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Journey to the East东游记|From Cold War to Cold Comfort从冷战到‘冷’慰藉

Many years ago, i used to run an architecture magazine, called Archis. It was a respectable title, most Dutch architects had a subscription and increasingly there was a decent international readership as well. The owner was the late Netherlands Architecture Institute, but the publisher was the stock traded Elsevier. They ran a bunch of construction-related journals and were happy with most of them because of closed circulation that prevented any risk. Archis didn’t have a closed circulation but relied on a government subsidy, which practically meant that all content was provided for free for Elsevier to secure the profit.


Regardless these easy peasy conditions, something at Elsevier’s changed. I received an invitation for a serious meeting. The publisher in charge told me that CEO Pierre Vinken had imposed a new rule on all of Elsevier’s titles: the Vinken pyramid. On top were the medical and legal professional magazines. They made an enormous profit because content was also free, production was largely digital, and they could charge any subscription fee in a monopolist situation. At bottom of the pyramid were the public magazines, which were only kept in portfolio when they still could make 5% profit. However, to show all editors that their place at Elsevier was fragile, he even wanted each year some titles to be dropped, even above 5%, just to demonstrate what the pyramid really meant. At the bottom, your future is at risk. Killing titles was a matter of energizing the knock out race that came to be known as shareholder capitalism. Magazines were not meant to disseminate knowledge. They were meant to help maximize shareholder value. Pierre Vinken is no longer, but his practice is more alive than ever.Archis survived the onslaught (will spare you the details) independently only by support of some maverick individuals for whom break even was good enough.


This memory suddenly recurred to me when I cycled through Romania and Bulgaria the last week. A vast stock of buildings: offices, factories from the time before the end of the Cold War, have fallen victim to neglect and abandonment. Nobody takes any care. Obviously, before 1989, they once represented a business model with incomparable lower profit expectations, if any. Break even could be enough. After crossing city after city, village after village, it suddenly occurred to me as if all these millions of square meters somehow had been squeezed by a Pierre Vinken paradigm, denying all those sluggish businesses to be part of the new future. And with them millions of people. Some managed to escape to bigger cities, working in tech or finance. Many other’s, too old or too passive, stayed behind, watching their towns fall apart, cut in parts by highways, and becoming local centers of gambling for those who still can’t accept that history took a turn with no regrets. What you see, riding through these countries is the consequence of capitalist take over, Vinken style. Except for the usual EU prestige projects, the usual way to cluster the last remaining talent to showcases of goodwill, what you feel is the existential prize that is paid by the majority who were not smart enough to seize the new opportunities. No wonder their investments in the cemeteries that act as their last revolt against oblivion.



Journey to be continued...

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