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nettime: Back to the source!


Back To The Source
an archivist exploring new dimensions of Netactivism

Paper for Metaforum III Conference, Budapest October 1996
Eveline Lubbers - Amsterdam

The Metaforum Conference asked me to elaborate on putting
archives on line, in order to solve the content shortage in
As my official occupation is registered as 'filing clerk' the
assumption that I would have something to say about this was
understandable. And although I use Internet for research and
promote Internet for campaigning, I had never put much thought
into the idea.
And now I know why: I don't believe in putting archives on line.
More information on the Net doesn't necessarily lead to more
content on the Net.

I came to this conclusion, because as well as being an archivist,
my main roles are as an activist and an investigating journalist.
My work for Buro Jansen & Janssen (more on which later) made me
not only a specialist on the endless problems of computerizing
an archive in order to make it accessible, but also taught me
how to deal with monopolized media that are basically not
interested in serious research. (Jansen & Janssen is fighting an
ongoing battle to get background articles across.)

I am convinced Internet could play an important role in breaking
information monopolies.
Earlier this year I wrote "Beat the Dutch, Report from Amsterdam
about Netactivism". This article was first published on the
Nettime-list but also travelled around the world autonomously.
It is not only a report on several amazing events concerning
Internet in the Netherlands, but also an essay exploring the
dimensions of Netactivism.
This is how I finished that article: 'If the use of Internet adds
a certain value to a discussion or supplies a special dimension
to a campaign, then something really beautiful is happening'.

Exploring Internet doesn't refer to finding your way in the
labyrinth of html-links, passively zapping across static
WorldWideWeb pages.
Creating content requiers an active search for new opportunities,
to bring together surprising strings of information or unexpected
coalitions. Netactivism greets the help of features of Internet
that have been neglected until now.

Back to the source.


I am one of the founders of Buro Jansen & Janssen, named after
the two stumbling detectives in the TinTin comics.
Buro Jansen & Janssen is a spin off from the strong squatter
movement of Amsterdam in the eighties. Activists back then had
to deal with the police and secret service a lot and the bureau
started collecting strategies and contra-expertise. Jansen &
Janssen started in 1985 and soon grew into an archive on police
tactics with particular interest in analysing how the force
deals with critical powers that be. The buro published its
research on how the secret service tried to infiltrate the
activist movement, and on how they blackmailed asylumseekers to
work for them. The main goal back then was to fight paranoia by
presenting facts & details of homegrown research.
Jansen & Janssen kept up with the changes of times and in 1994
revealed how private detectives collect information about lobby
groups and sell it to the multinationals involved.
(In my biography you will find more on the works of Jansen &

Through the years Jansen has been collecting all kinds of
material on the monitoring of the police and secret services.
Newspaperclippings, magazine articles, brochures and books
formed the more conventional part of the archive. But people also
specialized in monitoring special squads of the police which
left us with a collection of frequencies, license plate numbers
and addresses of interesting authorities. Others approached us
with stories about infiltration, with files of their lawsuits or
dossiers about criminal investigation against them. Even secret
papers from police and intelligence sources eventually found
their way to our offices. This was usually the result of typical
methods for the (Dutch) activist movement - namely, breaking in
and publishing - and we were always ready to give a hand
analysing the material.

With the decline of the activist movement of the eighties, the
origin of our archive changed slightly. We were now handed
complete collections of people who wanted to find a home for a
part of their past. (Most of it still waiting to be filed in
carton boxes down the hall). With Internet came the totally
unstructured digital archive of floppies containing interesting
textfiles found somewhere in cyberspace.

As you understand, we felt the need to structuralize this chaos.
As soon as we started collecting newspaper cuttings, articles,
books and brochures we started using a computer to make the
files of cuttings accessible. (It might be usefull to stress once
more that this was only a *part* of the collection of the Jansen
& Janssen archive.)

The history of buro Jansen & Janssen can be read as the history
of archiving with the help of computers.
Our first computer back in 1985 was an Apple-II, or rather two
Apples-II's, made into one working set ;-). Like the electric
typewriters I had been using before, I knew how to repair the
hardware in case of minor disasters - and we had quite a few, I
can tell you.
I vaguely remember a so called portable computer as well. She
was called Vicky and had the looks and the weight of an
oldfashioned sewing machine. She was the product of a non-
traceble factory called 'Victor' and spent more time in and out
of repairshops then with us. Replacing the harddisk - or the
drives, I don't remember - didn't make it work: Vicky seemed to
be DOS-compatible, but not completely. Exit Vicky.

