The Digital City Evolves and Erodes

For the m-cult website (new media culture in Finland)

Digital city Amsterdam is one of the most famous local net democracy experiments – as well as the first ever digital city portal and public access Internet provider. DDS started in 1994 as a grassroots-kind of experiment which soon became an extremely popular conglomeration of local and thematic communities managed by a non-profit foundation. It seems that there are lots of lessons to learn from Amsterdam, including also the reasons that led to the erosion of the participation in digital city life and the subsequent change of DDS into a commercial provider in 2000.

DIY Digital City

MT: Geert, you have said that the Amsterdam example shows that it is not the strategic government visions, models and plans which take us to a working public digital culture, but the actual ‘hands-on’ initiatives of the people themselves. It seems that this hands-on political pragmatism is very specific to Amsterdam. You were active in the first steps of DDS in 1994. How would you describe the atmosphere?

GL: The atmosphere was euphoric. The Digital City built on existing social structures in the media, squatters, hackers and the art scene and those who were active in the area of cultural policy. I suppose it’s all about timing and the right chemistry between people. Everyone had already worked with computers, bulletin board systems, with pirate radio, local television, theatre, we had organized political debates, done arts projects and understood the importance of bringing together programmers, designers, critics, writers and activists. The new participants were those who wanted to find out what the Internet was all about. Remember, we’re talking about early 1994, at the beginning of the Internet boom, even before the World Wide Web was readily available for people to use. DDS switched to www in October 1994 at a time when the majority still had monochrome screens and 286/386 PCs. But the project took off really fast and grew to into a community facility within a few years, with around 150.000 users.

MT: Not so many ecity projects have been successful in recruiting such an active participation, maybe due to their top-down organization or a forced version of ‘locality’ or ‘community’. How was the rapid, bottom-up growth of the forum managed?

GL: The Digital City was run by its own users, and really had an urban life in the sense of anonymity and ‘masses’. It was not a community in the narrow sense as it was way too big and diverse for that. The main success of DDS was its ability to facilitate what I call Internet freedom. This is why it’s so different from smaller art projects on the one and local government projects on the other hand. They all treated the user as ‘visitors’, or even worse ‘customers’. In the case of DDS people were treated as builders, producers, who should be supported in finding their own way of using the Net. This meant that very little restrictions were given. The effect of this liberal policy was of course that DDS became very broad, and huge. Already after half a year the founders lost overview of what was going inside the system and I suppose no one really gained overview. This gave me the freedom to become a commentator and study our own project instead of driving it. Over a few years a lot of us used DDS as an Internet facility for projects, for instance for hosting sites. From very early on DDS had an interesting streaming media department which I still consider as a future model for citizens’ web casting. The idea was (and to some extent still is) that with the rise of Web TV and broadband citizens should be empower to ‘talk back’ to the media giants and facilitate them with bandwidth and tech support.

From participant to user to consumer

MT: It is quite interesting that this partly anarchistic activity won the initial support of the local municipality. But when they withdrew, it was necessary to look for other sources of income. The process ended in 2000 with an abrupt change into a private holding company, owned by two of the former DDS managers. What went wrong in the process?

GL: In order to pay for all the free facilities (free email like hotmail, free webspace like geocities, free dialup like the free providers), Digital City was turned into a hybrid structure in which commercial work paid for the non-commercial facilities. When the dotcom boom approached its epiphany, a few bureaucrats privatized DDS. The active DDS community, which had declined over the years, wasn’t able to reverse the take-over and by September 2001 DDS had become a commercial ADSL provider. This is indeed the tragic part of the DDS story. There are many reasons to resent director Joost Flint who took DDS into his own hands. But to some extent that was the result of the various political entities (from the Amsterdam council to the national government in The Hague to Brussels’ bureaucrats who associated the Network Society with Philips and Siemens).
There is also a remarkable reluctance inside new media circles to formalize relationships. It is an informal culture, built on trust and loose associations of people who collaborate on a day-to-day basis, with little or no money involved. This leads to the curious paradox that such ‘public spaces’ within the Internet who promote democracy themselves have little or no internal democratic accountability. Both founders and participants were afraid of bureaucratic structures and procedures. The DDS tragedy is, in part, a result of the inability to experiment with new forms of internal democracy of large-size net communities. The Amsterdam city council is the one to blame most, although I have always been reluctant to blame the state for its mistakes. It will perhaps always remain a mystery why they didn’t take this hugely successful and innovative Internet project on board.

