There are a thousand stories in the Digital City. Some intertwine with the real life of Amsterdam, whose landmarks - parks, museums, town hall and red-light district - are also those of the Digital City. But there are more. The inhabitants of the Digital City, some of whom have never set foot in Amsterdam, have colonised the subways, where they walk in the fantasy rooms of an underground empire and argue politics in imaginary coffee bars. They have created works of art unseen, and unseeable, by light of day. For De Digitale Stad (DDS), as it is known in Dutch, the language which is both its lingua franca and, quite literally, its firmament - is an imaginary world which exists within a battery of computers humming gently in an Amsterdam basement.
The Digital City was founded just over a year ago as an experiment in civic networking. To make it easier for citizens to be citizens, the City of Amsterdam and the Ministry of Economic Affairs financed proposals by two groups - De Balie and Hacktic magazine - to create a text-based bulletin board to provide hints on taxes, swimming pool opening hours and other useful local information. De Balie is an Amsterdam institution that tries to heighten public awareness by sponsoring public debate on subjects from politics to art, while Hacktic is, well, Hacktic - Northern Europe's voice of the hacker, the fanzine which made its name cracking PIN numbers, and now, rather more civic-mindedly, supplies the know-how to build a virtual Amsterdam.
The Digital City began as a text-only bulletin board system, but almost immediately the original system was replaced by a World Wide Web server, and dial-up access to the Digital City was augmented by the Internet. Then the citizens took over. Today the Digital City has 10,000 inhabitants. Its streets and alleyways are links of hypertext strung through the World Wide Web. And on a good month about 100,000 tourists pass through.
Now the Digital City faces issues all too familiar to real-world boom towns. What sort of services should it provide its citizens? How can it pay for them? What is the proper relationship between public authority and private enterprise? It is experiencing all the boosterism, argument and angst of gold-rush towns filled with dreamers, world-changers and those who just wouldn't be anywhere else.
And, lost in it all, trying to calm, co-ordinate and control its landscape are the beleaguered councillors of old Amsterdam - enlightened civic leaders, who are only now realising that rather than bringing their city into the 21st century, they have reclaimed from the sea of the infosphere an entirely new territory with problems and demands all of its own.
Low overheidThe town hall is the oldest building in the new Amsterdam, located in the Overheid, the government neighbourhood, the very heart of the pre-WWW digital city. "Certainly in the beginning, a lot of the services in the city were civil services and links to real-world city organisations," says Marleen Stikker, one of the founding members of the DDS. "The idea was to create easy access to information about the city and its services."
The Overheid is still one of the most popular areas of the Digital City. Hundreds of people roam through each day, and the installation of Web terminals in libraries and public buildings has made the Digital town hall accessible to more than the info-elite. Initially, the Overheid is the very model of bland municipal website: city-government press releases, links to city records, and the obligatory homepages of all the current city officials - although it's not clear who would want to download a digital picture of Amsterdam's mayor Schelto Patijn.
However, the popularity of the Overheid derives from its ease of access. E-mail can be sent to town hall officials, or to the political factions in the council. Concerned citizens interrogate their representatives on the issues of the day, every day. They talk of the upkeep of the Vondelpark, the city's largest green space. They pester them with queries on Holland's convoluted tax laws. They argue back and forth about Amsterdam's proposed trans-formation from city to province. From the Overheid's pages, they visit the Dutch Parliament to track the progress of new laws, and monitor their MP's voting patterns. Then they return to Overheid to discuss and argue again. And, like all e-mailers, they are more than upset if their questions go unanswered.
Indeed, many virtual Amsterdammers are starting to provide answers on their own. Perhaps the greatest success of the Digital City, and no doubt the driving force behind its booming growth, is the ability to capture the enthusiasm of its citizens. Future historians may argue about what distinction, if any, can be made between the private passions of digital citizens and their public service, but the Digital City provides many examples of ways in which, by following their individual interests into the digital realm, netizens have enriched the lives of their fellows.
One of the most singularly Dutch is Het Digitale Fietspad, the digital bike path, run by Michiel van Loon, and advertised by the biking sign from the main square. "It's no use having an electronic highway without bike paths. After all, most of our citizens use a bike to get around in the real world," says van Loon. "So we decided to make room for them here too." The digital bike path has routes through the Alps for mountain bikers and repair shops in the Low Countries for virtual commuters.
