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<nettime> Amsterdam Public Digital Culture 2000 (with Patrice Riemens)
geert lovink on 21 Aug 2000 14:42:35 -0000


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<nettime> Amsterdam Public Digital Culture 2000 (with Patrice Riemens)


[German translation of this article, on Telepolis:
http://www.heise.de/tp/deutsch/special/sam/6970/1.html Crossposted on
nettime with the kind permission of Armin Medosch, co-editor of Telepolis]

Amsterdam Public Digital Culture 2000
On the Contradictions Among Users Profiles

by Geert Lovink & Patrice Riemens

The Netherlands, but more particularly, Amsterdam, long known for its
large and diverse alternative social movements, have seen some major
shifts in their cultural landscape taking place over these past few years.
By now, the once solidly unconventional activists have in large numbers
relocated themselves as creators and managers in the so-called new media
culture, which is largely (though not exclusively) ITC-driven. For quite a
time after it started to come into its own, this new cultural landscape
had remained remarkably free of influence by mainstream or commercial
interests. But this might fast become something of the past. Or at least,
morph into something very different from what the 'Amsterdam model of
public digital culture' had become fairly famous for. 

In itself, the notion of a public sphere within the media has been solidly
entrenched already, this thanks to the policy of the municipality to cable
nearly all households by the early 80s, and manage the system as a public
utility, like the water or electricity supply. So this approach could be
expanded into the realm of Internet access provision, and associated new
media facilities without much difficulty. However, the ongoing onslaught
of 'the market', and of its attendant ideology of commercialism and
privatization, has proved increasingly difficult to resist. It now bears
considerably upon the nature and activities of existing and proposed (new) 
media initiatives. With hindsight, it is indeed amazing how long the new
media culture had remained nearly immune to the dictates of the corporate
sector. Partially, this has been due to the fact that the 'power elites'
took a fairly lenient and sometimes even supportive view of this state of
affairs. But at the same time they kept resolutely clear of any
involvement into it, in fitting with the hallowed 'Polder model'. This
would have consequences which we will be able to discuss later on. 

An exemplary instance of these developments is provided the six and half
years history of the electronic community network known as the Digital
City of Amsterdam (DDS) . This project, launched in high-spirited and
adventurous atmosphere in January 1994 has been since going through a
remarkable number of changes and adaptations to ever new conditions and
circumstances. It evolved from an amateur, low-tech, non-budget grassroots
initiative into a fully professionalized, technology and business driven
organization. And this culminated recently in its transformation from a
non-profit foundation into a private sector ICT venture. Come December
1999, and the astonished 'inhabitants' learned that the directorate of the
DDS had opted for a corporate framework, and that community-building and
support were no longer a paramount objective. 

But then, the changes in activities of and expectations patterns about the
DDS over the past six years had probably played a larger role in its
decline as a genuine community network than the - often purely reactive -
decisions of its management. In its early days (around 1994-95) the DDS
was almost the only avenue to Internet access available to the general
public in Amsterdam, and a model followed by a few initiatives elsewhere,
usually with far less success. But within a few years, the explosive
spread of Internet connectivity had robbed it of this fundamental
function. Free e-mail, webspace and chat facilities are now available
everywhere. Scores of new commercial providers have popped up all over the
place, offering the same services, and often more and better ones, than
the DDS is able to provide.  They advertise massively, and attract a
customers pool far removed from the idealistic concerns that used to
inform the original Digital City . This has resulted in a substantial
quantitative, but more importantly, qualitative erosion of the DDS' user
base the last year and half -and the process is accelerating. Even if the
absolute number of accounts has risen to reach an all time high mark of
160.000 in early 2000, an analysis of the use patterns show that these can
no longer be considered conducive to community building or even to
socio-politically relevant information exchange - homepage-building and
upkeep, for instance, do no longer attract much interest. 

As a platform for discussion of local issues, the DDS has receded in
importance, despite various - and genuine - efforts to trigger debates
around important political events. Because of this, the DDS has basically
been turned into a facilitation structure providing the usual ICT services
to its 'clients', most of which see it as a convenient funnel for
one-to-many, Dutch language interchange, and care little for the
'community' as a whole. This is notwithstanding the fact that the DDS'
'communication noise' does suggest at times the existence of 'vibrionant'
e-groups (Pierre Levy), especially around the 'Metro', a MUD environment
that become quite a legend in itself. Yet the decline in the quality and
the social usefulness as a whole, have been unmistakable. Keeping the
Dutch language as the principal medium of transaction can indeed (sadly)
be said to be the sole remaining distinguishing feature of the DDS as a
community network. 

