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.
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 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.''
Sites mentioned & other useful URLs:
URL(http://www.dds.nl) (Digital City Amsterdam)
URL(http://www.xs4all.nl) (Internet Access Provider)
URL(http://www.waag.org) (Society for Old and New Media)
URL(http://www.desk.nl) (cultural content provider)
URL(http://www.montevideo.nl) (Dutch Institute for New Media Arts)
URL(http://www.contrast.org) (political content provider)
URL(http://www.steim.nl) (Laboratory for Electronic Music)
URL(http://www.v2.nl) (V2 Organization for electronic arts)
URL(http://www.balie.nl) (De Balie center for culture and politics)
URL(http://www.mediamatic.nl) (Mediamatic magazine for new media arts)
URL(http://www.anma.nl) (Amsterdam New Media Association)
URL(http://www.dds.nl/~virtplat) (Dutch Virtual Platform)
URL(http://www.balie.nl/tulipomania) ('Tulipomania dotcom' conference on the New Economy,
Amsterdam, June 2K)
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