MT: In a recent article, published in the web magazine Telepolis, you have described the quantitative and qualitative erosion of the DDS user base. Even though the quantity of users was constantly rising, with over 150 000 users in 2000, their activity as participants was getting less and less visible. Why do you think this happened? It also seems that the main population of DDS still remained largely male, highly educated and computer skilled. What about the ethnic groups – in this city where over 50% of inhabitants are of non-Dutch origin, were there many languages spoken or ethnic based quarters participating in the DDS project?

GL: DDS was a social accelerator for new media technologies. I am not really sure what you say here about the social background of its users. I think you are referring to the early years (1994-96). The gender balance established itself fairly soon, with the exception of the ‘geek’ culture which is over 95% male up to this date. Ethnic communities in Amsterdam are very media savvy and have their own infrastructure. That wasn’t so much the issue. The question which has to be addressed in the case of DDS is why the initiative wasn’t able to build up a sustainable relation of trust with the very communities it helped to create. One of the reasons for this has been the tough struggle DDS had to go through, till its privatization. DDS was very much a facility—to such a degree that many people who worked at DDS started to forget why they were doing all this work for almost no money in the first place. The decline happened in the late nineties, when there was a lot of money to be made—except for the stupid few who believed in the digital public domain… Users lost their identification with the DDS ‘brand’ if I may say so. They either went to similar free services or established their own servers, domain names etc. Still I feel that the way in which the project ended in a particularly sad way. A considerable group of users fought till the very end—but they lost, mainly because we, the founders, did not think through the legal issues of ownership in an early stage. This is why two people could highjack DDS and call it their own, a move which happened to more new media projects in Amsterdam.

MT: Digital City started as a text-based BBS system, which was soon replaced by a www interface with a city metaphor consisting of a mosaic of squares and ‘houses’, and lately with a very bland, basic portal interface. It seems that the interfaces reflect the changing role of digital citizens – from participant to user to consumer. But the changes also tell us something about the global developments of the Internet, as technology and economy… What version of a digital public domain would you consider desirable?

GL: In order to answer this we first of all have to analyze to position of the state. Is the state still considered the caretaker of the public domain? Or is the state just a corporation like any other? If, like in Finland, the state presence is still relatively high, the answer might be different from, let’s say the UK, where next to everything is privatized and the overall infrastructure has been on the brink of collapse. Within the Internet context it could be useful to define the public domain as a ‘third space’, in between the state and the market. Some call this (mediated) sphere civil society. Others might refer to the steady rise of non-profit NGOs.
It is useful to situate the Internet as a ‘third culture’ also because of its ambivalent nature towards the nation state. Sometimes one is in sometimes outside (you for instance have an .fi email address, I have an .nl one). Given the ‘withdrawal’ of the nation states and governments in so many critical fields I find it hard to talk about the public domain without having to speak in negative terms, in terms of loss. But because I am not a cultural pessimist I am not going to do that. So we have to reinvent that terrain, together, on the fly. I would say: public domain is what happens. It is not a legal term. In principle it’s an empty (and boring) space, which really needs to be filled up with activities from below. There is nothing ‘on offer’ in contemporary public domains. Quite the opposite. Authorities see them as potential trouble spots and target their surveillance apparatus on the self-made—and often temporary—public domains.

MT: In striving for e-democracy, what do you consider as the key question – cables, bandwidth and access? Good content and communication or media literacy?

GL: Ideally they are related. Let me tell you my preference. I would wish for a neutral, open telecom infrastructure, not over-regulated, and not based on expensive licenses, with a board consisting of many parties, movements, trade unions, including companies and ministries. As a techno-materialist I prefer fiber cable to education programs. In case something goes wrong people can educate themselves (and each other) but they cannot unroll a national broadband net. I am always a bit suspicious of what I call the ‘knowledge’ mafia. A lot of the investments there disappear in expensive consultancies with little or no results. The fact is that education standards (worldwide) are going down. There are massive disinvestments in education and I can also see that going down. The answer to that is not to cry for ‘knowledge’ which technology is going to produce overnight. The same can be said of broadband. What e-democracy needs is some serious dissent (not just the playful ‘hacktivism’). People who stand up and say no to the consensus factory. The Internet is there to stage and ‘aesthesize’ conflicts, not to resolve them. As Chantal Mouffe describes it in her book ‘The Democratic Paradox’, what we need is an agnostic medium full of confrontation and contestation.

Other versions of the public

MT: Could you describe a recent e-democracy initiative or project that you find interesting or promising?

