June 5, 2017

Hacking tractors – deeper than code

Hacking tractors – deeper than code

Me hacking a tractor (Eberswalde, 2017)
I am interested in tractors. I never had the pleasure to drive one and I probably never will. My interest in tractors is rather conceptual – I am fascinated by tractors as carriers of rich and sometimes quite bizarre culture(s).
A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a news article on “hacking tractors”. Full of excitement, I took a big sip of my Matcha Latte and delved into the world of muddy hardware and open software. I was led by a burning desire for exploration and a couple of questions when analyzing different media articles on the phenomenon of tractors as potential sites of openness: What happens at the junction of physical traction and digital access? How can I understand this phenomenon as a digital site for the construction of agricultural realities? How do the articles merge ideas of agriculture and openness? How do they modify and transform what people think of these issues? And how does hacking tractors relate to a “bigger picture” of agriculture? In this blogpost, I report on my major finding, that the media coverage mainly (re-)interprets openness in a reductionist way.  This reductionism becomes apparent through a comparison with openness, as understood in the early Free Software movement around “the last true hacker” Richard Stallman. In the media articles on hacking tractors, I argue, openness is transformed from an issue of accessibility, change and creation into an issue of mere access. The seemingly empowering phenomenon of hacking tractors turns out to be an implicit reproduction of structural oppression in agriculture.

The story of hacking tractors is a story of passionate farmers and relentless companies – no matter if in the Motherboard article, in the article from the far-right conspiracy website Breitbart News, or in the more sophisticated version of The Guardian. Despite presumably altering political agendas, the content remains almost the same and can be summarized as follows: In order to keep their farms running, American farmers have started downloading pirated John Deere software and tools from mainly Eastern European subscription websites. The cracked software is used to bypass licensed software that is embedded in the tractor. The problem about the licensed software:  It hinders farmers to repair and modify “their” tractors and makes them utterly dependent on John Deere. According to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act the use of pirated software is prohibited. Nevertheless, for miraculous reasons, computer programs of agricultural vehicles form an exception. In other words, hacking tractors is basically lawful. As a result, John Deere decided to impose a license agreement on tractor owners, that is accepted in the moment these owners turn the ignition key. The license agreement, as The Guardian explains, prohibits to “engineer, decompile, translate, adapt, or dissemble the licensed materials [ie embedded software]”. In short, hacking tractors may not be a federal copyright violation, but a breach of contract.

Richard Stallman
On the surface, this overall narrative of hacking tractors resonates strongly with the history of the Free Software movement. For Richard Stallman, one of its pioneers, the denial of access to software is to be interpreted as a “crime against humanity”. In 1980, Stallman and some other hackers were refused access to the source code for the laser printer Xerox 9700. In other words, they could not add features they required for a convenient workflow in the Artificial Intelligence (AI) lab. This initial coincidence convinced Stallman of people’s need for free modification of the software.  One of the most famous outcomes of Stallman’s engagement with free software is the GNU operating system. However, in Stallman’s understanding, open access is not merely about software, it is about freedom of speech. More precisely, about four different types of freedom: Freedom 0 – to run the program as you wish, for any purpose, Freedom 1 – to study how the program works and change it, Freedom 2 – to redistribute copies, Freedom 3 – to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. Nowadays Stallman’s ideas shape all kinds of openness discourses, including open science, open educational resources, open collaboration, open innovation, open strategy, and open government. Rather than a clearly delineated definition of what openness essentially is, Stallman provided a set of basic tenets – accessible and open for change, redistribution, and modification. Openness itself is an open concept.