Then came the software. The first software we used was a very
simple database structure with a few search options, written in
dBase-II. The step to our first PC, an XT with two 5,25 inch
floppy-drives was a milestone in 1986. This asked for better
software. The best solution turned out to be to learn dBase III
programming myself in order to create an upgraded version of the
orginal programm. Basically this software was very simple. The
facts about each article: title, date and source where connected
with a few keywords, and the name and code of the place it was
going to be filed, and could be found again. The first AT
computer with a harddisk (what a relief!) came along with
dBase IV.
Later attempts to refine the software focussed on the layout
and on trying to make it seem more intelligent. As the archive
and the amount of people working there grew, the collection of
keywords expanded like a malignant tumor. 
Alternative spelling, plural or not, use dots or don't, not to
mention the equivalents: using different meanings for the same
thing - or the other way around.
(All problems that may sound familiar to those using search
engines on Internet.)

The ideal software should help make us more distinctive and
rule out the options not allowed. With this tool the search
options could be refined, and our computer program would be the
best there was. At least that is what our second programmer
promised us. As did the third, and the fourth.
>From the very beginning we sought the help of friends who were
really into computers. They were very good at giving us the
feeling that our homegrown software was peanuts and not the real
thing. Unfortunately each of them failed to translate what we
wanted into acceptable, userfriendly and *working* software.

Looking back, I think we were too early. The people that were
willing to help us in fact needed us as a project to improve
their own skills. Small modules were completed, but admitting the
work was way beyond their level appeared to be impossible.
To cut short a long and boring story of software engineers who
left their traces in our office... Each of them had his own way
of building up the structure of the program, so we ended up
with different versions that turned out to be not completely
compatible. We went through endless sessions of shifting the
keywords (thousands and thousands), only to find out the
programmer managed to install a draft version of the definite
list. Even when we paid them, they kept promising to come up with
something eventually. I got so sick of it I don't even know the
nature of our present variation. I believe it is an adaption of
something programmed in C by the second, unraveled and rewritten
in another language by the third and disapproved of by the fourth
who prefers yet something else.
And every time we hoped and wanted to believe it would really
work this time. It never did. We should have stuck to the honest
dBase versions...

This course of events had dramatic consequences for the work on
the archive. In the beginning we had a dream... of getting the
clipping archive up to date (One Day) and of adding modules to
include our brochure collection - not to mention the extending
library and all the unselected items mentioned earlier.
In reality we faced arrears that kept haunting us over the
years. Waiting for a new version of the software often meant the
old one could not be used for a while. No input into the
computer meant no impulse to continue cutting newspapers and
magazines. Of course there were enough reasons to ignore the
necessary paperwork - like exciting research or other outdoor
activities - and we have managed to work away arrears of six
months or more, several times...

But computerising access turned out to be a neverending story.
We have now decided to accept the fact that some temporary files
and large dossiers on special subjects will get a permanent
status  (fifty or a hundred newspaperclippings in one
filing folder). The separate articles will never get the special
treatment they used to get in the early days (sigh..) - we are
even behind on the temporary files. 
The cutting of mainstream papers has become less important over
the years anyway. With the entry of digital versions of papers,
on line or on CDrom, the oldfashioned handicraft will be
superfluous in no time, meaning that we'd only have to
concentrate on the specialized press.

On the whole we've given up the ambition for completeness. It is
no longer a goal to have our archive ready for presentation at
some later date. Jansen & Janssen is archiving present time
issues - we are not a newsservice, or server. Lack of energy,
personpower and money made us more realistic in our priorities.
The work will never be finished or ready for presentation - it
will be  permanently Under Construction. This goes for both the
archive and the software making it accessible.

But even if Jansen & Janssen would be technically able to put the
archive on line, we would decide against it.
Don't take me wrong, I do favour newspapers and magazines putting
complete editions on line. I do welcome reliable sources on the
Net, but that is not the same as providing content. 

In our case, the computer has never been more than *one* of the
ways to search our archive. Going through the files by hand
always proved to be a rewarding: most parts of the library were
not included in the system, and through the years a shadow system
of temporary files and personal drawers made the quest even more
Finding sources is never enough, it is the combination of facts
& figures that makes the story. It is the extra input of research
that turns bare information into content.
The point I'm trying to make is this one: without the librarian,
without a guide, you're nowhere out there.
Never underestimate the Human Factor.


The dialectics of progress stroke us on yet another level. 

