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nettime-nl: American view of Amsterdam

New York Times

February 7, 1999

Amsterdam's Brave New World


With its cozy cybercafes, Web kiosks, new-media events and technology
museum, the city presents high tech with a sociable face

Last spring, I was in Amsterdam with a new-media artist friend. We needed a
place to check our E-mail, and our Dutch hostess offered to take us to the
nearest cybercafe. She led us across a wide cobblestone square toward the
Waag, a late-medieval brick fortress studded with circular turrets. Tables
and wicker chairs spilled out of the fortress's broad gate; a white-aproned
waiter circulated with fat glasses of Duvel beer. Inside, under a 20-foot
vaulted ceiling, people chatted and sipped koffie verkeerd (café au lait,
Dutch style), waiting for a space at a long table with a peaked ridge down
the center. The computers were almost invisible, their screens built
unobtrusively into the table's slanting wooden face.

My friend and I half-smiled in embarrassment; we were thinking of the nerdy,
unpleasant cybercafes we knew in New York, full of taciturn patrons huddled
over their screens. This place seemed so sociable! Why, my friend wondered,
couldn't new media in America be more like this -- "so out in the open, so .
. . "

So public. In America, new media tend to be a private affair. Whether you're
E-mailing, Web surfing or playing computer games, in the office or at home,
you're usually doing it alone. In Amsterdam, using new media is more social.
There are public Internet kiosks on the city streets. On the waterfront,
teen-agers congregate in the plaza of the New Metropolis, a year-old
interactive technology museum. Even Amsterdam's Web site,,
feels like an amenity, with a wealth of information that ranges from arts
events to real estate to business regulations.

Such details are part of an overall effort by the Government to make
Amsterdam a center of new-media technology. Jan van Diepen, spokesman for
the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, said, "The Dutch Government is
investing tens of millions of dollars in information-technology research
institutes and in improving the information infrastructure." A recent report
by the French branch of the Aspen Institute notes that these efforts have
led American information-technology entrepreneurs to view Amsterdam as "the
ideal European home base."

It's not surprising that the Dutch devote their technological efforts to the
public sphere; after all, the Netherlands owes its very existence to huge
public-works projects. As one Dutch new-media artist I talked to put it:
"It's the dikes!" The country's national character is defined by public
technology -- from the obvious (canals, windmills, dikes) to the more subtle
(bike lanes, hothouse tomatoes and "supercows"). At their best, these
technologies make the Netherlands feel like a good Web site: attractive,
well-organized and incredibly easy to get around.

On my return trip last August, I started noticing well-designed
infrastructure and clever gadgets the moment I got off the plane. At
Schiphol Airport, the train to Amsterdam, Rotterdam or wherever you happen
to be going, passes right under your feet. You descend to it via a
stairless, conveyor-belt-like escalator -- no need to take your luggage off
the luggage cart. Getting off at Amsterdam Central Station puts you smack in
the center of the city. You can rent a bike right downstairs (which I did),
and wheel it up alongside the staircase on . . . a little grooved ramp for
wheeling bikes up alongside staircases, which probably has some name in

I had reserved a room on line at The Winston, an inexpensive hotel, which,
in addition to its regular accommodations, features eight rooms
custom-designed by different artists. On the hotel's Internet site (www, you can inspect these "artist rooms" and reserve the one of
your choice. I decided to try the Startel Room, festooned with
representations of the artists' DNA. The hotel also bills itself as a
gallery and arts venue: poets and bands perform in the Winston Kingdom
nightclub, their shows broadcast over the Net via Webcam.

On arrival, I encountered a glitch: the supposedly new-media-savvy Winston
had accidentally rented out my room because -- the computer was down. Would
I mind staying in the Schiffmacher Room, designed by a tattoo artist? "It
has . . . er . . . sexy pictures," said one of the two women at the desk,
blushing slightly. "It's okay with you?"

That afternoon, with some time to kill before dinner, I decided to go out
and check my E-mail. (A number of hotels, such as the Owl, have E-mail
facilities, but not The Winston.) Had I wanted to take public transit, I
could have made use of the national transit number. From anywhere in the
Netherlands, for about 50 cents a minute, you can dial 06-92-92, and give
them the address of where you are and where you want to go. Within a minute
or two, a real human being -- not a machine -- will tell you exactly which
trains, trams and buses you should take to get there -- right down to the
minute the bus arrives at your local stop.

When I left The Winston, I pedaled off toward a cybercafe in an old
canal-lined neighborhood a mile away called the Jordaan. It turned out to be
a perfect ride for exploring the crucial information technologies that have
traditionally defined Dutch public space: mirrors and windows.

