A city is a thing without a direction. It is just growing in all directions. It’s a complex system of processes interacting together. My dream is to keep it as complex as possible. This might sound like Los Angeles but the man talking is Joost Flint, founder of Amsterdam’s Digital City. Log on to http://www.dds.nl. […]
A city is a thing without a direction. It is just growing in all directions. It’s a complex system of processes interacting together. My dream is to keep it as complex as possible. This might sound like Los Angeles but the man talking is Joost Flint, founder of Amsterdam’s Digital City. Log on to http://www.dds.nl. Send them a message saying ‘Happy second birthday’. The birth of the Digital City, De Digital Stad, is developing very nicely. This pioneering model, founded by a group of squatting hackers, has been transformed into a million dollar business.The party celebrations include stopping the city – not in true anarchist style, but rather freezing it for future archaeologists. The back-up disks will be entombed to record their history. You have to be aware of the future when you start to preserve the past. Two years ago De Digital Stad sold the authorities the idea that with local elections barely scraping turn-outs of 29%, De Digital Stad could bridge the gap between citizens and politicians. Democratization via the Internet. In a blaze of publicity, electronic mail addresses were dished out to the vote-hungry bureaucrats.
The set-up money provided was a little over the equivalent of $100,000 and repeated a few months later. It didn’t work but, more importantly, it is slowly starting to now remember not every politician is at ease with a mouse. There were citizens waiting to participate in an on-line chat, but there were no politicians who could find the time to learn the new stuff and in the end there was no discussion at all, says Michael van Eeden, an ex-IBM Corp employee now running De Digital Stad’s technical development. We wanted communication to be between politicians and citizens but quickly found out that people weren’t interested in politicians at all, but wanted to communicate with each other. And the digital city just went on and on and on. The City has been rebuilt in three interface stages, starting with a text-based system in its industrial infancy. Now you’re transported to a futuristic metropolis: pods and blue hexagonal habitats jut into the sunset. You have a graphic lexicon to chat one to one, in a group, or send some mail. You can take a coffee in the cafe. Click on the metro and navigate North and South within an underground entertainment arena. Link up with Internet books and magazines on every square’s news-stand. For film buffs there’s the documentary Movie Square. You can even set up your own house and live there. The law-abiding fill their tax forms for the Inland Revenue; the activists protest in the government plaza. Joost Flint will probably be labelled the digital mayor, being one of the four original founders. He conducted a poll on who should oversee decisions made in the city and De Digital Stad received a near unanimous vote.
By Jeremy Wall
Flint believes that the important aspect of democracy is that people become producers of information, not just consumers. The metaphor of building your own house, graphically depicted, has been successful with 1,400 residential home pages offering a mind-boggling array of galleries, activist arenas, and newzines. After wrestling with the idea of letting cybersquatters set up shop in a home page, Flint experimented with electronic democracy and put the issue to a vote. Just over half voted in favor. This is government true to its roots and in continuous revolution. Everybody understands that the money has to come from somewhere, so the users can have a free system. Most of them see it as a good thing. Flint laughs as if even he can’t believe it. The bright light of this city is its free access to the Internet. A ‘Webvertisement’ logo on the main interface might cost high-profile businesses $20,000 a year and when they are fully integrated into the design they remain innocuous for the user, but effective for the ad men. Cheap, considering De Digital Stad has a quarter of a million electronic mailings each month. Setting up a 10Mb home page will cost you the Dutch equivalent of $150 per month. Cheaper communes go down to $60. This slice of life in the city now accounts for half the data traffic. We are a non-profit organization, insists Flint. Our aim is to make enough money to fund our ideals. We are here to think about social processes and how people interact with each other. You can do that with a small group of people in a creative organization. But one gets the sense that these guys aren’t really steaming into the future, more that they are organically evolving without the direction – like the city itself. The creation of the digital community without a bank loan, without Time Warner Inc dropping a few million on them, and without paying any shareholders, gives the group an sense of utopian contentment – a pervasive philosophy: they had an offer from a monolithic multinational after 10 weeks. They turned it down. But in doing so, they also turned down the money that was required for the massive expansion necessary to realize their ideals.
True to its genealogy
De Digital Stad call it protecting their creative energy. And of course, like any government, it is not going to give up control easily. The politics are changing though. They talk of facilitating when once they spoke of empowering; their public terminals died and the city council is now a customer. In the next years we’ll see virtual reality mail, a digital hospital, old age pensioners on-line. Flint also dreams of schools, red light areas, and even a graveyard: People starting their own radio and video channels. Not consuming home shopping services but providing them. Sure everything is in place to empower the individual – mainly the white male individual aged 16 to 28 if you believe the surveys – but in reality it won’t be until everyone has a personal computer that De Digital Stad’s ideals will be recognizable. That could be 20 years. They know it. True digital democracy will only come when low cost Internet personal computers costing a couple of hundred dollars start to hit the market for the masses. If these guys were let loose on interactive television set-top boxes then perhaps their dreams of democracy, cyber-empowerment and info-revolution might come true. And you’ll want to live there. If De Digital Stad remains true to its genealogy, who cares if it makes any money?