Amsterdam Public Digital Culture 2000

What happened to the Digital City of Amsterdam? Is a digital public realm desirable? How do early sociopolitical and cultural ideals relate to new users profiles?

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.

What happened to the Digital City of Amsterdam

An exemplary instance of these developments is provided by 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 organisation. 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.

Contract work and sponsorship as only way of survival

Another constraining aspect of DDS's operations, and the one which ultimately resulted in it being turned into a corporation, 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 got within a structure characterised 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 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.

An 'edgy' climate in Amsterdams NetCulture

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.

How to define an open, public domain in Cyberspace

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.

The 'Virtual Platform

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"

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."

Main players in Amsterdam NetCulture:

  1. Digital City Amsterdam
  2. Xs4all, Internet Access Provider
  3. Society for Old and New Media
  4., cultural content provider
  5. Montevideo, Dutch Institute for New Media Arts
  6., political content provider
  7. Steim, Laboratory for Electronic Music
  8. V2 Organization for electronic arts
  9. De Balie center for culture and politics
  10. Mediamatic magazine for new media arts
  11. Amsterdam New Media Association
  12. Dutch Virtual Platform
  13. 'Tulipomania dotcom' conference on the New Economy, Amsterdam, June 2K

(Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens)