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This is the context.

They receive their measure of food, hormones and medications from one set of machines, and get milked every few hours by another set of machines. The cow in the middle is treated as little more than a mouth that takes in raw materials and an udder that produces a commodity.

What is the meaning of cow in the middle?

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    You neglected to provide the link to your context. Note also that when you use the buttons for boldfacing you must first select the text to be boldfaced, or type it between the pairs of ** where the edit software puts the words strong text as a guide. Nov 12, 2016 at 15:15
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    I think your confusion stems from thinking that "cow in the middle" is supposed to be an idiom?
    – Mr Lister
    Nov 13, 2016 at 11:35

3 Answers 3

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The cow, the living animal, is in the middle, between the machines which provide input and those which take up the output.

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The immediate meaning is that the cow is like a "black box" A . That is... it is treated as a device -- a machine -- that gives milk, as long as it is given food etcetera.

However, a contextB is implied; it is not the machines that view the cow as merely a device that produces milk; it is human beings -- on one side, those who want milk, and, on the other side, those who make money from producing milk.

That is... the point of calling it "the cow in the middle" is about, not the immediate fact that it is in the middle, but that the persons [who want milk or money] do not care about the cow.

(This is obviously the point of the article containing the quote. The point here is that there would be available a more dignified/caring/respectful label for the cow, if the point was not that the cow is being ignored.)

A "Black box" [often shown with quotation marks [""] ] means a machine that just does something -- we do not know, or do not care, how.

B Here, context means, not sentence context, but real-world context.

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Assuming the context implies they does not refer to a cow, the analogy of a cow has been used because a cow takes in food and nutrients and gives milk by processing them in its body. So to whomever "they" applies to, "they" are analogous to a cow.

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