Another constraining aspect of DDS's operations, and the one which
ultimately resulted in its corporatization, lays in the structurally weak
and insecure nature of the early days, when the DDS was conceived as a
temporary experiment in any case. However, when the (somewhat ad hoc) 
decision was made for a permanent status, investments in hardware and
bandwidth together with increasing staff numbers (incrementally rising to
30 at the last count), necessitated ever larger disbursements. These
monies were not easily to be get within a structure characterized by a
hybrid and often somewhat uncomfortable mix of community service,
technology R&D, and (first tentative, then ever increasing) commercial
activities. Meanwhile, neither the Amsterdam municipality nor the Dutch
state were prepared for various reasons to provide for recurrent subsidies
after their initial disbursements, and also the European Union, which was
approached later, declined to do so. 

This left contract work for and sponsorship by the corporate sector as the
only remaining avenue of resources mobilization, together with a not
inconsiderable amount of more or less obscurely - if at all - tendered
consultancy and hosting jobs for various public and semi-public bodies.
This mode of operation, besides not sitting very well with
community-building and community service in general also gave rise to an
increasingly obfuscating rhetoric of public-private partnership
masquerading as policy. As could be expected, both concepts proved elusive
in the end and this lack of direction left the DDS fatally underfunded. 

The growing number of users, with growing individual requirements, and
little patience for 'idealistically' induced technical deficiencies, as
well as the need to deliver a better performance to the paying
(institutional)  customers made this predicament even more acute. The lack
of substantive political, and hence financial, support - as opposed to
gratuitous encouragement, which were never in short supply - compelled the
DDS to turn itself even more to the market, but its status as a foundation
precluded it from attracting investors money. 

And last but not least, something needs to be said about the management
culture and management choices which, either by design or by default,
presided over this unhappy evolution of the DDS' fortunes. Very early on,
the opportunity to turn the Digital City in a truly self-governed
networked community were put aside in favor of an allegedly more
efficient, but in the end messy and contentious 'executive' model of
governance. Before soon, the 'inhabitants' grew tired of the paltry
participation instruments given to them, and DDS coordinator, later
self-appointed director, and finally co-owner Joost Flint could exercise
his authority unchallenged, which he chose to do in the opaque, issues-
and debate-dodging style that is the hallmark of the Dutch regent class.
(The original co-initiator of the Digital City, and its long time
'Burgomaster' Marleen Stikker, went on to co-found the Society for Old and
New Media). As far as the decision to go corporate was concerned, and
parallel to similar developments such as the sell-out of geocities.com and
of other initiatives, like Multimania in France, it is obvious that the
DDS' management, besides other considerations, must have had individual
account value and brand visibility firmly in mind. While the latter
aspects was quite firmly evident in the Netherlands - and even world-wide,
the former had reached absurd multiples of thousands of dollar per unit at
the height of the IPO /mergers /dotcom craze that characterized the last
months of 1999. The actual realization of these wet dreams, however,
remains somewhat clouded as long as the complex issues pertaining to the
new ownership structure have not been sorted out.  (The former DDS
foundation has been split in three autonomous branches, consolidated in a
holding, this in a way to arcane manner to be readily understood, let
alone expounded here). 

All this leaves the user community high and dry with precious little
perspective for the future, and entirely dependent upon the benevolence of
the management. Community service will nonetheless remain an important
feature of the Digital City, was it only because such a 'community' - a
word that by now has an obnoxious commercial flavor to it - at the very
last provides that pool of potential customers and advertisement eyeballs
for the DDS corporate customers (such as the Netherlands Postbank). But it
will all the same, by necessity and for considerations detailled above,
take the backseat. What the remains, on balance, is the comparatively
large involvement of the general public with the new technologies and the
new media, which in Amsterdam undoubtedly happened thanks to the Digital
City, and which there took place there much earlier than in the rest of
Europe - much earlier than the market-driven mass penetration of the
Internet on the continent. 