GL: Obviously this would not be some electronic voting experiment or local government online service. For me democracy is rooted in society, it’s a culture, not a set of laws and regulation. This is why there can still be a lively democracy in the case of a dead political landscape (as is the case in most Western countries). In terms of electronic democracy I would look at indicators such as open source/free software projects and the ways in which these ideas are being implemented into the society. That could be good indication to the question of ‘electronic participation’. To what extent do people start initiatives and take their ‘electronic destiny’ into their own hands? Do people just consume the products the multinational corporations (such as Nokia) offer them or do they resist the proprietary logic and draconic copyright and privacy regimes? I am still inspired by software projects such as ‘slashcode’, developed by the Linux community, an open web-based conferencing system. The artistic/cultural communities haven’t yet picked up this model, let alone academics and the political class, but we’ll get there.

MT: For example in UK or SeattleWireless challenge the telecoms by building local infrastructures for wireless Internet. What is your opinion of these initiatives?

GL: Marvelous. Hardwiring the community is the ultimate test. We are going through a weird period in which corporate wireless networks are open. That’s such a mind-blowing thing. Walk through the city with your laptop and you’ll pick up wireless ‘clouds’ of connectivity. This concept could be enlarged and ‘democratized’. I have heard of plans to give Californian first year students a laptop and have a wireless network all over campus, thereby getting rid of expensive media labs. Sounds a bit utopian, isn’t? Such open networks are very vulnerable. It’s a possible future. A model of ‘public access’, which could be further, developed or may die soon.

MT: Another recent initiative to start building a digital public domain is the Sarai Media Lab, which opened, in early 2001 in New Delhi, India. You have been active in establishing this project, which interestingly enough received support also from the Dutch ministry of Foreign affairs. How did this collaboration come about?

GL: I met the urban sociologist Ravi Sundaram at Fifth Cyberconf in Madrid, an exciting event at the height of the libertarian ‘Wired’ age. He gave a paper there, comparing the restrictive Internet of the Indian government back then with the Dam construction projects. We stayed in contact and started to develop a plan for a critical media lab in Delhi, together with the Society for Old and New Media in Amsterdam where I was based at the time. Writing the plan and getting all the details right for the Dutch application was a nightmare and took a lot of time and energy. In the end the waiting paid off and in mid 2000 construction work started. The center opened in February 2001. Soon Sarai became one of the most sophisticated new media center worldwide because of its unique ability to combine critical discourse with programming and the production of new media. Older disciplines such as film, urban studies and development issues are being mixed with free software/open source issues, brought in by a group of youngsters. Blending old and new releases very different energies compared to the one-dimensional business dotcom rhetoric (which, by the way, also existed in India).

MT: Sarai involves an interesting combination of ethnographic and documentary-film approaches to global and local aspects of urban life with a strong emphasis on free software developed from specifically local perspectives. Do you see a possibility in developing altogether different information architectures and software based on cultural and social considerations?

GL: Software has never been ‘universal’. In that sense my proposal to emphasize the cultural aspects of software and Internet procedure might sound a bit strange. The Internet so far has been US-American, Western. An engineering culture, dominated by technologists with their very particular (not yet studied) worldview. However, the use and development of all these new networks is rapidly becoming globalized. This so banal. However, within the tech world it is still a novelty. Let’s face it. The Internet is by and large run by a very small group of US-American citizens. They are engineer, working for IBM and AT&T, Microsoft and a few others. Academics are a minority although they are still very much involved in further research and the work on standards.
The American government decides if a country can have Internet yes or no, and has the power switch off entire countries as recently happened with Afghanistan and Sudan. The debates over the global domain name policy are an interesting case where the power of the American governments and corporations end and ‘global governance’ could possibly start. The Sarai initiative is only one in many attempts to change the corporate-bureaucratic policy culture and open up the debate how the global ‘information society’ should look like. Many are convinced that we should not leave it up to the technocrats. The question then becomes: where to start? If you don’t believe in lobby organization and classic policy work and distrust politicians there is an indirect way to influence such decision making processes and that by doing it. Make your own IT. Don’t wait till others will provide you with ‘digital rights’. There is no ‘digital divide’ in that sense. In no time Sarai became a hub for new media culture, which inspires people from all over the globe. The old model of ‘technology transfer’ is no longer relevant in this context.

MT: The idea of free software seems to gain more ground in discussions of the public domain.

