Breaching the 'Dam

Earlier in October I spent a week in Amsterdam, primarily to attend the first European Open Source Convention (OSCON), an thousand-euro-a-head three-day event organised by O'Reilly Media. It took place at the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, one of the finest hotels in the city. “When royalty come to Amsterdam”, I was told, “they stay at the Kras.”

The Grand Hotel had a suitably Grand Ballroom, where the (rather staccato, at fifteen minutes each) keynotes started each day at the bracing time of 8.45. But the presenters had to battle more than audience fatigue to get their message across; O'Reilly had rolled out a conference-wide, fast and free wireless network. Although it's not as if they had any choice; I suspect a significant proportion of attendees would put robust WiFi higher than running water on their list of conference must-haves.

Of course, a thousand euros is a lot of money. In reaction to that, and to the invitation-only nature of another O'Reilly event called Foo Camp, the community has started a series of grassroots get-togethers under the Bar Camp banner (“bar” follows “foo” in the canonical list of words hackers use when they need an temporary identifier for something). Bar Camp Amsterdam was held the day after OSCON at the offices of Mediamatic, a new media arts collective, in a soon-to-be-demolished tower block on the Amsterdam waterfront. This and other satellite events kept a hard core of free software people in the city for the entire week.

But by Saturday morning, the O'Reilly and Bar Camp WiFi was just a memory, and several of the group were going cold turkey. So after a lunch at a cafe, which cost slightly less than one third the price of breakfast at the Kras, we set off on a forty-five minute trek across the city. “How far will geeks go for bandwidth?” mused one of my companions.

Our destination was ASCII, the Amsterdam Centre for Subversive Information Interchange, a techo-squat which has had several premises over the past six years but is currently located in middle of a row of shops in an ethnically-diverse area of east Amsterdam. Importantly for our purposes, one of its roles is the nexus of an effort to roll out free community wireless across the city.

In the front window (re-glazed and specially reinforced by the new occupants after the ex-tenant of the place threw a bicycle through it) there were four recycled computers running Linux and Firefox, offering free Internet cafe facilities to anyone who walked in – although the coffee was instant and self-service.

We pushed open the door and moved past the computers towards the back of the shop. The shaven-headed youth behind the counter regarded our group of pasty-faced middle-class geeks with a look of indifference. “Yes?” “Er, hi. We heard about you guys from Mediamatic, and so we thought we'd come over and, er, check it out.” “Ah”. He seemed entirely unimpressed. “We're all free software people.” He raised an eyebrow. “Really? What free software?” “I work on Firefox, and these guys are Drupal”. He broke into a smile. “OK, cool. Welcome to ASCII.”

We sat down on a surprisingly smart sofa, underneath a stencilled black-on-yellow banner proclaiming “Free WiFi! Your keyboard is your weapon!”, and started to hack on our various projects, enjoying that particular sort of geek fellowship which comes from concentrating very hard on your computer in the presence of other people.

So, I asked the admin, does someone live here all the time? “Oh, no.” But can't they take the place back if there's no-one in? “Yeah, well technically we should have someone here all the time but in practice we don't.” And you aren't concerned about the owner? “Well, he's under investigation for drugs, and isn't allowed to start any new businesses. So we don't expect him to come round any time soon.” So you don't live here, then. “Of course not.” Clearly, his attitude seemed to say, no-one could be expected to live in such a place. “No,” he continued, “I live in another squat around the corner.”

(C) 2005 The Times

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