But as exemplary as it is, the Digital City is just one instance of the
kind of developments which have contributed to the existence, in Amsterdam
and the Netherlands at large, of a media culture that was neither shaped
by market-oriented populism, nor informed by high-brow cultural elitism.
The various players and the institutions in the field did get seed money
from the usual funding bodies and government agencies, but they have
retained their independence thanks to a mostly voluntary-based mode of
operation and a low-tech (or rather: 'in-house tech') and a, by necessity,
low-budget approach. What also played a role were the shifts in funding
practice from the traditional public purveyors of finance for the culture.
In keeping with the ruling marketist ideology of the time, these were
moving away from recurrent subsidies to one-time or project-linked
disbursements, and these policies left their marks on the format of such
activities. Under these circumstances, many small-scale productions saw
the light, but the establishment of more permanent structures has been
constrained. This in turn has led to the prevalence of a hands-on,
innovative attitude, an engrained spirit of temporality, and the
deployment of 'quick-and-dirty esthetics' by groups such as TV3000, De
Hoeksteen, Park TV, Rabotnik, and Bellissima (all, in Amsterdam, active in
the 'public broadcasting space' provided by the dedicated public
broadcasting cable channel 'SALTO'). And not to forget the Digital City's
own innovative initiatives in the realm of streaming media and Internet
radio and television, which took place with a grudgingly awarded approval
of its own management. Such an 'edgy' climate also was the result in the
relative absence of direct linkages between the new media culture with the
political establishment which we discussed earlier. The emerging new media
culture was seen by decision-makers as a buffer, an in-between zone of
sorts, far removed from the concerns of parliamentary democracy. But if
public access media in Amsterdam were not an instrument in the hands of
the political class, this did not mean that they were non-political per
se. It simply meant that there was no intervention from above, and more
particularly, no censorship or even surveillance. 

This discussion, however, leaves the fundamental one problem untouched: No
exact outline of an open, public domain in Cyberspace has taken shape yet. 
In fact it has not even been precisely defined - despite numerous and
sometimes outlandish fantasies and speculations. The big questions remain
unanswered. As for instance: which instance is going to take
responsibility for non-commercial culture in Cyberspace? More importantly
even: who will own the concept, the contents, and finally the space
itself? It is clear - in the Netherlands at least, that political parties
have withdrawn from the debate. They are prepared to put a lot of money
and energy in making their own viewpoints available on-line, but that does
not make for a public, independent platform. In this age of convergence
between 'platforms', what is fact called for, is a successor to the public
broadcasting system itself.  (In Amsterdam, 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). What is of
course crucial, is the actual ownership of the cables and the 'pipes', but
this is shifting all the time, depending on the whims of politics, or the
tumultuous developments on the merger front. Legislation is also a
contentious issue, yet highly relevant to what people, as potential
producers of content, will be able to achieve with regard to the design
and maintenance of a new public domain in Cyberspace. One thing should
however be clear: it serves no purpose to wait for governments or
corporations to implement or even least facilitate the emergence of a
public digital culture. The Amsterdam example shows that it is not the big
visions, models and plans which count but the actual 'hands-on'
initiatives and activities of the people themselves. The alternative is
the dead of a of culture at the hand of blind commercialism and/or
stifling bureaucratic regulations. 

But then, how would one define the public in the realm of a 'public
digital culture'? It should be clear at the onset that this public does
not necessarily form the same constituency as that of the traditional
media, the occupants of the public domain in real space, or the electorate
in general.  Even if some of the basic tenets of the public domain (and
especially its ethics) can be transferred into Cyberspace, their mode of
implementation have for a large part yet to be invented, agreed upon, and
then put into practice. Contrary to a certain prevailing ideology of the
'Networked Society', we have experienced in Amsterdam that the barrier of
computer literacy is still very much operative, and that this shapes both
the actors involved and their actions. The digital culture of the late
nineties remains to a large extent the preserve of geeks/hackers,
students, media professionals, and of a smattering of people who have gone
through the trouble of becoming conversant with computers systems.
Hundreds of thousands new users may have recently debarked on the scene
these past two years, but do not have any aspiration to be part of an
online culture or a public sphere as such. Their usage is limited to just
a few applications (usually provided in a Microsoft OS environment), and
they perceive the Internet as a mere component - and probably not the most
important one - of their ever more gadget-filed, playful telecommunication
sphere. This, by the way, is not meant as a moral judgement. But in order
to create online communities other skills and practices are necessary.
Internet use and new media literacy are not the same. 

The next issue is of course in how far a digital public realm is desirable
and to which extent is it 'make-able'. To a large extent, this is the same
discussion as with the urban public domain, and sometimes the same players
make their appearance. The answer has now become clear, and it seems to be
a negative one. In almost the whole of Europe - France being the usual
exception - the state has declined to administrate, design, let alone
finance the public part of cyberspace (with a few 'eyewash ' exceptions
such as Bayern Online, Parthenay and a few others). Rather, we now have a
narrowly economic approach to the opportunities offered by the
'Information Age' as exemplified by the 'dotcom mania', and, at the street
level, the explosion, both in number as in size, of Internet cafes. In
keeping with the prevalent ideology of market conformism, even universal
public access is not seen as something for the government to intervene
upon, witness the very limited efforts at providing for public access
terminals. 

