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<nettime> Amsterdam Public Digital Culture (with Patrice Riemens)
Geert Lovink on Mon, 20 Jul 1998 18:36:25 +0200 (MET DST)


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


Amsterdam Public Digital Culture
On the Contradictions Among the Users

by Geert Lovink & Patrice Riemens

By the late nineties, the (in)famous Amsterdam squatters movement, which
had dominated the socio-cultural (and law-and-order) agenda in the
previous decade, had pettered out in the city's streets, but its
autonomous yet pragmatic mode of operation had infiltrated in the working
of the more progressive cultural institutions. It was the time that the
cultural centres 'Paradiso' and 'De Balie', which were at the vanguard of
local cultural politics, embraced the 'technologogical culture' theme in
their programming. In the beginning, this took the shape of a critical, if
somewhat passive, observation of the technologies surrounding us, and of
their attenant risks, but it quickly evolved in a Do-It-Yourself, from
below approach. Technology was no longer seen as the preserve of science,
big business, or the government. It could also become the handy-work of
average groups or individuals. Mass avaibility of electronic hardware and
components had created a broad user-base for definitely 'low-tech'
applications, something that in its turn spawned fests of video arts,
pirate radio, and public access television, beside well attented cultural
events where technology was rearanged and playfully dealt with. 

The time also was witnessing the emergence of electronic networks. These
were of course already in use with the military, banking and finance, and
academia. A cluster of grassroot computer enthusiasts had also been
building up a patchwork of so-called 'bulletin boards systems' (BBS) for
some time, but it were the hackers' repeated and much publicized
intrusions in the big network, known as the Internet, that bought
electronic communications for the masses on the political agenda. Thus was
the demand for public access born. What made the Amsterdam situation
special, however, was the degree of organization amongst the hackers and
their willingness to structure themselves as an open social movement. This
enabled them to communicate with a wide audience and to negotiate their
acceptation in society at large through journalists, cultural mediators,
some politicians, and even a few enlightened members of the police force.
After a whirlwind performance in Paradiso by the notorious German 'Chaos
Computer Club' (CCC) in the fall of 1988, the stage was set for the
'Galactic Hackers Party', the first open, public international convention
of hackers in Europe, which took place in August 1989, again with Paradiso
as venue. From then on, hackers had deftly positionned themselves between
(media) artists, militants, and cultural workers, and were even beginning
to get kuddos from some parts of the computer trade. 

The concept of public media in Amsterdam was already largely in place
thanks to the remarkably deep penetration of cable broadcasting (Radio and
TV; over 90% of households were reached by the mid-80s). This KTA cable
system had been set up and was owned by the municipality. It was run as a
public service, and its bill of fare and tarriff rates were set by the
city council. The council had also legislated that one or two channels
were to be made available to minority- and artists groups --also as a way
to curb the wild experiments of TV pirates-- and so various initiatives
sprung up whose offerings, to say the least, were far removed from
mainstream TV programming. This peculiar brand of 'community television'
did not go for an amateurish remake of professional journalism, but took a
typically Amsterdam street-level (mostly 'live') approach, on both the
artistic, and the political plane. Whereas the now-co-opted TV pirates
were thus sucessfully taken out, the presence on the airwaves of three
non-profit 'cultural pirate' radio stations remained tolerated. All this
resulted in a politically (self-) conscious, technically fearless, and
above all, financially affordable media ambiance, something that was also
very much fostered by the proliferation of small, specialised,
non-commercial outfits in the realm of electronic music ('STEIM'),
'Montevideo' and 'Time Based Arts' for general, and more political
video-art respectivly, and technoculture magazines ('Mediamatic'). 

