First commit: 2021-01-11

Linked Notes

Understanding Automation

  1. Automation doesn’t happen on the job-level, but the task-level.

  2. Automation doesn’t strictly mean human replacement, but also augmenting given tasks.

  3. Automation will always need maintenance, updates, and upgrades. There is not a date X, where the process is finished.

  4. Automation happens, if it‘s economically beneficial, not if it‘s technically feasible. It‘s — of course — the product and producer of capitalism.

Keeping this in mind, almost every new technology can be placed in one of the following quadrants.

Tomatoes, Tomatoes

This section from Jack Stilgoe‘s excellent book How‘s driving innovation? is in my opinion a perfect example against the technological determinism inherent to the automation discourse. Just because technology exist, doesn’t mean it will be adopted. Automation is driven not by technology but by politics and economics.

If we want to understand the politics of today’s and tomorrow’s technologies, we should look back to the technologies that are now regarded as part of society’s inevitable industrialisation and ask who benefitted and why. The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner asks us to consider the tomato. The tomatoes on a twenty-first century supermarket shelf are the way they are because of a set of organisational and technological choices. The technologisation of the tomato was extraordinarily rapid. In 1960, the tomato fields of California contained fruit in a variety of shapes and sizes and were picked by hand; mostly by the hands of tens of thousands of braceros (immigrant Mexican workers). By 1970, almost all of California’s tomatoes were harvested by machines.1

The machine that enabled the industrialisation of tomato farming came from a collaboration between a fruit breeder and an aeronautical engineer at the University of California, Davis, in the 1940s. In one pass, the tomato harvester could cut a row of plants, shake the fruit from their stalks and drop them into a trailer. Humans were required only to drive the machine, maintain it, check the tomatoes and throw out any dirt, stalks or small animals that ended up in the trailer. After early attempts to get the fruit to survive the journey from field to trailer intact, the researchers realised that, for the tomato harvester to work as intended, the tomato itself had to be tougher and less tasty—good for ketchup and processed food; bad for salads. Fields had to be rectangular, flat and well-irrigated. Farmers had to learn how to, in the words of one of the engineers, ‘grow for the machine’.2 Each device was expensive but, if a farm was big enough to afford one, it could dramatically cut costs.


The tomato machines were available for a number of years before they were deployed widely. They only became popular once policies were introduced to expel cheap immigrant labour. This allowed US farm workers to earn more, but increased farmers’ incentives to automate and turn their fields over to tomatoes.

  1. The economic history of the tomato harvester is explained by Clemens et al.(2018). 

  2. Quoted in The Tomato Harvester, Boom California, vester/