Monday, 4 September 2017

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Last night I texted someone to say 'even Portishead have licensed a track for advertising now'. My friends are used to such retro naïveté and some of them even summon up the energy either to take me to task ('bands can't rely on sales income any more') or to tease me ('another band off your list').

I am a stuffy puritan about these things though. I never download illegally despite reservations about copyright law and music labels because I want artists to make a living directly from their art. When they licence their music for adverts my feeling is that they've subordinated their own art to a product. I therefore stop buying their music. If they don't value it enough, and have another income stream, they don't need me, and I can't be sure that their music isn't produced with an eye to attracting further revenue streams. Funnily enough, there's a cultural hierarchy of these things. Most people don't care if pop bands sell their music; some people mind that BP and cigarette companies sponsored classical concerts and art exhibitions, while there was an outcry when Fay Weldon wrote a book sponsored by – and heavily featuring – tasteless jeweller to the oligarchs Bulgari.

Why yes, people have accused me being a pompous revanchist git before. Thanks for asking.

Why am I going on about this now? Because I spotted a tweet from WonkHE announcing a 'partnership' with Hotcourses, one of those businesses which repackages public information, adds what it considers 'value' and makes a lot of money. I don't like it much, and liked it even less when it was owned by Jeremy Hunt MP. I do like WonkHE though. Despite its overwhelming maleness, Englishness and preoccupation with the Russell Group, it's a lively and interesting arena for Higher Education policy discussions. It's particularly useful to me because it often features views I might otherwise miss in my neomarxist bubble.

I hadn't thought about WonkHE's funding model at all previously. I tended to treat it as a service rather than a business. I didn't notice that it had any 'sponsors' at all, which means either I'm dumb or they're very discreet.

Perhaps the fact that I like the site lulled me into a state of acceptance, because I'm normally very wary of such things. Having spent years teaching students about the social media model, I know that if a service is free, you are the product. This is why I don't have Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, WhatsApp or anything other than this blog and Twitter. I pay for a Flickr account, and I keep all identifiable details off Twitter. Obviously all the data is still very profitable to them, and it takes about 30 seconds to deduce my identity but I don't make it easy, and I'm gradually adopting ad-blockers and the like to my electronic presence to reduce my exposure even further. Next step: TOR or EpicBrowser (both blocked on my university network).

My problem with WonkHE is the same one I now have with Portishead. Now I know they have a lot of funders, I have to start assuming that everything they produce is shaped – however remotely – by their commercial instincts: just look at what happened when Google didn't like the conclusions reached by some academics it funded. WonkHE will gain access to data from their sponsors, but that data will have been collected and shaped to further particular ends. Likewise, while WonkHE won't be selling reader data to their sponsors, it will be helping those sponsors understand me, my colleagues and my context for their own purposes. It won't feel like a community any more. I'd have been happy to pay a subscription – as I do for The Guardian, LibraryThing and Flickr – to keep a valuable arena open, but now I feel a bit used.

This is of course a function of my privileged position as an academic. Universities are complex things, behaving in multiple – often contradictory – ways at the same time. They're charities, businesses, liberation movements, social justice vehicles and corporate service providers all at once. It's frustrating and wonderful at the same time. One of the key advantages though is that almost everyone in HE understands that we have multiple responsibilities. There's this magical notion that intellectual purity and honesty outweighs immediate, local or commercial concerns: while 'truth' is accepted as a social construct these days, commitment to open and fearless enquiry is at the heart of what we do, and my particular employers have sometimes stood up for these principles even when they've been deeply frustrated with the consequences.

The result is that when my students attend a lecture, or someone reads a journal article I've written, they know that there are no hidden motives or justifications for what I've asked them to consider and what I've said, nor are my thoughts consciously shaped by the interests and perspectives of my employers or anyone else: I'm beholden only to my students and my sense of professional duty. No publishers have sponsored my reading list. I can't any longer assume that this is the case for WonkHE: while individual articles will no doubt be rigorous and honest, each additional sponsor will have some effect on what is presented and how it's framed.

I should apologise to WonkHE: they aren't doing anything worse than thousands of household names (in fact they're a lot better than most) and they wandered into my field of view just as I was getting on the highest of horses. Objecting to one organisation's adoption of tactics refined by much nastier companies (and Portishead) with barely a squeak of resistance from the public is totally pompous, quixotic and certainly ineffectual, but here I am. I can do no other. Other than fall off this horse and do myself a nasty injury.

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