Going back now to the Dutch new media cultural scene, the near legendary
'Polder model' has engendered its own digital replica here too, which is
known as the "Virtual Platform". Founded in 1997, its goal is to build a
working consensus of sorts among its members, thereby avoiding harmful
competition. By enforcing a modicum of corporatist discipline - brought
about the Dutch way, by endless rounds of meetings - it ensures that the
fledgling institutions do not go at each other's throat over the limited
funds provided in homeopathic doses by indifferent national and European
governmental bodies. The practical outcome of this model is that a limited
number of organizations (e.g. V2, De Balie, Society for Old and New Media,
Steim, Paradiso, Montevideo etc.) shed their start-up status and
consolidate new mainstream institutions without being forced to merge or
to disappear.  The shadow side is that, not being a truly open platform,
it substantially raises the threshold for those newcomers who, for
whatever reasons, are not members. This begs the question whether a
limited number of not necessarily representative organizations can claim
to embody the public digital realm.  In the end the Virtual Platform has
mainly turned into a convenient intermediate for the Ministry of Culture
to 'outsource' its administrative burden and its policy-making headaches
and thus retaining patronage without responsibility. For better or worse,
this concept has proven a successful formula, and its format, already
adopted and adapted by e.g. Belgium and (pre-Haider) Austria, might be
poised for further export. 

The 'mean & lean' state has had yet another surprising outcome: as
creative spirits moved out of the limitations and frustrations of the not
for profit, cultural sphere, they went to create their own (ad)ventures on
the commercial front. These days, doing business is being experienced as
challenging, rewarding and fun. But it should not hide the fact that the
current enthusiasm for entrepreneurial drive was basically the sole option
open in those circumstances. The Digital City remains of course the prime
example of this flight into capital - as a belief system. But it is far
not the only one, and also way not the most successful. A by now
well-publicized outcome of the new media boom is the scores of small and
medium businesses and the 10.000 plus jobs that have been created over the
past couple of years in the Amsterdam region alone. They thrive in design,
software engineering, and services, having grafted themselves on the
already existing 'bridgehead' function of the Netherlands for
international marketing R&D.  Amongst them, entrepreneurs and employees
alike often hail from the same background in the techno-trance-rave
scenes, with a sprinkling of squatter activism and hacker ethics added for
good measure. Past experience and experiments in the realm of theatre, the
visual arts, and music are readily transferred into one-off projects, some
commercial, some - cross-subsidized by the former - not. 

The business equivalent of the Virtual Platform has meanwhile also come
into existence under the acronym ANMA, the Amsterdam New Media
Association, modeled after the New York original. It has something of the
'first tuesday' format, with less emphasis on the Business Angels Rounds/
Venture Capital approach, resp. IPO rhetoric, and concerns itself more
with social networking, debating and even policy making. Oddly enough the
municipality's Economics Department has awoken to these developments and
now shows itself an enthusiastic supporter, maybe too much so. And with
this the circle has been completed. The receding state turns out to be
very present all the same and manages to participate without applying
governance. Under this new dispensation, the ubiquitous yet absentee state
would like to portrait itself as just another business partner. Within
this de-politicized framework, representation and accountability have been
instrumentalized away in favor of convoluted yet subtle 'networked'
procedures, responding to the requirements of the all-powerful and
benevolent market (to culture at least, and digital culture in
particular). Or to quote Alain Minc: "Democracy is not the natural state
of society - but the market is." 

Sites mentioned & other useful URLs: 

http://www.dds.nl (Digital City Amsterdam)
http://www.xs4all.nl (Internet Access Provider)
http://www.waag.org (Society for Old and New Media)
http://www.desk.nl (cultural content provider)
http://www.montevideo.nl (Dutch Institute for New Media Arts)
http://www.contrast.org (political content provider)
http://www.steim.nl (Laboratory for Electronic Music)
http://www.v2.nl (V2 Organization for electronic arts)
http://www.balie.nl (De Balie center for culture and politics)
http://www.mediamatic.nl (Mediamatic magazine for new media arts)
http://www.anma.nl (Amsterdam New Media Association)
http://www.dds.nl/~virtplat (Dutch Virtual Platform)
http://www.balie.nl/tulipomania ('Tulipomania dotcom' conference on the New
Economy, Amsterdam, June 2K)





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