A large part of our aim when pioneering this sort of use of
computers was to inspire and enthuse others. 
Jansen & Janssen started regular meetings inviting other
grassroot research groups to discuss mutual problems.
In the Netherlands the tradition of what is called tactical
research since the last Next 5 Minutes Conference, is treasured
by independent investigators, individuals and collectives, who
value their work higher than careers and big money. They all
descend from the activist movement in the eighties.

For instance, there are various groups monitoring the extreme
right parties and ultra nationalist groups in the Netherlands.
They hold impressive files and archives on the whereabouts of
virtually everybody who is linked with neo-nazi and nationalist
people and their connections in Europe and abroad. The Anti
Militarist Research Collective AMOK concentrates mainly on
the conventional kind of arms trade. They have a huge library and
clipping archive focused on military movements from the Cold
War period and international warfare like the Gulf War. Other
examples are the Anti-Nuclear Archive, the Speculation Research
Collective, and a number of individuals with a wide variety of

Jansen & Janssen was not alone. We all faced similar problems
and tried to find ways to become more cooperative.
One of the main issues at the regular meetings was computerizing.
A concrete result of which was the development of filing software
that would be fit for all.
Apart from the very familiar problems this project faced, it was
not to our benefit to join. We had based our physical storage
system on the computer codes generated by our own software system
and we were not willing to give that up or to adapt ourself to
new ranking files. As a consequence we remained unconnected - no
easy exchange of modules with information for us.

Another important topic was the relation between collecting
information and what to do with it.
Making money was always a problem, but at the same time a non-
issue. Selling information was not within our power, we preferred
to remain marginal if that meant free to appoint the agenda of
our own activities.
We frequently discussed opening up our archives for visitors,
subscribers or scholars, but always decided against it because
it would mean an incredible amount of work to get the archive up
to date and to keep it that way. Most of our our personpower
would have been eaten up by this work and we prefered to spent
our time on research and writing.
Even the production of regular newsbulletins or investigative
bulletins never succeeded, which is something that I still
Professionalising the management of information is a skill we
still not possess. We are forced to ask for money for research
from people who used to be fellow activists or friends now landed
in the mainstream media arena. We couldn't survive on the
give-one-take-one relationship - not financially at least. But
in our hearts, we would have rather kept things between us.

This so-called unprofessional attitude also turned against us
when we tried to get our stories published. The mainstream media
scene is unable to deal with us in a normal way - they just can't
handle the fact that we cannot be labeled into a specific
corner. We cannot be placed in the category of freelance
journalists, because our work is too much biased. On the other
hand we have proved to deliver reliable information, yet with a
tiny trace of activism. Not asking big sums - or 'fair amounts'-
of money seems to be unflattering as well these days.
Not everybody is taking us seriously all the time, but is that
a problem? The question is: do we want to be treated as grownups
all the time, or do we prefer to be the joker of the
neighbourhood every once in a while...

We need to find our own ways. And that is where Internet comes


New media require the development of new strategies to create
public consent on important debates. The monopoly of mainstream
media is challenged by Internet. Manufactured consent,
orchestered by the traditional massmedia is fading away. On
Internet an endless amount of paradigms compete for the attention
of the electronic audience.

Growing public access to Internet has conflicting consequences.
The power of Internet is fragmented. Instead of the collective
global time of massmedia - CNN in the Gulfwar - there is the
personal time of groups and individuals. Massmedia will be
replaced by permanent archives and real-time channels for
smaller organisations or groups.
This trend offers opportunities for social and political
movements to organize themselves on a global scale - to create
real and virtual communities.
Internet offers new possibilities for groups without power,
extending their potential to influence society. Internet is
important for the distribution of information among all segments
and levels of society. It takes away physical limitations and
creates more possibilities for countries in the South.

There is a radical difference between Internet and other, older,
Michiel Bauwens, a philosopher from Belgium, explains Internet
can be seen as a meta-medium, a combination of massmedia and
personal media in one and the same environment. This combination
leads to completely new forms of mass intercommunication, where
television was nothing more than the next broadcaster, only with
Most of the time we are not aware of the potential of these new
dimensions. We are so used to making a distinction between
internal communication, and messages coming to us through mass
media. Internet is generally seen as either (1) a means of
communication or (2) a mass medium. However Internet fulfills
both roles simultaneously. Maintaining a distinction between
both roles is crucial in underestimating the potential of

This dual role is being reflected in the seperation between the
features that have become the most important on Internet -
email and the WorldWideWeb. Most people are active users of email
and passive consumers of Web-sites. And that's all.
The intermediate world of mailinglist or newsgroups is restricted
to a more selective part of Netizens. Not to mention the
telnet-libraries, the ftp-archives trapped in dust; and
whatever happened to good old Gopher?