For hundreds of years, the Dutch have been putting angled mirrors on their
windowsills. These mirrors, called spionnetjes, enable one to see everything
that happens on the street outside. In an old neighborhood like the Jordaan,
I saw them peeking down every few blocks. The databases A.O.L. compiles on
its users can't hold a candle to the intimate details the Dutch amass
through their spionnetjes, or by looking in the enormous ground-level
windows of Dutch houses.

The cybercafe I was headed for, the Mad Processor, is in a quiet canal
house. It features a circular table covered with computer monitors connected
by a high-speed network. Every night, people come by the dozens to play
networked games. In the United States, these games, like Quake and Doom, are
generally played over the Internet, between opponents who never see each
other; in Amsterdam, people prefer to meet their opponent in person, and
shout at them across the table.

"It's sort of lonely to play a game over the Internet," explains Kep, who
owns the Mad Processor. (Kep is of Indonesian descent, and uses only one
name.) "It's much better when you can come someplace nice with your
friends." It's more social, more . . . public.

On my way to dinner, I stopped at a bank of public phones by the Westerkerk,
a 16th-century church on the Prinsengracht, a canal west of the city center.
One of the bright-green columns was labeled Internet, and had a keyboard and
screen instead of a phone. There are 35 of these Web kiosks scattered around
Amsterdam, including one in the train station; KPN Telecom, the recently
privatized Dutch phone company, has been installing them since January 1997.
They accept phone cards or credit cards; the cost is about 10 cents a
minute. The kiosks have their limitations -- there are no seats, the
keyboards are angled uncomfortably, and they're hard to spot because from
the side, they look like phones. But they're great for Web surfing, and for
sending quick, mindless E-mails. ("Guess where I'm E-mailing from? A

The Amsterdam new-media world is full of private little spaces, known only
to the cognoscenti. Nonetheless, with a phone call or two, the digitally
curious can uncover some of the attractions that don't appear on the
standard tourist map.

One of these mysterious institutions is Steim, the Studio for Electro
Instrumental Music. Steim, as its director, Michel Waisvisz, explained,
"works in the background to help artists develop personal instruments."
Steim provides its sponsored musical researchers with no-guests-allowed
ateliers for their projects, "a monastery where they can isolate
themselves," Mr. Waisvisz said. The artists Steim has worked with include
the performance artist Laurie Anderson and Tod Machover, a professor from
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, known for his digitally enhanced
"hypercello" and other new musical instruments.

Steim also sponsors small performances in various places to showcase its
researchers' works-in-progress. The performances aren't widely advertised,
but anyone can usually attend. Just call the Steim office or check the Web
site (www to find out about them. The close, communal
atmosphere at these events is part of the point. Rather than doing
teleconferencing or remote linkups, "we use electronics to amplify immediate
presence," Mr. Waisvisz said. "This whole idea of being remote, behind a
screen -- that's not going to hold out long. People want to be back in rooms
with each other, packed in."

The performers I saw at Steim's Touch festival made this philosophy clear:
they were festooned with digital equipment, but intimate, right there in
front of you, like parlor magicians. One pair of artists used long black
rakes tipped with lasers, which they swung about their heads to control
musical samples; another artist controlled video projections by playing a
digitally enhanced violin. Music was made with data gloves. A giant electric
pipe organ was made entirely of bamboo shoots.

Later in the week, I returned to the Waag, in the Nieuwmarkt square. The
Waag is the headquarters of the Society for Old and New Media, Amsterdam's
premiere electronic-arts foundation. The society is upstairs, in a warren of
brick rooms surrounding a fantastic skylit octagonal chamber -- the Theatrum
Anatomicum. "The Waag started out as one of Amsterdam's city gates,"
explained Caroline Nevejan, the society's director (she has since left the
foundation). "Later, it became the weighing-house, and then the building of
the Masons' Guild -- that's why we have all this amazing brickwork. And then
in the 1600's, it was an anatomy classroom." In the Theatrum Anatomicum, the
bodies of prisoners were dissected for the edification of future surgeons --
and the entertainment of the public. It was here that Rembrandt painted his
1632 painting, "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp."

he Theatrum Anatomicum is one of the sites of a major digital-art project
called "Brandon," jointly sponsored by the Waag and the Guggenheim Museum in
SoHo (www.brandon The project is based on an article in
The Village Voice in 1994 about an American teen-ager who was murdered when
local toughs discovered he was anatomically female. The creator of
"Brandon," Shu Lea Cheang, says the work was partly inspired by the Theatrum
Anatomicum: she found it to be the perfect setting for discussions of the
body and society, and the publicness of private information.

The New Metropolis technology museum, which is a 10-minute walk north of the
Waag, opened in June 1997. It is a bright-green ship's prow of a building
jutting into the harbor off the Prins Hendrikkade. The New Metropolis was
designed by Renzo Piano, one of the architects of the Pompidou Center in
Paris, and it is striking. Its roof is an immense, broad staircase facing
the city, a marvelous place to soak up sun and take in the view. The
interior repeats the stair motif: each of the four floors is a large step,
punctured by broad staircases and balconies, so that the whole museum feels
like one open space. The tickets are magnetic-strip fare cards, which you
swipe to start up various exhibits.