Life undergroundWhile most of the Digital City's inhabitants are commuters - coming into town to do business or see a show before going back to the real-life city - a few are beginning to move their social lives online as well. The hub of this colonisation is underground, in the city's Metro, where about 2,000 of the Digital City's 10,000 inhabitants mix and mingle.
Why a Metro? Mostly because it was Michael Van Eeden, or Mieg as he's called underground, who built the social centres of the Digital City. Mieg is fascinated with subterranean worlds. "I always liked subways. They have a dark and sinister side to them. You don't have a clue what goes on in those deep-rooted, pitch-dark canals, or who lives in there."
The Metro MOO is a text-based world, transitory like all MOOs, flickering on and off depending on how many citizens are online. "We've tried to expand the regular MOO by adding a lot of WWW-like support," says Mieg. "A lot of Digital Citizens couldn't get into the text-based MOO environment - but they all wanted to live in there." And so, courtesy of the World Wide Web extensions, homes - or, at least, home pages - are being built. The Metro recently celebrated its first marriage. Like most Dutch couples these days, the bride and groom wanted to live together for a while before tying the knot, just to make sure that they were right for each other. So they built a joint home page, and moved in. When they were sure of their compatibility, they invited about 40 close virtual friends to the wedding ceremony - and drank virtual champagne at the reception, which made their typing go all garbled. The happy couple has never met in the flesh; nor do they particularly want to.
Above ground, 200 Digital Amsterdammers have set up World Wide Web home pages in the city. There is a new digital housing development centre, just off the Market Square. Special "construction workers" provide help to those who lack the knowledge to crank out the HTML code their houses are built from.
Gallery rowWhen communities settle, they begin to demand amenities. They want shops. They want culture. And as this is a virtual Amsterdam, it was culture that arrived first.
Art is all over the real Amsterdam, from neo-hippies smoking hash in the coffee houses, to the Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum. Publishing, creative arts, performing arts - they're all here. And in the digital version too. The Art & Culture building of Digital Amsterdam is stuffed with art institutions: media houses, artists' collectives, electronic literature and theatre companies.
The nucleus of the digital art community is the Temporary Museum. Like a real museum, you can browse through collections of art and objects, arranged and selected by the museum's curator (or beheerder as the anonymous curator prefers to call himself). Ironically, the Temporary Museum is less temporary than its real-world counterparts. When an exhibit is over, it is simply moved into a warehouse area, where it remains less prominently on display. And as art provides an identity to the virtual Amsterdammers, so civic pride is a prominent feature of the gallery. One section of the museum displays an ever-growing collection of ever-more-futuristic versions of Amsterdam's twin-lions coat of arms, all contributed by local artists and would-be artists.
The new town boasts more than just visual artists, too. Take Marcel Bullinga, the city's resident novelist. His new book, Roes der zinnen (Flush of the Senses in English) is published and sold exclusively in the Digital City - using experimental DigiCash.
Bullinga had written eight or nine books and publications when he decided to take a break to roam the world, and make a living as a model and exotic dancer. The Digital City lured him back both to Amsterdam and to writing. "It was the atmosphere of the place that I liked, and I had the idea that here you could create a whole new approach to literature." His book describes his adventures during his literary sabbatical. The first and last chapter are freely available online. If you want to read all the juicy bits in-between, though, you have to fork out some e-money. Because, after all, when a city gets big enough, everyone has to make a living somehow.
Down-townIn the Digital City, as in any other, public virtues are ultimately financed by private profits. For the most part, civic-minded activists donate the time required to create the landmarks and organisation of the Digital City. But as the city grows, it is becoming increasingly expensive for the real Amsterdam to maintain its digital public space. In 1994, its first year, the budget was 450,000 guilders (£170,000) and this year it will nearly double, reaching 800,000 guilders (£300,000). It will soon become more than Amsterdam can comfortably pay from its own pocket. So the Digital City is being forced to redefine both the services it offers and the sources of its funds.
In the beginning, everything was available and everything was free. The City of Amsterdam financed the construction of the digital city. For six weeks, everyone could get online for free, thanks to a deal with the local telephone company, and enjoy full Internet access. After the trial period, citizens could still get into the Digital City for only the price of a local phone call, but ventures into the cosmos of the Internet were severely restricted. At the same time, the Ministries of the Interior and Economic Affairs stepped in to help Amsterdam with the project's finances.
