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Date Published: 2/8/1995
www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=65
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors

Digital City, Amsterdam

An Interview with Marleen Stikker

Shuschen Tan
Translated by Patrice Riemens

A digital city does not consist of bricks, concrete and cobblestones, but of telephone lines and electronic connections. Can such a city work? Last year, the Balie cultural centre started such an experiment, together with the 'xs4all' [ex-'hacktic'-transl] foundation. Anyone who's got a phone, a modem, and a computer can log into the digital city host computer and walk around town like a digital spirit: she can visit the central station, the digital cafe, and the electronic town hall. Marleen Stikker is the 'mayor' of Amsterdam Digital City (DDS), and she looks back at one year of promises fulfilled and unfulfilled.

"Well, of course, sometimes the level of discussion in a particular newsgroup is no higher than on chatterboxes; and you do have the occasional rabid rightist spreading racist smut on the net. But generally speaking, life in the DDS is pretty much OK. It's just like an ordinary city" says Stikker, "everything you'd come across in ordinary life, we get here too."

It was exactly one year ago this week that DDS opened her doors. Council elections were just coming up, and the new electronic medium looked just like the thing to bridge the gap between citizens and the authorities. The Amsterdam Municipality decided to subsidize the experiment, together with the (national) ministry of economic affairs and that of the interior. For the first time, DDS enabled Amsterdammers to look on-line into the council's minutes, to consult official policy papers and to request information from the digital town hall. But there were other activities, too. The 'Central Station' offered access to the entire Internet, one could patronize a digital cafe, browse through a digital kiosk, enter the digital house of culture and the arts, or pay a visit to a digital sex-shop, complete with a digital darkroom in the back. "All those ideas you had heard so often from the US about the new information society, tele-democracy, electronic citizenship, suddenly became a reality on DDS." Marleen Stikker is project manager at the Balie and initiator of DDS, and she envisaged the set-up known in the US as Freenet, a kind of virtual city where homeless people managed to demand via computer, and obtain in reality from the town's authorities, public showers and dressing-rooms so they could wash and dress appropriately when going to a job interview.

Stikker, however, had never really envisaged that the interest for the Amsterdam experiment would take such a flight. Within a week of DDS's inauguration, no modem could be obtained in Amsterdam for love or money. The phone lines providing access to the DDS computer were overloaded at any hour of the day or night [they started with 20, -transl]. But the rush has somewhat stabilised now. The daily number of users now hover around 4000. One million 'pages' are being requested a month. A new configuration has been installed, the primitive menus of the beginning have now been replaced with a lot of graphics (photos, maps), and DDS looks poised to evolve into a truly virtual community.

"In the beginning we were really afraid that the response would come only from that small band of 'computer-hackers' and BBS types you always encounter in this sort of project" says Stikker, who adds, "what you call the 'early adapters', very young kids mostly, who have grown up without a push button syndrome." Fortunately, it soon turned out that was not the case. 'Ordinary' people too, purchased a modem and went online. Yet Stikker is still far from satisfied about the rate of participation to DDS. "The digital population has a long way to go before being a true representation of the public at large." There are still far too few women, senior citizens and miority groups. A newsgroup that was set up especially for women was invaded in no time by men. Stikker: "You wouldn't believe it, all these guys were sitting there discussing women's issues. Till one of them said: look folks, if I was a woman, I wouldn't dig that!"

Women are anyway something of a rarity in the virtual community. Stikker: "That's not surprising when you see how few women are sitting in front of a computer-screen. The rot is in the education system. You just go and have a look in the terminal rooms at Eindhoven technical university [Holland's largest -transl.]: out of 400 users, you'll see 2-3 females. It is only recently that news items about the Internet and the Digital Highway made inroads into the columns of magazines like Opzij [a large Dutch feminist monthly - transl.] and ELLE."

We Are No Moralists

Stikker did not feel like interfering when the women's newsgroup became a male territory. "That's not our job" she says, "We provide the platform and the tools. It's up to the people in the newsgroups to decide what they want, we do not interfere." Not even when things are uttered that in ordinary life would put you in court? "Well, sometimes you see things get out of hand, like with the rightist who went on for weeks ranting about foreigners. In real life, this would have resulted in fistfights for sure. But that's not possible in a digital city. So here such a discussion will be spun out in all of its details, replete with references and argumentation." It is a totally different form of communication, admits Stikker: "We are no moralists. We want the DDS population to evolve a code of behaviour for such cases, just like it happens on the Internet. We cannot prevent some people from entering DDS. And for the rest, we simply abide by the Dutch legislation. We will not tolerate neo-fascist clubs or child pornography."

Stikker admits that the newsgroups, in which everyone can participate, are sometimes turning into a free-for-all platform. "Precisely because [DDS] is such a direct and anonymous way of communicating. Emotions therefore, can get into a high pitch. And that is not always to everybody's liking." DDS is now in the process of developing different types of newsgroups. Stikker: "We have come to realise that some groups work best under a situation of full freedom, while others are better off with the help of some kind of moderator. This is basically a question of conventions: a boardroom meeting carries a different type of conversation than the one you would have in a pub. At DDS, we would like to emphasize this kind of difference in style, so as to enable the digital citizens to choose between, say, the Hardrock Cafe and Tortoni."