But the New Metropolis also points up some of the pitfalls of mixing the
public and private realms. The museum was financed by a partnership between
the Government and a group of major energy, telecommunications and financial
companies; I found the exhibits confusing and poorly thought out, often
seeming to serve the agendas of the corporate backers. The ground floor is
dominated by a clumsy interactive banking game for children, neither fun nor
informative. And the electronic fare cards, which were supposed to keep
track of how I was doing, kept erasing my investments.

The best exhibit is a big pool on the Energy floor, where children can guide
radio-controlled model supertankers into multicolored plastic docks. The
educational value of this exercise is a bit unclear, but it's terrifically,
incontrovertibly fun. It challenges your skills. It responds instantly. It
gives you a sense of control.

And this, in the end, is what I like about Amsterdam's public technology: it
gives you a sense of control. The Web kiosks on the street, the
well-designed airport, the transit number: they all share a common goal --
they make the world intelligible, and give you power over it.

Sometimes on my way home from Amsterdam, as I navigate the chaotic cement
netherworld of J.F.K., I try to imagine what it would take to reshape New
York into a place where public technology makes the newcomer feel competent
and in control. By the time I'm fighting my way through the taxi line, I've
usually stopped thinking about it.

Stops in a cyber-friendly city


Where to Stay

I stayed at The Winston, a 67-room hotel at 129 Warmoesstraat; (31-20)
623-1380, fax (31-20) 639-2308. It's just off the Dam, Amsterdam's central
square, but also right at the edge of the red-light district. The Winston is
inexpensive ($75 to $82 for a double with private bath), and rather stark --
definitely for the low-budget traveler. You can check out the eight "artist
rooms" at; doubles, all with private baths, are $81. The
hotel has a laid-back bar, the Blauwlaken Lounge, on one side, and a rock
and dance club, the Winston Kingdom, on the other.

For a cozier custom-room experience, there is De Filosoof, 6 Anna van den
Vondelstraat; (31-20) 683-3013, fax (31-20) 685-3750. Most of the 25 rooms
are decorated with memorabilia of a different philosopher, others have a
cultural theme. The rooms all have private baths; doubles are $83.

And for those who must have their E-mail in-house, the Owl Hotel, at 1
Roemer Visscherstraat, (31-20) 618-9484, fax (31-20) 618-9441, provides
computers with access to the Internet. Doubles are $109.


There are some half-dozen cybercafes in Amsterdam. The Waag,,
(31-20) 422-7772, in the big castle in the middle of the Nieuwmarkt, has by
far the best atmosphere; the terminals are free, though you are asked to buy
a drink or snack. (There is a full restaurant serving lunch and dinner.) But
there tends to be a long wait for a computer. Open daily 10 A.M. to

The Mad Processor, at www, 82 Bloemgracht, (31-20)
421-1482, a 15-minute walk west of the city center, is cozy and friendly;
access to terminals, about $6 an hour. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 2 P.M. to
midnight; it gets crowded with rowdy game players about 10; coffee and soft
drinks only.

Where to Eat

Among the options for dinner is the Spanish restaurant Centra at 29 Lange
Niezel, (31-20) 622-3050, owned until recently by Felipe Rodriguez. Mr.
Rodriguez, a prominent Amsterdam hacker, made his fortune by starting the
Dutch Internet service provider XS4all. Where but Amsterdam would the
essential ingredients for a Net startup be the same as those for a good
restaurant? The restaurant serves such standard Spanish fare as tapas,
calamari ($10.50) and paella ($18).

Things to Do

For information on concerts sponsored by Steim, call them at (31-20)
622-8690 (Monday to Thursday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.) or visit www.xs4all

The third Next Five Minutes conference ( will be held at the
Waag and other Amsterdam venues from March 12 to 14. Next Five Minutes
focuses on "tactical media" -- the use of the Internet and other media for
alternative art and political activism. The conference will include
screenings and new-media events, and will be held partly in the Waag's
Theatrum Anatomicum. The Theatrum Anatomicum will also play host to events
related to the "Brandon" on-line art project ( in
late May or June. For information on "Brandon" and other events at the Waag,
check or call (31-20) 557-9898.

The "How Low Can You Go?" contest on March 12 will showcase ironic low-tech
takes on high-tech culture; it will be held in the Paradiso theater,, at 6-8 Weteringschans; (31-20) 626-4521.

For information on exhibits at New Metropolis, 2 Oosterdok, call (31-20)
531-3233 or visit www The museum is open daily 10 A.M. to 6 P.M.
Admission: $12.50, $8.50 for children under 16.

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