These developments have contributed to a media culture in Amsterdam that
is neither shaped by market-oriented populism, nor informed by high-brow
cultural elitism. The various players and the institutions in the field
did get subsidies from the usual funding bodies and government agencies,
but they have managed to retain their independance thanks to a mostly
voluntary-based mode of operation and a low-tech (or rather: 'in-house
tech') and low-budget approach. Also the shifts in funding practice,
moving away from recurrent subsidies to one-of project-linked
disbursements, in keeping with the ruling marketist ideology of the time,
left their marks on the format of these activities. Many small-scale
productions have thus seen 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
temporarity, and the deployement of 'quick-and-dirty esthetics' by groups
such as TV 3000, Hoeksteen, Park TV, Rabotnik, and Bellissima (all active
in the 'public broadcasting space' provided by the cable channel 'SALTO'). 
This 'edgy' climate has also resulted in the relative absence of direct
linkages between the new media culture with, and hence of influence by,
the political establishment. Such a media culture is therefore seen as a
buffer, an in-between, and not an expression of parliamentary democracy. 
In Amsterdam, public access media are not an instrument in the hands of
the political class, which on the other hand does not mean that they are
per definition non-political. 

Electronic activists were meanwhile poised for the next phase: the opening
up of the Internet for general use. The hackers movement, operating under
the banner of the 'HackTic' group (which was also publishing a magazine
with the same name, whose technical 'disclosures' annoyed the telecoms
bosses to no end), threw up a coup by obtaining from the Dutch academic
network permission to hook up officially to the Internet and resell the
connectivity. What no one had anticipated, least of all the budding
hackers 'entrepreneurs' themselves, was that all the 500 accounts which
formed the starting base of 'HackTic Network' would be snapped up on the
very first day. Not for profit access to the Internet was henceforth
established early on as a norm of sorts in the Netherlands. Combined with
the technological savyness of the hackers, this created a situation in
which commercial enterprise would follow and benefit from the existing
creative diversity rather than riding the waves of the Internet hype and
making quick money without any incentive to innovate or concern for public
participation. (Meanwhile, the hackers venture has morphed into a
profitable business, renamed "Xs4all" --'access for all'-- which is now
the third largest ISP in the Netherlands, and the only one in its league
that is independent from telecom companies). 

These developments did not escape the smarter elements in the government
who were on the look-out for ways of modernizing the economic
infrastructure of the country in the wake of the globalization process. 
Since electronic communication was also at the same time perceived as to
pose all sorts of possible threats on the law-and-order front, a
two-pronged approach obtained, meant to contain the 'menace', and to
co-opt the 'whizz-kids'. Comprehensive and fairly harsh 'computer crime'
laws were approved by parliament in 1993. The second big hackers
convention in the Netherlands, "Hacking at the End of the Universe" (HEU),
in the summer of 1993, responded to this potentially repressive climate
with a PR offensive. By stressing the public liberties aspect, a coalition
was formed between 'computer activists' and other media, culture, and
business players who did not want to be reduced to mere consumers of the
content and context agenda set by big corporations. The idea being that
programmers, artists, and other interested parties, can, if they are
moving early enough, shape, or at least influence, the architecture of the
networks. This happens also to be the favorite move of early adopters, and
enables one to gain ideological ascendance when influential projects are
taking shape, a move suitably, if somewhat cryptically, called in German
'to take the definition of the situation in one's own hands' ("Die
Definition der Lage in die Hand nehmen")

Elected politicians meanwhile were struggling with another 'situational'
problem: that of their very own position amidst fast dwindling public
support and sagging credibility. This was --not surprisingly-- blamed on a
'communication deficit' for which a substantial application of the 'new
media' suddenly appeared to be an instant antidote. The clue was not lost
on 'De Balie' cultural centre, which approached City Hall with a free-net
based proposal to link up the town's inhabitants through the Internet so
that they could 'engage in dialogue' with their representatives and with
the policy-makers. The system itself was to be installed by the people at
HackTic Network, the only group of techies at that time that was readilly
available --or affordable. The 'Digital City' of Amsterdam (DDS, 'De
Digitale Stad') was launched in january 1994 as a ten weeks experiment in
electronic democracy. The amount of response from the public was
overwhelming. And in no time, 'everybody' was communicating with everybody
else. With one exception, though: the politicians never made it to the new
medium. 