So how do the hacking farmers, or more precisely the stories of the hacking farmers, relate to this understanding of openness? At the first glance, Richard Stallman opening up the laser printer Xerox 9700 and the farmers opening up a bunch of John Deere tractors seem pretty similar. Taking a closer look, there is a crucial difference between the two interpretations of openness: Even though Stallman works with hardware (printer, computer, etc.), his primary concern is software. His way of opening up software is a direct and proactive practice. In response to a closed system (the Xerox software), he creates a new and open system (Free Software). In contrast, the farmers in the articles behave rather passive. Their use of pirated software bypasses the problem of licensed firmware, and yet it does not solve it. The media articles on hacking tractors do not reflect on this crucial difference. They tell a flat story of an evil corporate sector and of resistant farmers who do their best to survive. Hacking tractors is turned into a cheesy successor story. Even though the software is cracked “somewhere in Eastern Europe”, the farmers are enacted as hackers. Even though farmers could buy tractors other than the closed ones by John Deere, they are enacted as taken-for-granted. In this sense, the articles transform openness in a problematic way. In contrast to Stallman’s interpretation of digital freedom as a matter of proactive access, change, distribution, and modified distribution, hacking tractors is reduced to a matter of passive access. What is deemed to be an empowering story of farmers (re-)constructs a narrative of their structural oppression. Drawing a line to Michael’s study of the 3D printer hacking tractors is not to be misunderstood as a democratization of the tractor – it is a mostly unremarked adaption. In this sense, it reinforces the limited openness of tractors as a technological key constituent of the agricultural realm.

Hacking tractors as described in the articles will neither lead to an empowerment of farmers, nor will it change productionist regimes in agriculture. The tractor is a bizarre key constituent of rural identities. Any attempt of hacking it must go deeper than code


  1. Cornelius, I think you picked a great topic to write about, and since I myself am interested in cars and aware of some of the difficulties of fixing and modifying modern cars at home, I can relate to this topic. For most people, it might initially come as a surprise that hacking software could have anything to do with the world of farming and tractors, until they read up on the issue. I like the clear and understandable way in which you presented the topic, and I hope that my comments I write will be useful for you.

    This blog post deals with the issue of software in John Deere tractors. The software in the new tractors has made it very difficult for farmers to perform their own repairs and modifications without having to go to John Deere where they have the power to control the embedded software. The result has been that farmers have turned to software from mainly European hackers which allows them to “hack” their tractor and perform their own repairs and modifications. The post then explores how this issue relates to the topic of openness, and how this case is different from other cases of software hacking.

    Level of Importance: 4/5
    This topic certainly relates to the issues which we have been discussing throughout the course, and I particularly like it because it gives a clear and concrete example of how open science is important in everyday life, even for people who have absolutely nothing to do with scientific research or academia (in this case the farmers). Obviously, it is important for farmers to be able to repair their own equipment and not be forced to spend time and extra money going to John Deere for service, and the way that they have turned to hacked software as their solution is an interesting example of the (in this case positive) effects that this kind of openness can bring about.

    Level of Validity: 4/5
    You have a well structured argument regarding how this topic relates to open science issues, the only thing I think it would be nice to add is a little bit more of an explanation as to how this kind of relation to hacked software is different from the example you gave with the laser printer.

    Level of Completeness: 3.5/5
    The blog post does a great job introducing us to the topic, but there are some points which I found were missing that could be important to the context of this topic. One of these is whether this non user-friendly tractor software is specific to John Deere, or whether it is more of a general trend in the industry. If the majority of manufacturers are now designing their equipment this way then this is going to have different implications than if it is simply one manufacturer. It could also be useful to clarify exactly what kinds of things farmers are prevented from doing, with the new tractors. Assuming they do not need access to the software to perform basic maintenance, at what point does the software become a hurdle (modifications, major repairs, etc)?

    Level of Comprehensibility: 5/5
    The blog post was very well written, the argument was clear and the pictures were laid out in a way to keep the reader interested and were fitting to the topic of the blog. The text was also well structured in terms of formatting and there were no distracting spelling or grammar errors. Overall, this was a very enjoyable post to read, and will be informative for anyone wanting to find out about the basics of how farmers have to overcome the software limitations of their new tractors.

  2. Hi! I enjoyed reading your post. You illustrated an often neglected issue of openness in access when it is just transferring the dependency to another provider, be it commercial or Russian hackers, and when it is reduced to a matter of pricing and availability. This is the reason why the community that elaborated the "open definition" http://opendefinition.org/ is so strict about the interpretation of openness. (as would be Stallman with the free software term). You also implicitly address the problem of access as sometimes being understood as means to an end, whereas it is often not at all helpful when there are no "skills" for pro-active involvement. However, your reviewer is right, you could have given your readers more hints as to whether and how this is representing a general trend in industry, and also link to the "right to repair" movement or ask whether farmers that like to be labelled "hackers" at all.