And then, what about the much vaunted digital empowerment of the citizens? That was, after all, the raison d'etre of the whole project. Local political issues, 'Amsterdam car-free'; Schiphol Airport's extensive extension plans; 'ROA', the new regional government set-up [in which Amsterdam would disappear as municipal body - transl.]; law and order issues; all are thoroughly discussed in the various news groups - but mostly by the citizens themselves. "the politicos have not been overwhelmingly on-line" admits Stikker. "It's not lack of goodwill, but they're a bit shy about the medium." That also, according to Stikker, is due to the style of discussion prevailing in the newsgroups. "Newsgroups are perceived by politicians as too anonymous, and therefore too threatening." Other discussion formats are more successful: "In our 'Question Time' - where politicians react to items put forward by citizens - they do come forward." The social democrat city secretary Guusje Terhorst, for instance, participated in a debate about the future of a 'regional urban province', while the eco-socialist Cees Hulsman discussed with digital citizens issues pertaining to the local job situation. On the other hand, ad interim mayor Frank de Grave, who inaugurated the DDS with much fanfare one year ago has not been very active since, to say nothing of Amsterdam's new mayor, Mr Patijn. To affirm that DDS is going to close the gap between citizens and politicians is somewhat of an exaggerated claim, according to Stikker: "It's quite clear that making information and databases available to the public is only the first step in this process of democratisation. Real empowerment of citizens through the net - one may for instance think of electronic referendums - presupposes a level of administrative openness still very much remote from our present institutions."

The Cable System Imbroglio

A fine example of the tricks being played on the citizens is the issue of selling off KTA, Amsterdam's municipality-owned cable system. [Which is profitable and yet cheap ($9 pm) and convenient - it's in your utility bill - and even democratically organized - to some extent. It also runs two public access channels, beside 22 general/commercial ones. - transl.] The Municipality is totally mute about the whole issue, even within DDS. "Up to now, it's been a black box" says Stikker, "the council authorities are not showing any inclination to talk about it." The problem is that KTA plays a crucial role in any further development of a local interactive network - since the system's coaxial cables offer much more bandwidth than the existing telephone infrastructure. It's therefore likely that KTA, and not the telecom, is going to be the digital carrier of the future at the local level.

Stikker: "Presently, we are simply hooked up to the telephone system. But in future, it's our hope that room will be set aside on the cable system for a interactive network with public interest functions like ours, and not that it will be up to the highest bidder to decide who may come in and under what conditions." The estimated value of KTA's sell-off is around 400 million guilders ($225 m). According to Stikker, some of that money should already be earmarked for the establishment of such a public domain. "They are talking about that at the Town Hall, but I've got a feeling that awareness about the issue is of fairly recent date. And any concrete question you may put forward about it is considered premature."

Stikker is nevertheless hopeful about the future. The idea of a digital city is catching on. Now Rotterdam, in Amsterdam's footsteps, is also setting up an interactive local area network. Utrecht Province is opening its digital doorways this month, with Groningen, The Hague and Eindhoven following suit shortly. The ministry of economic affairs has requested DDS to put together a handbook about the experience gathered over these past two years. It will be presented to the ministry at a formal function in February. Stikker: "We have now moved from the stage of being an experiment into that of being a phenomenon. Now we are busy consolidating what we have achieved up to now, that is to look how you can sustain such a system without becoming rigid. We want to keep DDS open and dynamic. At this stage there is fairly stiff pressure to go the commercial way. We will do that to some extent, by allowing some room for advertisements." That means that the Amsterdam small and medium enterprises will be putting ads on the local net in the near future, though nobody knows how those 'interactive advertisements' should look. Organisations and individuals who want to rent a 'virtual office' on the DDS pay 250 guilders ($140) a month.

Stikker does not doubt one moment that DDS is catering to a really existing requirement. "As soon as it becomes clear that DDS is not merely a playground for computer freaks, you'll see all sorts of groups moving in." Stikker alludes to a multitude of on-line services such as help-lines for older and disabled people, doctors' services, databanks for juridical assistance, etc. "Our primary concern at the moment is to develop a kind of 'data-literacy' among people who up to now were living quite outside it. I think each and every association should have one person who knows how to link up with DDS." Individual citizens also may come into the DDS and fashion it their own way: "Anyone can build up her own digital dwelling in DDS's 'boroughs'. And you can start up all kind of activities from your own house: broadcasting your home videos, organizing jam sessions, opening your own private museum, etc."

Threats

"When hearing the word 'new media', many people still get the 'nukes'-jitter. They perceive it as a threat. I don't think this is a very sensible attitude, since we are inventing these technical tools ourselves. When I had my first experience with the Internet two years ago, I immediately realised that this was not merely about computers, but that there were a lot of implication behind these techniques. Everyone has now the opportunity to evolve from a passive consumer of information into an active provider. Suddenly, social and political processes take place within a very much altered field of reference. In this respect, technology is truly a cultural phenomenon."

According to Stikker, the central issue with DDS is the fulfillment of human needs. "Everybody is equal on the net. People who never left their houses because they were afraid of crowds now regularly gather on bulletin-boards. You encounter people on the net you would never meet in real life. That need to communicate is very human. What people love most is endless chit-chat with each other." And, of course, that is precisely what DDS is best suited for.


Published originally in Dutch in the daily Trouw (Amsterdam), January 7, 1995. You can visit the Digital City in Amsterdam using the World Wide Web, at , or email to helpdesk@dds.nl. You can reach Marleen Stikker at stikker@xs4all.nl.
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