Thus, 'critical mass' was achieved by the DDS (whose 'experimental' status
was quietly lifted after those 10 weeks), when its user base became so
variegated that it could both go for decentralised diversity --which it
did to the tilt, and to a great extent become independent of, and even
totally immune to attempts by the management to steer its activities. 
This peculiar variant of the 'network effect' can only be achieved in true
measure when the infrastructure operates as a facility and not as a
compelling framework, and when the existence of competing, and sometimes
contradictory sets of values among the user-base is accepted. By design
or by default, this quickly became the entrenched policy at the DDS, were
semi-autonomous units proliferate up to the management level. The ensuing
climate of productive, rather than repressive tolerance, leads to all
sorts of initiatives from the very obscure to the highly flamboyant, quite
reminiscent to the 'Islands in the Net' model. Another outcome is the
absence of a dominant 'DDS-scene' as such (even though there are many
smaller coteries, based on chat channels, Cafes, or MOO environments). 
This is quite in keeping with the prevalent mode of operation of the
Amsterdam (digital) culture as a whole. 

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 necessarilly 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 transfered into cyberspace,
their mode of implementation have for a large part yet to be invented
--and put into practice. 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. The population
at large is still by no way into it (the proportion of female users,
however, is encouraging, even though they mostly tend to belong to the
above mentionned categories). And it is still far from certain that they
will ever be admitted in the digital realm other than as passive consumers
in an electronic remake of the television age. 

In the search of alternatives, we are still being hampered by the 'funding
myths' of the network about a time when everybody was an active
participant and everything was public. Freeware and shareware were the
rules then, a near-perfect gift economy obtained, and the absence of
authority was itself a safeguard to privacy and a guarantee of the
upholding of morals. This lore, of course, glosses over the fact that
users at that time had a extremely high level of computer competence, and
were even less than now, representative of the population in general. 
Such an 'Athenian democracy' model, automatically engenders its own story
of inevitable decline. It cannot deal in a positive way with the
massification of net use, even though it was the very thing it had
propagated. Most Amsterdam 'digital' initiatives have so far more or less
consciously tried to escape this predicament. By and large, this policy
was succesful where it built upon a well-established pragmatism in
organisational matters and connected with a traditionnaly non-profit media
environment. Here again, pluriformity was taken for granted, high
expectations were conspicuous by their absence, and intervention from the
top was kept to a minimum. This are still the basic premises of the
current situation. 

The next issue is of course in how far a digital public realm is desirable
and to which extent is it 'makeable'. To a large extent, this is the same
discussion as with the urban public domain, and sometimes the same players
make their appearance. The big difference, at least in the Netherlands, is
that up to now, the state has declined to administrate, design, or even
finance the public part of cyberspace. Rather the contrary, something
which has now led to an narrowly economic approach to the opportunities
offered by the 'Information Age'. In keeping with the prevalent ideology
of market conformism, even universal public access is not seen as a
specific task for the government to intervene upon. To take just one
significant example, the idea to install public terminals at a large
number of locations to provide cheap mass-access to the network never took
of, for want of funding (the 'commercial alternative, phone-card operated
'Internet pillars' installed by the telecoms is klunky beyond belief, and
proved a flop). It may be the single most important reason why Internet
use remains so exclusive. Such approach only reinforces the notion of the
public being some kind of 'third space' that floats between
market-participation and state control. But then, this was already the
case with the rather exceptionalist Dutch broadcasting set-up, with its
'column'-like radio-and television associations defined by the belief
system of their members, and financed pro-rata of their numbers. On the
other hand, the local customs ensure that as long as you put your requests
in the right context, the planning of structures, like in this case those
of cyberspace, always remain negotiable. 

But now that we have left the seventies with its well circumscribed
constituencies and the idea of an ordered dialogue between the public and
the political decision-makers, we need also to enquire about the new
distribution of influence. The public itself has become much more layered,
its wishes and demands more diverse and the way to manifest them has
become a constituent element of the media landscape. Local decision
making, on the other hand, has become a virtual process, and this not only
in a technical sense. The new media may be applied by politicians to
continue their model of 'representative' democracy, while
modernizing/upgrading it. But not necessarily so. All depends upon the way
the interaction takes place between the real existing political process
and the mediated, and now increasingly digitized culture. The simplistic
aproach would be to instrumentalize the emerging electronic communication
infrastructure and press it into the service of the classic political
dialogue, whereby the merits of the former are judged in the terms of the
latter. In the Amsterdam case, the Digital City has been as an Internet
forum to host discussions on the future of Schiphol Airport ('how big can
it grow?"), the building of the North-South underground railway line, or
that of a new residential area on an artificial island. This was succesful
up to a certain point. The opinion expressed (mainly contrarian) gained
wide publicity and support. Yet the council decided otherwise in the end.
The official ideology of on-line participation met very quickly the limits
imposed by a more conservative (and cosy) concept of 'representativity'. 

