Geert Lovink on Mon, 16 Jun 1997 12:52:52 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Digital City: at the cross-roads between freedom and politics

At the cross-road of liberty and politics
The Amsterdam Digital City three and half year later.
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 the middle of 1997 DDS has over 50.000 ‘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
“Internationale Stadt” initiative, the DDS’s most direct clone, which has
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

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

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

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  <telnet> and filling out
a questionnaire, which is usually  processed within 24 hrs.

Geert Lovink is media theoretician and  activitist and a member of
adilkno, the foundation for the advancement of illegal knowledge
( He was one of the founding members of
the Amsterdam Digital City project for which he retains a keen interest
and published quite a few articles about. This piece (still a draft) was
written (in Dutch language) for an upcoming reader to be published by the
Society for Old and New Media in Amsterdam <>,  with the title
" The Monkey's Tail (that's the Dutch word for @ !) , An Alternative View
on the Internet".  It is mainly based on a lengthy interview with Nina
Meilof, the editor of the DDS "newspaper".

Translated (and somewhat edited) 
by Patrice Riemens

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