A consequence of the restrictions on Internet access was that many of those lured into the city signed up with commercial Internet service providers to maintain full net-roaming privileges. And the Inter-net service provider most chose was a new venture set up by veterans of Hacktic, catchily called xs4all. Some in the Digital City grumble that the ex-hackers have made the switch from publicly financed idealism to privately profitable entrepreneurialism with worrying speed. But the more heated arguments concern that inevitable bogey-man of online worlds: electronic commerce.
Over the next year or so the Digital City plans to diversify its sources of income. From being entirely supported by government money and volunteer labour, it hopes soon to get 30 per cent of its revenues from government, another 30 per cent from non-profit organisations, 10 per cent from private donations and - oh, the horror - the remaining 30 per cent from commerce. The Digital City has decided to set up a shopping mall, called the Market Square, by subletting parts of its premises for com-mercial use.
"We had to, although it created a sub-stantial discussion among the people that run the City," says Felipe Rodriquez, the city's Hacktic co-founder. "We had to avoid charging citizens to move around, and if that means putting up a few stores, so be it." Correct decision, no doubt. But the results are something of an anticlimax. At least in the first two months after the Market Square opened for business, merchants did not change the Digital City for better or for worse - because they didn't move into it.
Amsterdam is a serious shoppers' city, with great window-shopping, fun browsing and lots of good stuff to buy. The Digital City, by contrast, has five shops. Two are, predictably, a computer bookstore and an electronics retailer. Another is one of the other founders: art-promoter De Balie. One offers nature holidays. And the last, and most enthusiastic, is Play it Again Sam, a distributor of not-quite-mainstream music and promoter of assorted concerts in Europe. "This was an ideal medium to get directly to the people that listen to our records," Sam's owner reports, proudly.
If Sam is going to keep playing such a happy tune, however, the merchants in the Digital City may well have to become more innovative. There is no commercial e-cash here, and little serious attempt to create real online shopping. The Market Square mostly just tells people about what they could buy if they got up and went into the real town. The Digital City has yet to offer any domestic produce. If its trade balance remains in the red, the future for New Amsterdam could start to look bleak.
Ghost townAs a tourist, accidental or otherwise, one's initial reaction to the Digital City is simple amazement. In just a year, a community has been created in the cyber-wilderness. It's a busy place, a boom town for those lured by the Internet gold-rush. But like all boom towns, the Digital City is both more and less than it seems. The Web pages of its hopeful inhabitants bear more than a circumstantial resemblance to the false-fronted buildings that lined the streets of frontier towns. They strive to give an impression of solidarity.
So what can we learn from the Digital City? Well, in a sense the original experiment has worked. As an alternative medium for Amsterdam to provide government services and information to its citizens, the Digital City has fully established its worth. It has evolved into a politically useful barometer for the authorities to measure the popular reaction to such changes as Amsterdam's transition from city to province.
But the City has strayed far from its founders' idealistic hopes. It hasn't created a true digital democracy, and it hasn't brought a new equality and openness to politics. The Digital City does not represent old Amsterdam. The Digital City's last census showed its average inhabitant to be around 30 years old, highly educated, and a voter for D66, the liberal democratic party. All are by definition extremely computer literate. So the new Amsterdam does not represent anybody but itself. And even with its independent spirit, it has yet to prove itself autonomous.
Things happen fast on the electronic frontier. If, in a year or two, life is ebbing from the Digital City, and it has turned into a virtual ghost town, the last and most important lesson to learn from it will be that the frontier will never be settled. There are simply too much enthusiasm, too much hope and too many opportunities out there. The frontier keeps moving onwards - and outwards. The Digital City's founders are already setting their sights beyond Amsterdam. Their goal is a network of digital cities all over Europe, connecting digital citizens across state and cultural boundaries. Eindhoven is the next Digital City planned, and talks are underway with other communities. Martine Brinkhuis, who is co-ordinating the expansion, reckons that Digital Amsterdam has much to teach virtual settlers. "We pretty much have the know-how available, so porting it to a different city will not be that hard." The hard part, she reckons, is getting citizens to participate. But if this Digital City is anything to go by, the hard part may be holding them back. n
Peter Hinssen (Peter.Hinssen@interackt.be) is a freelance writer and multimedia researcher.