GL: I think we have arrived in an interesting time in which network ethics are being confronted with the mainstream, in a very different way to what the heroic post-Wired ‘Fast Company’ business literature is telling us. I refer here in particular to the growing cultural/regional forms, limitations and possibilities of software and network production. The spirit of the Information Age is one of conflict and a common search for alternatives. The whole Linux project is based on the discontent with proprietary software, and is driven by a collective contempt of Microsoft. Without this drive it is very hard to explain why all these thousands of volunteers devote their free time to writing code. What is interesting though are the current debates between the techno-libertarian hackers and the social-political wing of the Linux movement and their different views on the involvement for instance of IBM in the open source movement. Very interesting tensions between the spreading of free software ideas and its mutations once it’s out there. Free software is becoming a metaphor, a set of concepts that is slowly getting rid of its adolescent boy culture and is moving into other social and cultural realms.

MT: What about Finland, the land of Linux and Nokia? In their recent book, Himanen and Castells paint a rosy picture of “Finnish model” of the information society, where a fortunate alliance between the state, academia, hackers and the corporate sector has contributed to a welfare-cum-information society. Is something missing from this picture? After running a temporary Media lab in Helsinki 1999, I remember that you felt some frustration at the low rate of social activism, at least when compared to the high rate of gadget-happiness in Finland. Is it really so that there is no need for ‘resistance identities’ in a welfare state, as Himanen suggests?

GL: I don’t think that ‘prosperity’ and activism are in any way related. The United States is a successful superpower yet also brought along a renaissance of (media) activism, especially since the clashes in during the WTO meeting in Seattle (late 1999). I am not worried about the lack of activism in Finland, there is a lot going on, especially in the field of migration, racism and non-Western cultures. But on the whole I found out that Finnish media activism is a bit tame and careful, not very creative and sophisticated in its ‘tactical’ and subversive way of using the media. In the general the technology awareness is high, no doubt. But tech is not just there to be used in a ‘proper’ way. It can also be turned upside down and inside out. Perhaps a bit more ‘wrong’ use of tech wouldn’t bad, if I may say so? For instance, could Finnish tango be ‘translated’ into software? What are tragic operating systems? Drunken cellspace. Something of that fascinating Finnish madness hardwired into Nokia phones, used on a worldwide scale, that would be something. That would be Finnish activism for me (but perhaps this is bad anthropology of a tech tourist).

Tactical media and other hybrid concepts

MT: The Dutch new media culture not only involves a socially oriented, DIY and hands-on practice – the scene has also been a hotbed for a host of hybrid concepts – Public domain 2.0, tactical media, PGO (post-governmental organization). The genre for broadcasting these concepts has been “an art of campaigning” which include “We want bandwidth” ( ), “No one is illegal” ( ), “Free B92” ( ), “Free for what?” ( ). Would it be possible for you to outline this way of combining practice and theory?

GL: There is a ‘radical pragmatism’ in the many of the Dutch campaigns you mention, which I have ambivalent feelings about. I don’t like to make any propaganda for the Dutch consensus model because there are way too much, not discussed shadow sides to it. Anti-intellectualism is widespread in the Netherlands. This leads to a ‘praxis oriented’ culture which is obsessed with visible and if possible, economic outcomes. Underneath the democratic surface there is an ‘enlightened’ elite of regents and merchants who rule the country as one their transnational networks. Holland might be sophisticated and innovative in an aesthetic sense, but the underlying concepts are often poor and not very articulated. In this climate many are even proud not to have ideas and resent others who are trying to articulate them. In part this is related to the great freedom, which is given to you in a place like Amsterdam. The freedom gives you a boost of sensation but it can also put you into a void. Having said that it is true that the Dutch cultural climate is open for experiments. But don’t try to sell them big ideas. You have to be modest and keep your mouth shut—and in the meantime you can do pretty interesting stuff and even find support for it. But personally I would not export Dutch pragmatism.

MT: One of the most widely resonating concepts has been that of “tactical media” which you proposed together with David Garcia in 1997, based on the experiences of the two Next Five Minute conferences in 1993 and 1996. Tactical media applies deCerteau’s notion of the tactics of everyday life to describe the campaigning, networked and often low-tech activity of media artists and activists. The concept has been taken up by several individuals, groups and even institutions – including the Critical Art Ensemble, Sarai Media Lab and even NYU which is, as far as I understood, interested in building a research project for more systematical thinking about the topic. Why do you think the concept proved such a success?

