Step into the cybercity

If you, like Niall Martin, have an hour to kill, why not jump on to the Internet and nip over to Amsterdam?

First-time visitors to Amsterdam find that the city is all they imagined it would be: the red light of a sex shop beckons from a dark alley, Rick's Music Palace promises to take you to Paradise, brown cafes hum with conversation and on the corner a drug dealer peddles his wares. There's even a "home-grown hash emporium" extolling the virtues of cannabis which, although illegal in the Netherlands, is tolerated for personal use.

A stroll through the red-light district reveals that all tastes are catered for, from the erotic to the explicit. Transsexual haunts and lesbian and gay bars abound. Drugs (mainly cannabis and Ecstasy) are discussed openly and compared on their merits.

But here sex is strictly safe - as are all the other slightly louche attractions of this cosmopolitan city. For this is on-line Amsterdam, accessed via a computer screen and modem - all for no more than the price of a local telephone call.

Born out of a venture between Amsterdam's cultural centre, De Balie, and Hacktic, a group of ex-hackers-turned-Internet providers, Amsterdam's Digitale Stad (Digital City) was launched as a three-month experiment to provide free access to digital information and the Internet. But its runaway success took its backers, including Amsterdam city council and the government, by surprise. Having celebrated its first birthday last week, Digitale Stad (DDS to insiders) now has 10,000 "residents" and an av erage of 3,000 visitors a day. With support from its own independent foundation, it has achieved an indefinite stay of execution and is preparing to move to a more powerful computer.

Alongside the sex shop (subliterate "erotic" tales), the drug-dealer (a history of Ecstasy) and the mysteries of the metro (accessible only by experienced users), Digital Amsterdam offers the chance to participate in various discussion groups, delve intothe city archives, visit museums and the library, play chess, download an electronic novel and lobby politicians via e-mail.

"Modelling an area of cyberspace around the metaphor of a city was not a new idea," explains Marleen Stikker, 32, the Digital City's "mayoress" and founding member of the city planning group. "We just took the American idea of an electronic town hall anddeveloped it, in the belief that the city would provide a more intuitive and creative way of organising information."

To tap into this wealth of on-line information, Amsterdammers with their own personal computers and modem dial 6225222, while those without the necessary equipment can use one of the 10 public terminals installed in the (real) city.

Visitors from the Internet direct their World Wide Web (WWW) client to "http//dds,nl" or arrive via "telnet dds.nl". Newcomers should log in as gast (guest) and click on ga de stad binnen (enter the city).

Foreigners with no Dutch can head straight to the English-language "tourist information" desk, but like the real Amsterdam, the digital topography is reassuringly human: you may get lost in the sidestreets or in the Metro, but the familiar civic architecture of the Hoofdmenu (main menu) is never far away.

Paul, 31, is an Internet user from Wallasey, Liverpool, who returns regularly to DDS to check out what's new and meet up with old acquaintances. I bumped into him in the Digital Cafe, Talk. Although a veteran cybernaut, he says he prefers the comparativefamiliarity and structure of DDS to the anonymity of the Net. He's even contemplating moving there. "What was it Engels said about alcohol being the quickest way out of Manchester? Well, the Internet's the quickest way out of Wallasey, and Am sterdam's a good place to have a holiday home," he says.

Paul is one of the 1,500 "foreigners" already registered as Digital City residents. Of its total population, some 50 per cent live outside the real Amsterdam and 15 per cent outside Holland. Registration (aanmelden als bewonen), which is free, entitles residents to participate in discussion groups and enjoy services closed to casual visitors.

Paul is thinking of building himself a house in the rapidly expanding residential district (huizen van bewonen). This has grown up in response to the "renovation" of the city last October.

Visitors to the original city were confronted by a plain text menu, but the planners have kept up with developments on the Internet and users equipped with a WWW browser such as Mosaic - copies of which can be downloaded from the helpdesk - are welcomed by a graphical interface with self-explanatory icons.

The residential district makes full use of the multimedia possibilities of the WWW interface. The houses are in reality the front "pages" of hypertext documents where pointing and clicking on words and images allows the visitor to move to different pagesor "rooms".

The beginner's guide to building your own hypertext home is available from the helpdesk's Help-jezelf-systeem, although non-Dutch speakers should consider buying a guide such as Gareth Branwyn's Mosaic Quick Tour for Windows (Ventana Press).

Standards of digital housekeeping vary: while the four-storey art gallery of Bas van Reek shows what can be done with a hypertext home-construction kit, Michiel Berger's "planetarium" is well worth a visit.

An extended tour of the area can be a dispiriting experience. It seems as though a disproportionate number of the houses are inhabited by lonely teenagers so desperate to attract e-mail that they are prepared to bare their all - or at least their souls and CD collections.

The popularity of the city among teenagers stuck in the provinces is not difficult to understand. For Marco, 16, from the north of Holland, evenings spent in a DDS cafe makes the real Amsterdam less daunting. "When I've actually been to Amsterdam to see a band, I've met up with friends and made a night of it," he says.

Similarly, the anonymity of user names and the possibilities for role play go some way towards explaining the high transvestite and gay user presence. As an American exploring Amsterdam's gay scene, Tom, 26, revels in the opportunities for "creative flirtation". He says: "Behind the protective screen of a `do not disturb' sign, you can be as outrageous as you dare, with no physical consequences." One digital date did turn into a physical encounter, but says Tom: "It was very disappointing. I didn't fanc y him and we just sat around and talked."

The appeal of Digital Amsterdam, however, is far more broad-based and its population is becoming ever more diverse. Cyclists, Ajax football fans, the handicapped, and Friends of the Vondel Park all use the city as a virtual meeting place and resource centre.

For Monty, 50, a scientist-turned-technical-writer with the Amsterdam Port Authority, DDS is strictly a business aid. One of the earliest residents, he made use of the free Internet access to put himself on the CERN (European Particles Physics Laboratory) electronic mailing list and now receives free daily updates on his research interests.

"Before DDS, you had no hope of getting this material unless you were attached to a university or research programme,'' he explains. "For me, DDS has been invaluable."

According to the "mayoress", it is this diversity of interests which is the true measure of the city's success. "Our intention was to make new technology accessible to everyone, to facilitate public access to a wide range of digital information by actingas a kind of data liberation front," Stikker explains. Her long-term goal is the "reinvention of government through technology", but she admits that while so many users remain young, white and male there are real problems with the idea of "digital democracy".

Nevertheless she is optimistic: "The ratio of men to women on the Internet is estimated at 90:10. In Amsterdam it is 70:30." To boost female-user ratios, De Balie is launching a "Digital Frontier Posts" program to introduce this new realm of cyberspace to groups which have been excluded from the world of information technology.

Felipe Rodriquez, 25, principal architect of the original Digital City, believes the project has been a success. Now manager of Hacktic's mainstream reincarnation, XS4ALL (Access For All), he points to the debate over the sell-off of Amsterdam's cable network as a practical instance of digital democracy in action, and suggests that the new government's rush to jump on to the digital bandwagon was inspired by virtual Amsterdam's success.

He says the future of the Digital City as an institution and metaphor is immense: "With the emergence of virtual communities - cities whose residents live in different lands - people will begin to realise that borders are just lines on paper. The problemis to develop more sensitive research tools which will help us separate the signal from the noise and allow us to find our way through the infoglut to the data we really need. We've got to make sure that access for all doesn't become excess for all."

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