A very different poltical practice is embodied by hackers and kindred
groups. Here we see a culture of confronting immediate issues and of
decision-making on the spot. This is activism in a very literal sense, the
'hands-on imperative' translated in political terms. Potentially tricky,
even explosive issues such as related to privacy, copyright, sabotage and
the exposure of secrets are defused in a mix of piecemeal pragmatism,
immediatist intensity and refreshing radicalism. This approach enabled the
hackers enterprise to grow and prosper against all odds into a major
Internet provider, and the Digital City to survive near-endless bouts of
technical glitches and an almost total absence of conceptual guidance at
the top. But it is of course far removed from the grand narrative track,
however much has been made of their demise, so that the traditional media
keep speaking of these movements as if they were largely a-political
--while indulging into the ritual of hackers-bashing every now and then.
The political class, already unable to envision itself in terms of the
media (unless it is to abjectly surrender to their whims), and even less
so within a technological culture, is at loss to make sense of these
developments: after the last parliamentary elections of May 1998, none of
the very few Internet-savy parlementarians were returned in the chamber by
their respective parties. This 'clash of cultures' is usually dismissed as
a classic case of generational conflict, which it is not, and this bodes
ill for the future of the public domain in cyberspace. 

The figure of the more traditional political activist also had its own
trouble adjusting to the new dispensation in the (electronic) information
age. Nowhere is the love-hate relationship with technology so pronounced
as among this group. But split personality, rather than splinter groups,
has been the outcome. Their deep ambivalence about the nature and the
consequences of the new media has to a large extent prevented political
activist to stake a full claim in the 'digital revolution'. Whereas
activists of various hue did embrace bulletin boards systems (BBS) in the
8os, they were apparently unable later on to relate to the higher scale,
or speed, of the cyber economy that was coming into being. Hence they
found it difficult to bring their practice to the required higher level of
technicity. Few tactical connections were made with hackers or
neo-entrepreneurs. Many in fact, opted out of militantism and took shelter
under the lee of by now large Non Governemental Organisations (NGOs). But
this was not always so, and besides quite a few very effective 'new
issues' (on animal rights, gene technology, against road building etc)
grass root outfits, Amsterdam has witnessed a number of radical projects
see the light which have a commendable level of Internet presence. (eg the
pirate radio stations De Vrije Keyzer and Radio 100/DFM, now fully into
RealAudio, the research group on police and security services Jansen &
Janssen, and the political context provider ('polprov') Contrast.org). 

On the cultural-institutional plane, the need was felt by the middle of
the nineties to broaden the base of public programming in the realm of the
technological culture. The more so since this activity could no longer be
satisfactorily accomodated in the existing venues. The hype about the
Internet, which reached its height in the Netherlands by 1994, spawned a
climate of rising expectations about a fully digitalized, communication
driven society. These was also the founding year of numerous commercial
ISPs, design offices, software houses, 'cyber-magazines', and other
related ventures with the letter 'e' written large all over them. This new
culture crystallized in a bevy of events and manifestations, succeeding
each other at an accelerating pace. What had started as a cosy event for
techno-artists in a recycled milk bottling plant ('The Wetware
Convention', 1991), ended up in mega-gatherings which required no less
than the grounds of the RAI automobile fair ('Doors of Perception'
1993/94). De Balie staged a serie of 'Life Magazines' in which the
Amsterdam political debates were re-invented within the setting of the new
media culture. The same personnel also organized the 'Next Five Minutes'
conferences (1993 and 96), which focussed highly localized, 'tactical'
media activism worldwide. The more strictly artistic forms of expression
were meanwhile taken care of by the V2 Organization, which had just
relocated (from a provincial town) to Rotterdam, and started the
celebrated 'Dutch Electronic Art Festival' (DEAF) in 1995/96. 