GL: Perhaps because it’s an appropriate reading of the ‘sign of the times’? I would say: it’s tactical because it’s tactical. The concept facilitates an opening up of the alternative media landscape after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion/liberation of leftist dogmas. Michael Hardt and Antoni Negri are doing this in a much more structured way in the book ‘Empire’. In it they say that there is no ‘outside’ anymore. The Amsterdam tactical media groups applied this idea already in the early nineties to the media field. We said: there is no dichotomy between mainstream and alternative media anymore. All there are degrees of negotiation. This by no means implies a defeat of alternative channels. Quite the opposite. Since the eighties we are witnessing a steady rise of citizens radio, computer network, paper zines, video and performance festivals, you name it. However, all these initiatives no longer define themselves outside of the system. They use and develop the new technologies, try to find sponsors and alliances inside and outside the state apparatus. The way they do this we defined as ‘tactical’. This means: establishing different coalitions, metamorphorize if necessary, rename yourself and mutate into other entities, regroup and fragment again. There is nothing to be sad about. The movement of constant shift is a cultural reality for millions of us. No fixed jobs, no static ideology and no political party of church to listen to who will tell you what to do and what to think.

MT What about the concept of PGOs – post-governmental organizations, which involves a critique of the bureaucratization of NGO’s, of their shifting from a tactical mode to occupying a strategic position of power? In Finland, there has been a bit of discussion after some representatives of activist NGO’s were invited to the President’s Independence Day ball. They entered the presidential castle in their ball gowns while outside; a group of their peers organized a demonstration, which was tamed by policemen on horsebacks. Could this signal a first NGO/PGO rupture in Finland? If NGO’s increasingly operate as ‘subcontractors’ for governments, what is the role of PGOs? Is there a promise for a new kind of politics, democracy and accountability?

GL: The rise of NGOs is one of the long-term shifts within Western societies, which are hardly theorized upon. Their growth and impact is remarkable, in Finland, the Netherlands but also in Eastern Europe after 1989 where NGOs almost immediately sprung up by the thousands. Within the current social movement we can witness a growing tension between those outside on the street and on the web, and those who ‘inside’ who are sitting at the negotiating table, not really representing anyone accept their own organization. I have recently heard a concrete case about a clash between environmental experts of Greenpeace, participating in the Kyoto treaty negotiations and activists who are protesting the arrogant position of countries such as the United States. The multinational NGOs have effectively changed sides and accordingly call for police protection. These ‘subcontractors’ as you correctly label them are in fact temporary entities, which formulate and implement policy and then leave the stage again. What we were interested in when we threw up the Post Governmental Organization idea was if we could imagine other forms of organization, which could avoid this, sell out. What forms of organizations emerge from networks? So far that question has by and large been avoided. But it’s not 1994 anymore. Networks are becoming established in their own right and we should look for sustainable, open and effective models, which break with the NGO model. This discussion hasn’t really started yet but the signs are visible everywhere: the question how to organize (once the euphoria is over) is on the table.

MT: You have frequently criticized designers and demanded that web design should be dissociated from ideas of ‘usability’. On the other hand, you have talked about the need to develop speculative software and participated in organizing the International browserday ( ), which is an ongoing series of competitions for young designers to rethink and propose innovative concepts for the Internet, and recently also wireless browser architectures. Isn’t usability a key to access? Why is there a need for speculation in design?

GL: There is a necessity to speculate with concepts everywhere! But only stubborn and determined people are able to transform loose ideas out of their imagination into halfway ready proposals, which can then be turned in products, events or revolts. What I criticize about the well-meant ‘usability’ approach is its moral stand, to speak on behalf of the lazy and somewhat stupid other’ who just wants to have an easy go, the zero expectation personality who doesn’t want and doesn’t need to learn anything. This simplification of the web goes very well with the corporate takeover of new media. Many usability experts are complicit of this trend and wisely keep their mouth shut. They are only the consultants, isn’t it? They are not to blame, as they weren’t during the dotcom craze.
What initiatives such as are trying to achieve is to make the upcoming design generation aware of the possibility to stand up and say no. No to limiting proprietary standards and top-down communication. Instead we invite everyone to challenge his or her own ‘techno imagination’. Designers are in a unique possibility these days to shape their tools, not just to use them. Soon such opportunities may close down. It will be interesting to see what will happen with the Third Generation mobile phone standards. Designers have the possibility there to let go their fantasies, not limited by anyone. We think that standards can be dreamed up, designed by those who are ready to withstand the state-sanctioned corporate obsessions with profit, intellectual property and control.