Walter van der Cruijsen on Tue, 10 Aug 1999 19:31:48 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Even after the take-over, XS4ALL still belongs to the nerds!


Even after the take-over, XS4ALL still belongs to the nerds!

Idealism rules OK at KPN-xs4all, by Florentijn van Rootselaar
(daily TROUW, Amsterdam, August 6, 1999)

They're running a closed chat-channel & are on it all day long. "Even
after work, in the evening" says Sjoera Nas, who works with Internet
provider XS4ALL.  "And we talk about 'Life, the Universe and Everything',
as Douglas Adams, the writer of absurd SF-stories, put it. We talk about
problems with the network, but also about life in general."  But at the
same time this happy bunch is giving support to B92, the independent
Serbian radio station. 

At xs4all Sjoera Nas is responsible, among other things, for the
protection of the users' privacy.  Against the prying fingers of what she
calls "the Crocodile Dundees" at the Police department, for instance. 

She arranged a skying holiday with two other colleagues over the xs4all
chat channel. "And to-night, we're going to the movies with a number of
us, and of course, this also was arranged over the internal network" 
They're going to watch 'eXistenZ', not surprisingly a film about a virtual
world of computer games. Doke Pelleboer, xs4all's freshly appointed
interim director, and probably the only person there wearing a tie, does
follow the chats 'with interest', but has not taken an active part yet. 

Could be due to the age difference.  Pelleboer, 51, is more of a _pater
familias_ for xs4all.  Lunch at the office is also something of a family
affair: execs, staff and secretaries, all seat together around the big

Pelleboer's father role stems not only from his years and his position as
director of xs4all. He's coming from the stately KPN-telecom, and they've
recently acquired xs4all, a surprising move from a company which Nas says
used to be known as 'the Bully'.  Xs4all itself originates in the (Dutch)
hackers movement, people who intrude into computer networks in order to
gather all kind of information, often for a good cause. But who also enjoy
breaking in for the sheer love of secret codes. 

These hackers were publishing _Hack Tic_ magazine. Old copies are still to
be found in xs4all offices. One encounters how to articles on _lock
picking_ for instance: how to open doors without keys, but also without
using brute force, only self-made tools.  Lock picking is not intended for
thieves, but for people intent on peeking around somewhere without leaving
traces. The mag writes proudly about one of the editor spending a night
poking around in a police station. 

The people working at xs4all still do not conform to the image of your
average employee.  Men sport long hair and earrings, and few have actually
completed their academic courses.  The same applies to the 'members' -
xs4all knows no customers - who are seldom conservatives. Says Pelleboer:
"there is quite some overlap between our members and the eco-progressive
party".  People who want to be member of an organisation that supports
free media, such as B92 for instance.  No wonder that protests were rife
when KPN-Telecom took over. The commercial giant would certainly make
short shrifts of xs4all's idealism. 

Pelleboer says he very much appreciates the autonomy (xs4all was granted
absolute independance from KPN in policy matters for a period of three
years as part of the take-over deal, translator) and the maverick attitude
of xs4all, but wants also to rein it a little, since "somewhere along the
continuum, autonomy may flip into unworldliness". A tour along the
premises leads along a number of smoking dens, which turn out to be
carefully replicated filmdecors.  For instance the tobbaconist's in 'Blue
in the Face', and 'Smoke', well known from the scene where Jim Jarmush is
smoking his last cigarette.  An other smoking den is inspired by the world
of 'Accion Mutante', a totally obscure SciFi reel that never made it to
the Dutch movie-houses.  That comes a no surprise to the few people
actually knowing what the film is about: a group of men sneaking out of
Earth on a spaceship looking for a planet without women.  They crash, upon
which their vessel is slowly transformed in a seedy booze and fag

Pepijn Kok is the quick-witted and talkative occupant of one such smoking
den. Sporting spectacular piercings, he stretches on the back of a sofa
and tells me that "he doesn't experience all the time he's at xs4all as
work".  No wonder the personnel turn-over is fairly low. Kok is now with
xs4all's helpdesk, after dropping out from two academic studies,
psychology and medical biology. Like most employees at xs4all, Kok never
had any formal job training, but learned through experience.  The company
has in fact very few 'real' IT people on its staff, but employs instead
mostly computer-hobbyists, nerds, and as one of the female staffers calls
them, 'nerdettes'. 

The filmworld in the xs4all building, and the closed chat channel are in
fact an Internet in miniature. Internet is also a whirlpool of
information, it is rife with conversations about 'Life, the Universe and
Everything', just as what's going on within the walls of xs4all offices.
Xs4all - pronounce "Access For All" - wants to do exactly what its name
says: to provide Internet access to everybody.  And to B92 for instance:
when the sender was closed down for a time in 1996, xs4all arranged a
direct digital link with The Netherlands, so that texts and music could be
made available over the Internet. Then the BBC picked up the signal and
re-broadcasted the information via satellite over the Balkans. 

B92's motto is 'Don't trust anyone, not even us', was apposite, says Nas:
Milosevic's government took over the station relatively quietly in april,
and put in a puppet leadership. In the beginning, it looked like nothing
had changed: the jingles were the same for instance.  Xs4all installed a
new _site_ for B92, which was filled in by members from the original team
sending their contributions from various places across the world. 

Idealism is on the rise. PR-wise, it is far more effective to support an
independent radio station than to spend millions on ads. But a quick round
amidst the people at xs4all learns that this is not a sale gimmick.
Granted, there are a number of employees who don't give a damn about the
company's idealism. Their chief stake is the 'geek tech'.  But to many,
support for independent media is an important incentive to work for
xs4all. The take-over by KPN-Telecom notwithstanding, ideals survive and
thrive at xs4all. Even though the stories in Hack-Tic are slowly turning
into the stuff of legend that everybody likes to preserve. 

Published in the daily Trouw, which retains the copyright, also of this
translation by Patrice Riemens. 

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