Even so, there was still the fear that the concept of public domain was in
risk of being swamped by the rising tide of commercialism, dominated by
the existing computer hard- and software trade and its large-scale
marketing approach. The Netherlands Design Institute was established in
Amsterdam to answer these needs in the realm of design ( a core activity
in the Dutch cultural --and industrial-- landscape). A step towards
addressing the political dimension of the growth of the cyber-economy was
the creation of the Society for Old and New Media in 1995. This was the
result of merging the programming on technological culture at Paradiso and
De Balie, which up to now had organised and hosted many such events. 
Safeguarding, developing and expanding the public domain was made the
explicit brief of the Society. Behind that lay a strong desire to
materialize what up to then had been mostly speculated upon. With public
access being for all practical purposes realized in Amsterdam --that is as
far as far as it went in the absence of governemental commitment--
attention shifted towards 'access to what?' (and accessorily: 'access, of
what quality?'), a concern that also saw the springing-up of 'content
providers' like desk.nl. The Society, which in early 1996, obtained
tenancy of the historical Waag castle, a landmark building right in the
middle of town, rapidly embarked upon a programme of exhibitions, debates,
courses and trainings, research and development of tools and software, and
last but not least, (interactive) design. By liaising with policy makers
and policy making organs at local, national, and international level, the
Society also strives to influence the elaboration of official policies. 
This is also the purpose of an inovative form of public events such as the
campaign 'We Want Bandwidth!', the European 'From Practice to Policy'
(P2P) conference, and the 'First International Browser Day' (all in
1997/98). 

This ambitious range of activities, however, carries a price in terms of
the degrees of liberty in operational matters. It entails the securing and
provision of ever increasing budgets and their attenant administrative
burden. This makes for an increasing professionalism and create a layer of
corporate-like attitudes on a group of people who have not fundamentally
changed their range of activities. Since this institutionalization did not
fundamentally affect the basic outlook and social position (not to speak
about the paychecks!) of the actors involved, there is increasing friction
and potential for conflict among the various projects whose scope is
cultural, but which are more and more run like businesses. The compelling
paradox obtaining now is about the reconciliation of the autonomous, early
80s approaches, and the growth-induced and market-driven traits of larger
scale endeavours. Once the exitement of the new is over, it should come as
no surprise to encounter the day-to-day difficulties of managing an
average small to medium enterprise. This road, with various degrees of
painful adjustement, is apparently being travelled by all set-ups that
sprang up from the artist/activist culture and have not vanished yet. It
is a far cry from the dilemmas of the 60s concerned with 'the Long March
Through the Institutions'. Fear of selling out or loosing one's
independance has often been replaced by a the Angst of becoming a major
player yourself.  Which in its turn results in the permanent and stiffling
presence of the drop-out option. The question now is how to understand the
seemingly new laws under which the virtual economy operates and what role
lies therein for the creative forces and the 'digital artisans'. 

This being said, and despite obvious limitations, the Amsterdam digital
culture is thriving. One if its least publicized outcomes are the 10.000
plus jobs that have been created over the past couple of years in design,
software engineering, and services, by a medley of mainly small and medium
business ventures. Neither traditional political dogmatism --in Amsterdam,
of the 'social-democratic' variety-- nor neo-liberalist yuppism are
dominant here (even the Society for Old and New Media had its try at
commercial cell-split, but it was not very fortunate). Entrepreneurs and
employees alike often hail from the same background of the
techno-trance-rave scenes, with a sprinkling of squatter activism and
hacker ethics. Experience in the realm of theatre, the visual arts, and
music are easily transfered into one-off projects, commercial or not. What
is elsewhere called the process of modernization frequently takes in
Amsterdam the shape of a sub-cultural work-in-progress where not
everything has been from the very start subjected to the dictates of hype
or commodification. This has not stopped, but does to some fair extent
limit the ongoing, and apparently inescapable, process of
institutionalization of social initiatives. 

Literature and websites: 

Adilkno, Cracking the Movement, Autonomedia, New York, 1994 Geert Lovink,
Creating a Virtual Public: The Digital City of Amsterdam in Ars
Electronica Festival Catalogue, Linz, 1995 Rob van Driesum, Lonely Planet
Amsterdam Guide, 1997 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.contrast.org (political content provider)
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://thing.desk.nl/bilwet
(Adilkno archives)



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