Looking Back: Ecologics and Gee Capitalism

Exactly three years ago today, on 5 January 2010, WordPress censored several of this blog’s posts.

Actually, Ecologics didn’t fare too badly; even as a handful of my posts vanished without warning, WordPress, or rather its parent company, Automattic, closed down the entire blogs of some other writers (at least one has subsequently managed to find an alternative home). In the event, WordPress agreed to republish the censored posts, and the attempt to silence this and other bloggers backfired spectacularly. What we the censored bloggers had in common was that we had published information about one Howard Newby, the former vice-chancellor (director) of the University of the West of England. It seems that Newby took exception to our views regarding a financial scandal which erupted around him in 2007, and which involved a private training firm which subsequently went bust (Carter & Carter).

Soon after the scandal emerged, and only about a year and a half since he first took up the post, Newby left UWE. But most peculiarly, it was not before two and a half years had passed that the legal department of the University of Liverpool, Newby’s new home, got Automattic to close the blogs with information about Newby’s practices at UWE.

I have described that sorry saga (the financial scandal, and the attempted censorship) in some detail, and do not propose to do so again. Instead I want to use this post, the last one at this site, to say why I’m leaving, and to offer some views on my experience as a blogger using WordPress.

Paradoxically, in late 2009 I was about to close this blog, but the ill-judged censorship persuaded me to carry on. Three years, several detailed posts, and a few tens of thousands of views later, I think I have made the point, and am now back to where I was at the end of 2009. Last November I planned to go quietly and to take the entire blog with me, but  an unexpected development led me to reconsider: alarmed commentary from readers suggested that some people thought I’d been closed down, i.e. censored again, and that the plight of this blog should serve as a warning to others. As noted in the penultimate post, that is emphatically not the case, and so I’ve decided to leave up about a third of the posts, including the ones that critique corruption and scandal. I will, however, be publishing no new posts, and indeed, the third anniversary of the attempted censorship feels like a good date on which to say my goodbyes.

Why stop publishing posts in this blog? The first reason involves the politics of what I increasingly think of as Google Capitalism, or G(ee) Capitalism for short. Simplifying greatly, Gee Capitalism is a form of profit accumulation that involves setting up ostensibly ‘do good’, gee-whiz quasi-public ventures (in the economic sense of ‘public’). The trick is to create websites for which people are encouraged to produce content ‘free of charge’. The firms that provide the space use this content to grow, fattening themselves on advertisement, the sale of user data, or any other spinoffs they can derive from what is tantamount to the producers’ unpaid labour (the writing of posts by bloggers, taking and posting pictures in Facebook, etc. etc.). Better yet, as the firms grow and the economic, cultural or symbolic cost for producers of leaving the websites increases, the firms can then force gently persuade the producers to pay them for the space. Then again, they can simply sell the contents/forms posted on their sites (witness the Facebook/Instagram scandal). The practice is a capitalist’s dream come true, and a phenomenon that, not too many years ago, would quite simply have been unthinkable.

If all goes well for a Gee Capitalist, what starts off as an apparently well-intentioned – indeed, perhaps a truly well-intentioned – form of internet geekery (think of Google’s disingenuous motto ‘you can make money without doing evil’), transmogrifies into an empire, a vast monopoly. To use Matt Taibbi’s memorable term, at some point a vampire squid emerges, but in so doing it paradoxically uses its very hegemony to consolidate its status as a ‘public service’. Alas, the service in question is one which imposes a host of obligations on the producers of the contents, with virtually no rights or guarantees in return. (That was one truth that was made abundantly clear at the time this blog was censored by Automattic.) It is generally only when the squid has completely captured the market that the truth of the venture is disclosed, but by then it is often too late. Just this week, the US Federal Trade Commission’s ruling on Google illustrated the verity of this last point.

It might be argued back that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I would reply that, if anything, Gee Capitalism is all about free lunches – free lunches, that is, for the Gee Capitalists. I am, however, not quite so simple minded as to not realise that part of the problem is that, in this domain, as in the closely related domain of contemporary panopticism, an economic strategy has at once fostered, and co-developed with a new ‘common sense’, a cultural imagination. For the subjects of this imagination, Gee Capitalism is not only the new norm, the new normal, but something that is quite cool, and a practice to be admired. I remember being astonished to discover in conversation that, for some youngish friends, it was perfectly normal to give up their privacy to the state, and to private corporations. The best metaphor for this profound change may be found in the so-called ‘full body scanners’ found in many airports; as I explained in one particularly long-lived post, the implicit logic is, let us undress you with x-rays so that we don’t have to touch you; actually, I think that people continue to be frisked, regardless.

Now as in late 2009, I’d rather not be part of such an imagination, such a cultural shift. But unfortunately, when Newby et al tried to get Automattic to close down some of my posts, I found myself stuck in the not-so-virtuous circle of Gee Capitalism: I had to choose between giving up the url and so giving in to the censors (and then finding someone else who might be similarly inclined to run when faced with the very real threat of litigation in the context of Britain’s notorious libel laws); or staying put, and putting up a fight ‘from within’. So I chose to stay with WordPress. Having made the point for three years, I am now ready to move on.

Of course, this blog could reappear elsewhere, but that possibility leads me to the second reason for stopping the publication of new posts. As regular readers will know, most of my posts are, in effect, short essays/articles. Each one takes a long time to research and/or write. I do not have the journalist’s gift of speed, and if I was short of time in late 2009, my personal circumstances have changed to the point that I have almost no time whatsoever now.

In lieu of a wave goodbye, here are some thoughts on the highs and lows of writing for this blog – and a final reason for leaving the blog.

The highs were, without a shadow of doubt, 1) making publicly available an analysis of the ideology, and the nefarious practices associated with Newby’s ‘Knowledge Exchange’ (it seems, by the way, that the good professors of Britain’s leading universities have finally woken up the dangers of Knowledge Exchange); and 2) publishing an unofficial translation of the Spanish language article that José Saramago penned about Berlusconi. The article appeared in El Pais, and after I translated it, major US media effectively stole the translation, but in so doing sent hundreds and hundreds of readers my way. Here again, we have Gee Capitalism; but I readily admit that I was only too happy to make Saramago’s excellent satire more widely available.

Towards the end of the blog’s life, I was also happy to partake, however inconsequentially, in the unlikely battle that has started over the soul of Sark, which I regard as a parable of the plutocracy that is coming all of our ways. The danger of plutocracy is not simple authoritarianism; it is the co-opting of democracy itself by the richest.

The lowest point was the manner in which WordPress took down my posts without so much as an email of warning, or even a reply to my first queries as to what was going on. Big Brother had thrown a switch, and during the first 48 hours or so it seemed that I was stuck outside Kafka’s proverbial castle. My sense is that, if eventually the folks at Automattic got back to me and republished all but one of the censored posts, it was because they feared a backlash in the media, and thereby, a hit on their reputation for being ‘liberal’. But that may be either too cynical, or simply naive. Too cynical: I genuinely hope that there are still people in Automattic willing to stand up to the acolytes of plutocrats, if not to the plutocrats themselves. Simply naive: I certainly have no illusions that this flea of a blog ever posed any real threat to all but the most control-freakish, to not say paranoid of manager-politicians.

Which leads me to the last reason for stopping now, while the stopping is good: for all its simplification, perhaps the 11th thesis is right when it opposes interpreting the world to changing it. Perhaps we need to blog less, and organise more. Whatever the case, that is one of  my new year’s resolutions for the scant time I have left to do anything like conjoining interpretation, or re-interpretation, with action.