy of organic farming,
How sweetly it does call,
To cultivate the earth with care,
And nourish it for all.

The soil, rich and fertile,
Teeming with life and growth,
With seeds that sprout and flourish,
As if the land itself does boast.

No chemicals, no pesticides,
No harm to the land or bee,
But only love and stewardship,
To grow our crops so free.

From seed to sprout to harvest,
The cycle of life we see,
As we honor the earth’s bounty,
And embrace her majesty.

For every plant we nurture,
Every seed we sow with pride,
Brings us closer to nature’s rhythm,
And to the land we do abide.

Oh, the joy of organic farming,
How it fills our hearts with song,
As we work in harmony with nature,
And dance with her all day long.

This is what popped up in seconds after I inserted the prompt “write a poem about organic farming in the style of Walt Whitman” on OpenAI. Kind of crazy right? Now I’m no poet and I haven’t read much poetry since high school, so I can’t speak to the merits of what the bot created. But it seems to me that this can easily be mistaken for something a talented person wrote. 

Artificial intelligence has made remarkable strides since I was a child. I remember when former world chess champion Gary Kasparov defeated IBM’s Deep Blue in 1996. Today however no human chess player can even come close to defeating a robot. In fact the best chess players in the world use artificial intelligence to train. If they didn’t they simply wouldn’t be competitive. 

Even large scale agriculture has not escaped the conveniences that artificial intelligence offers. Drones fly over large crop fields gathering data on soil moisture levels, fertilizer levels, and sunlight and use that data to quite accurately predict yields even before planting; they can also monitor plant health to predict pest infestations before they occur (pest infestations are directly related to plant health which is related to soil health); and these drones can even find irrigation leaks. This is only scratching the surface. AI has revolutionized conventional agriculture, and it’s only going to make more of an impact as time goes on. It’ll result in less sprays, healthier plants, higher yields, and probably lower prices.

But it’s still conventional agriculture.

“Progress” has the tendency of solidifying problematic things in good ways: modern medicine often fights the symptoms of a poor diet; the labor movements of the 19th century fought the symptoms of a corporatist system; and AI ameliorates some of the excesses of conventional agriculture. These are all good developments no doubt, but they allow for the perseverance of structures that are inherently problematic. I think that much of the history of the modern world can be explained via the coalescing of the “good” and the “problematic” in contradictory, reinforcing ways.  

When former Go (a game popular in east Asia–a lot more complex than chess I think) champion Lee Se-Dol was defeated by Google’s AlphaGo in 2016, he retired and never played the game again. “Even if I become the number one, there is an entity that cannot be defeated,” he said.

How we live in the world in the face of contradictory progress need not be as grim as Se-Dol’s defeatism. I like Martin Heidegger’s idea of “thrownness:” we are thrown into the world beyond our control with all of its present-day frustrations, demands, sufferings, and I would add contradictions that emerge from progress. According to Heidegger this “thrownness” ironically leaves an opening for individual freedom. While a perfect utopia without this progress/contradiction dynamic will never exist on a societal level, I do think that we have the freedom to attempt to reach such a state within our own individual lives. It’s as if our lives can be thought of as a calculus limit function: they approach infinity but never actually reach it.

I’m not sure what this looks like in practice. This is all way too theoretical. Maybe eating local is a good place to start? 

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