More information on Internet doesn't necessarily lead to more
content. Content is being generated by the people who work with
this information. Piling up archives doesn't garantee people
will get there and use them, no matter how attractive the
entrance looks. It is the context that counts.

In my Report on Amsterdam I gave a few examples of Netactivism,
of creative use of Internet. I will recall them here in brief,
please check Nettime for extended versions of the stories.

Buro Jansen & Janssen recently broke the monopoly of the State
Publishing House by putting two parliamentary reports
on criminal investigation methods and corruption online. The
first one was very expensive, the second one pretty secret - 5500
pages in total. It felt so good to break the monopoly of a
(privatised) state organ, and to use Internet to make information
public that is supposed to be public anyway.
This is what Internet was meant for, people said, and I couldn't
agree more. In thinking about the meaning of this action, I
guess the value of it is in adding a dimension. The breaking of
this information monopoly could not have been done - at least not
so easily, or not without problems with the law - without
Internet. On the other hand, the action added something to the
ideas of the use of Internet and so was very inspiring.

The best example of using Internet in a multifunctional way, is
the campaign against McDonald's.
This campaign is now focussed around The McLibel Trial, which
has pitted the mighty McDonald's Corporation against two unwaged
environmental activists from London.
Internet was involved from the very beginning. Since the start
of the trial, in June 1994, extracts from the transcripts of the
hearings were being published on the Net, and McDonald's didn't
like it at all.
The McLibel mailing list serves to keep campaigners from anywhere
up-to-date with all of the activities in the world-wide
Anti-McDonald's campaign. Suburbians against McDrives, looters
in Kopenhagen, Ghandi-inspired Fins discussing with their local
McDonald's, India against the invasion of McDonald's - all
connected through Internet.

The mailing list is a very good example of Internet adding a
certain value to a campaign: the list connects otherwise
relatively isolated protesters of all kinds. Internet helps to
create a movement on a global scale as people who act in their
own environment and with their own means, realize that their
activities are part of a larger context.
Earlier this year the McSpotlight site was launged. A WWW-site
with all the information about the longest running civil case in
Britain ever, and more. Complete with an audio Guided Tour
narrated by the McLibel 2, taking visitors round the
key pages on the site - the case, the company, the curriculum
vitae of all the people involved in the trial and the coverage
in the media.
The Campaign section offers groups from all over the world to
present themselves and their material. Translations of current
Anti-McDonald's leaflet can be printed out in any desired
language. This service falls into the category 'added value' -
you could call it an Internet speciality. In combination
with all the information McSpotlight provides, it is the first
worldwide activist manual. Facts and figures are available, as
well as a platform for publicity and support from all over the
Not to mention the added bonus of the site acting as an easy way
to keep the public and the press informed about what's happening
in the court case.
The latest feature on McSpotlight - and as far as I know, this
is the first time anyone on Internet has done this - is the
'Guided Tour of McDonald 's Website' in which they use the
'Frames' browsing system to hijack McDonald's own corporate
website and to present their criticisms and McDonald's own pages
side by side on the viewer's screen.

The reason why I keep on rambling about McSpotlight is because
of its innovative spirit: it has nothing of the boring static
formats I mentioned earlier. On the contrary, McSpotlight
presents a combination of virtually all available Internet
features in one integrated environment: I guess the spirit lies
in this combination. It shows how background information can be
presented in a creative way. An information monopoly has been
broken, by putting facts online within the correct context. The
information is being used by campaigners worldwide. Campaigners
who still rely on email and their malinglist to keep in touch.
And on their own regular meetings and day to day activities in
the real world.

This is why I am against putting archives online. 
The McSpotlight site has shown a way forward for Internet. 
There is no doubt that this is an example of the beauty of
Internet, and that is what we should be exploring and working on
- not just dumping endless megabytes of information into the
depths of cyberspace. 
It is the fantasy of the people who use Internet, that creates
its potential power. That's how the whole thing got started
anyway, remember? 
Maybe it's time for a revaluation of the true merits of Usenet.
Back to the source!



Buro Jansen & Janssen:
email: respub@xs4all.nl

P.O. Box 10591
NL - 1001 EN Amsterdam

tel. ++ 31 (0)20 6123202
fax. ++ 31 (0)20 6168967

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