Digital City Establishes Itself

At the cross-road of liberty and politics The Amsterdam Digital City gets established by Geert Lovink

The new media are being talked and written about a lot. And a lot of this is sell-talk. Users are consumers, and they are being promised the moon. A kind of sanctified, mythical aura is being drawn around ‘on-line-mankind’, and if we may believe the cyber-ideologists, its representatives are some kind of half-gods. The Amsterdam Digital City (DDS, ‘De Digitale Stad’), was hyped into metaphysical proportions by the media within days of its launching, in January 1994.

Yet it is unquestionable that the DDS functioned as a catalysator in the Netherlands. For many it represented their first contact with the Internet, whether direct or not. But the Digital City also grew rapidly into the symbol of the ‘public domain’ in Cyberspace. Even though the DDS did not bridge the gap between politicians and their constituency – which had been one of its prime stated objectives, and the reason why the government put money in it – it did have an exemplary function in the ongoing debate about the ‘information society’. The DDS-system grew in no time into Europe’s largest and most famous public computer-network, or freenet as Americans would call it. In practice, this means scores of phone-lines, a free e-mail address for every user, disc-space for a home-page, lots of opportunity to make contact and gather and/or disseminate information, and above all, the freedom not to be bothered by censorship and surveillance. By May 1998 DDS has over 70.000 ‘inhabitants’, i.e. registered users, and many more visitors, or ‘tourists’. There would be even more, but the limits of the current system’s capacity have already been reached one year ago. It is a sad truth that most European community Internet- and web-projects remain fairly empty and virtual indeed, and are devoid of a significant number of users (for example, the Berlin former Internationale Stadt initiative, the DDS’s most direct clone, which increasingly developed in the direction of a content provider and software developer). Meanwhile the Amsterdam Digital City has managed to spawn a diverse and lively net-culture. The system is so big by now, and so intricate, that hardly anybody – least of it its management – has an overview of it. This is exactly what makes it interesting to push all exaggerated stories and expectations aside, and to look at what makes such a complex net-project tick as the years go by.

In our opinion, the prime cause of the Digital City’s success is the freedom that has been granted to its users from the very beginning. This sounds trivial, but it is not, surely if you take the increasing control over net-use in universities and corporations, and this especially outside the Netherlands, into account. The Digital City has never turned into a propaganda-mouthpiece for the City Hall, under the guise of ‘bringing politics closer to the common people thanks to information technology’. The DDS-system is not the property of the Municipal corporation, even though many people assume this to be the case. In fact, the DDS has not received any subsidy from the municipality over the past two-and-half years (The Corporation remains one its biggest customers, though). The simple fact that politics constitutes only a (small) fragment of our daily lives has worked out on the Net too. Besides, it appeared rather quickly that politicians were neither able nor willing to familiarise themselves with the new medium, as efforts made in the beginning of the DDS to bring them on-line and start a dialogue with their constituents proved a waste of time. And the citizens were far more interested in dialoguing among themselves than to engage in arcane discussions with close-minded politicos.

Nina Meilof, who has a background in local television (another flourishing sector in the Amsterdam culture), has been hired by DDS to organise discussions about local political issues, such as the – failed – attempt to restructure the municipality into a ‘urban province’, the controversial house-building drive into the Y-lake at IJburg, the even more controversial North-South underground railway project, or the extension of Schiphol Airport, which has the whole environmental community up in arms. At the moment, experiments are running on the Beurs-TV network, with a hook-up on the Internet. The techno-savyness aspect aside, the main goal is to look how to transcend the immobilism of the current political rituals. To achieve this, the limits and limitations of the political game as we know it must be well understood. Nina: ‘A major advantage of DDS remains its anarchic character. There are a lot of secret nooks and crannies, such as cafes in out of the way places. Then you may look into home-pages and find the history of that particular cafe, replete with the club-jargon, a birthday-list and a group-snapshot. There is a Harley-Davidson meeting point for instance, that coalesce around one particular cafe, and it brings a newsletter out. This kind of subcultures is of course far more thrilling than the mainstream sites maintained by big corporate or institutionnal players. No way those sites ever swing.’ Therefore DDS is looking for a kind of balance, whereby this type of subcultures may grow optimally, without the politic being discarded altogether.

Precondition for this is the System’s independence. But that costs money, and quite a lot to boot. DDS has increasingly grown into a business while wishing to retain its not-for-profit character at the same time. The management is pursuing a policy of courting a handful of major customers who bring some serious money in. The catch is to attract projects that fit into the DDS set-up, but that is not a totally friction-less process. In practice, the DDS has divided into three components: there is a commercial department that hunts for the hard cash, there is an innovation wing which develops new technologies for corporate customers, and there is the community aspect, where DDS wants to be a social laboratory of sorts. But the image of a ‘virtual community’, as Howard Rheingold has called it in his same-named book, is not really appropriate here. DDS has rather grown into a multi-faceted amalgam of small communities, who share among themselves the intention to perpetuate the DDS system as an ‘open city’. It is there that the central interface of the DDS plays a key-role. It is so designed as to provide an overview of the mass of information on offer. In keeping with the name of the system, the DDS interface is build around the notions of ‘squares’, ‘buildings/homes’, and ‘(side-) streets’, but it does not show pictures or simulations of the actual (Amsterdam) city-scape, as many people would expect. There are, for instances, ‘squares’ devoted to the themes of: the environment, death, sport, books, tourism, social activism, government, etc., but the interface is not able to give a full representation of the underlying activities. News features, and the DDS own newspaper, ‘The Digital Citizen’, attempt to fill this lacuna. How does an insider keep abreast of current developments? Nina Meilof (who is also editor of the ‘Digital Citizen’) again: I am getting the stats of the most popular ‘houses’ (= home-pages), so I go & look into them from time to time. Now we have a network of male homosexual ‘houses’ springing up. They show pics of attractive gentlemen. Those are popular sites. All this is fairly down-to-earth in fact. Cars, drugs, how to grow your own weed, music sites with extensive libraries. There is also a massive circuit where you can obtain or exchange software, and some of these ‘warez-houses’ (!) will be up for one or two days and vanish again. And of course, you’ve got Internet-games, that’s an evergreen. But it may also be a home-page on some very rare bird, and then it turns out to be an internationally famous site attracting ornithologists from all over the planet. Yet other people freak out on design or Java-scripts. And you’ve got the links samplers. And don’t forget the jokes-sites…’ Thus there is in the DDS a gigantic alternative and ‘underground world’, but there is also an official city on the surface and in the open. The subject matter there is of the ‘democracy and the Internet’ variety. For 6 month in 1996/97 there was an experiment with a ‘digital square on traffic and transport issues’, sponsored by the Dutch Ministry of Public Works & Roads. Registered DDS ‘inhabitants’ with an e-mail address could react to such propositions as: ‘If we don’t pull together to do something about congestion, traffic jams will never subside.’, or: ‘Aggressive driving pays: it gets you there faster ‘ or then: ‘The automobile is the most marvellous invention…of the previous century.’ The experiment even boasted the luxury of a professional moderator, journalist Kees van den Bosch, who was inviting every month another hi-profile politician to stir up the discussion. And the government was footing the bill. Van den Bosch says he is satisfied about the degree of participation. Yet it easy to fall prey to an overoptimistic estimate. Just a handful of participants can generate an impressive amount of statements. Genuinely new ideas and arguments have been few and far between. The evaluation report also states that little use has been made of the opportunity to obtain background data on the issues at stake. A large majority (say 75%) of the participants make one contribution and disappear from view, whereas the remainder soldiers on and bites itself into the discussion. The report also mentions as remarkable the high occurrence of recounting of very personal traffic experiences, whereby senior bureaucrats in the ministry would be quick-started into direct action. The hierarchical routine, with a minister at the top making decisions, would then be temporarily pushed aside. After some time the ministry’s officials would simply join the fray, and would sometime come up with a reaction on that very day. Nonetheless Nina Meilof puts more faith in the indirect influence exercised on the politics through the channelling of the new media. ‘At the moment, we witness the dressing-down of the referendum instrument by the local body-politic’. (A few year ago, Amsterdam introduced the hitherto politically tricky concept of ‘corrective referendum’ in matters of local decisions by the municipal council. It has not really taken of, while City Hall restricted it scope and upped its threshold at the same time.) ‘Politicians are constantly tinkering with the rules, in order to give the impression that voters have a say, while in fact everything stays the same. Every referendum gets comprehensive coverage in the DDS, but its clear every time that politicians do not (want to) have any truck with it.’ Therefore she thinks that it is far more interesting and rewarding to do your own things on the Net and leave it to the old media to eagerly report about them. This way you do exert quite some influence, however indirectly. ‘You may even hope that some day the politicians will be wanting to come closer to the horse’s mouth.’ The Internet’s growth may thus be exponential, it still takes some time before the institutions and rituals get adapted to the new situation.

And then a tremendous lot has happened over the past three to four years in the field of technological development. It has always been the custom at DDS to give total free hand to the computer-people. And since DDS is a big network on the fast-growth lane, crisis is a permanent feature at System Operations. Technical problems and glitches are an everyday occurrence as the system’s hard- & software is constantly stretched to the limits of its capacity. There is an overriding ambition to be on the cutting edge in innovative technology also, take a pole-position on the knowledge frontier, a game at which DDS has been remarkably successful up to now. Nina: ‘At the moment we are heavily into Real-Audio and -Video into combinations of Internet with radio and TV. It would be great if we’d be able to provide for home-page-TV for our users. In order to achieve this, you must be well aware of the latest technical developments and you must nurture a good relationship with the owners of bandwidth who are going to carry all this fancywork. We want to prevent the situation in which people have to go to big corporate players if they want to put television on the net. We feel that these things too should be readily available to the greatest number, so that any private person can start web-TV at home.’ This technical innovation push does not always square well with a large number of users’ growing expectations regarding content, and the quality of public discussions. In the beginning phase of DDS, there was that idea that the (digital) city was some kind of empty shell that would be filled up by users and customers, without very much intervention from the DDS staff. But that formula turned out to result in a very static system. Yet not very much has changed in the content- structure of DDS over the past few years. Some people feel that users’ creativity should be better rewarded. After all that’s what keep the whole social structure going (DDS does ‘reward’ outstanding home-page developers- with extra bandwidth & technical facilitation, but they must be pretty spectacular achievers). And it is still not clear whether the Net is really a good place, let alone the place, to conduct a meaningful, in depth discussion. The first hurdle is of course the problem of moderation, yes or no? Or to put it differently: is the DDS a medium like others with editors who organise and edit (and hence, censor) the discussion, or is some kind of digital remake of the Hyde Park Corner Soap box?

One format that attempts to put some more structure and coherence in the system is the ‘newspaper’, with a line of ‘supplements’ which you can opt to receive (or not). This makes for an interesting spot to which people may address contributions, which are filtered by an editorial board. That is already the case with the ‘best house’ contest for which one has to register beforehand. This is a mixed format whereby the content is being co-produced by the users. In addition, ‘webring’ technology is now at hand, whereby sites are automatically beaded together and visitors are taken on an organised tour of sorts by the editors. As usual two models are competing here, one that might be called anarchistic, where things are falling into place after some time, if ever, and a more organised one, with editors surfing the place on the look-out for the really interesting sites. A webring can be a nice compromise between the two.

Truth is that the exact outline of an open, public forum has not crystallised out yet. Who is going to take care of that in the future? Political parties seem to be prepared to put a lot of money in making their viewpoints available on-line. But that does not make for a public, independent platform. A successor to the public broadcasting system is what is called for. For all practical purposes, the Digital City has been saddled with that task, since SALTO, the local television and radio body, is clueless as to what they should do with the Internet. A lot is going to depend on the actual – and shifting – ownership of the cable, the current and future legislation, and what people, whether they are (directly) connected to the DDSor not, will be able to achieve with regard to the design and maintenance of a (new) public domain in Cyberspace. One thing is clear : no good is likely to come out from waiting for government and corporations to provide the kind of ‘on-line services’ they have in mind.

The last question pertains to the much-vaunted urban metaphor of the Digital city: will it disappear sometime, and with it the DDS, its emancipatory task having been achieved? And what about its strictly local role, will that dwindle into insignificance also? Nowadays no more than a quarter of the ‘inhabitants’ actually live in Amsterdam. DDS remains a Dutch-language site, though. The management still maintains that upholding our own (Dutch) language is a legitimate aim. Many people find it difficult to express themselves in English. But it is not intrinsic to the system itself whether it is local or not. That is something the users decide. We have already seen that successful home-pages usually have an international exposure. At the same time the Internet is increasingly being used in a very local or regional context, one can now go on-line to check out the programme of your culture-club next door. By the time computers and access terminal will be readily available at the neighbourhood level, the need for and appeal of a city-wide set-up will decrease, with consequences for the DDS project.

More down to earth, how long will there be a role for ‘houses’ and for the ‘post office’, to take a few characteristic DDS features? Fortunately, the DDS never did try to impose its own metaphor onto the users. So the fact that new formulas are bound to appear in time is not problematic. It turns out that it are mainly outsiders, non-DDS users, who take the name all too literally in order to criticise it. DDS offers a lot of information not directly (or not all) pertaining to Amsterdam, yet many people think that is the case. To quote Nina Meilof a last time: ‘The city metaphor stands for diversity, not for a town in particular. What we have in mind are all those different ‘places’ and localities that are possible in a real as well as in a virtual city. The Internet is a very cosmopolitan sort of place. And the world Wide web is surely a kind of environment where you can settle for a time, and go on the look out for neighbours. These may be actually living in the USA, but it might also be quite cool to be able to meet for real, and that happens all the time. And so you could be getting of the train in Groningen (200 km to the north of Amsterdam) one day, and the platform is crowded with people sporting ‘DDS Metro Meeting’ buttons…’

——– Visit the Amsterdam Digital City at: You can register as ‘inhabitant’ (it is free, but you must have an Internet account) by telnetting into DDS and filling out a questionnaire, which is usually processed within 24 hrs.