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Taking a look at a fascinating “internet community” wedged in the historical and cultural hub that is the Sultan’s complex in Yogyakarta.
Kampoeng Cyber, which translates roughly from Indonesian to “Cyber Village,” is a small, densely packed neighbourhood of about 150 people located next to the famous Sultan’s palace, or Kraton, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The community has gained local notoriety for being one of the first in Indonesia to connect most of its residents to high-speed cable internet through their own initiative.
Since 2008 these denizens have consciously been building their identity around a pool of symbols that draw from their Javanese roots, batik-making skills, and now, their integration into the “high-tech” and “globalised” world. Now, a number of families make use of the internet to sell batik, advertise their fried chicken, or manage their fishing hobby groups. Social interactions are also increasingly mediated through social media.
One of the strongest motivating factors for starting Kampoeng Cyber, claims its elected leader, was to give locals a chance to compete economically with the larger, more successful batik and curio shops that line the main streets. The neighbourhood is literally built into part of the Sultan’s palace complex, and directly adjacent to the famous Taman Sari Watercastle, which was completed in the mid-18th century to serve, allegedly, as the Sultan’s personal bathing and resting area.
While the Watercastle and Kraton once attracted a large volume of tourists, the 1998 Asian financial crisis saw the collapse of the tourist and batik industries, forcing local residents to find new ways to make a living. The narrow alleyways leading to the rear entrance of the Watercastle no longer yielded sufficient tourist traffic to produce sustainable livelihoods.
Kampoeng Cyber now actively makes use of both urban space and cyber space to navigate its cultural, political, and economic identity in a post-reform context that has seen an increasing tendency for individual neighborhoods to develop independently of direct government support.
It’s fascinating to see how the geography and history of Taman Sari has influenced the manner in which the internet is perceived and used in Kampoeng Cyber.
The Kraton was designed as the symbolic center of the city of Yogyakarta, and originally conceived of as the cosmological center of the universe. The complex was built along a north-south axis that drew its power from Mount Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano, in the north, to the South Sea.
The city’s grid system, then, drew its orientation by aligning the main boulevards along this imaginary axis. Thus, the famed Malioboro street which was once the sultan’s main ceremonial thoroughfare and now constitutes the heart of the commercial and tourist district in Yogyakarta, runs south to north directly into the main entrance of the Kraton, and other main streets run east and west from the side gates of the palace.
The hundreds of densely populated neighbourhoods in the city, known as kampung, find themselves squeezed into the narrow alleyways encased within this original grid.
Above is a 3D animation of what Taman Sari looked like when originally constructed. The lakes have since been drained and houses built in their place.
Kampoeng Cyber was originally part of one of the kampung located inside the outer walls of the Kraton, and initially reserved for the homes of the Sultan’s staff known as abdi dalem. While the descendants of these workers inherited land, the droves of regular people who moved into the space once exclusively reserved for the Sultan have no land rights. They only borrow their lots in a system known as magersari.
Precariousness has defined the lives of those who live within the walls of the Kraton complex. While they identify strongly with the values of royal culture, which they often define as “sopan santun” or refinement, the uncertainty of when and if the government will re-appropriate their homes is a heavy burden.
One way for residents to improve their leverage in relation to the Kraton has been to take good care of their neighbourhoods, and to maintain the heritage sites and ruins that make up the Taman Sari Watercastle complex. For instance, the two neighbourhoods closest to Kampoeng Cyber have labeled themselves Kampung Hijau (Green Village) and Kampung Batik (Batik Village). Respectively, they maintain gardens and an environmentally friendly atmosphere, and hone their batik making skills and businesses to attract tourists. Their logic is that if they maintain their environment and attract tourism, the government will less likely see fit to appropriate their land for tourism projects.
The excess of signs associated with the early period of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, continues to saturate the streets of Yogyakarta with a nostalgic denial of the potential space for manoeuvrability within the specific symbolism associated with the founding of the city. As the government and tourist industry continue to market Yogyakarta as a traditional city with a valuable heritage worth preserving, attitudes about what it means to be Javanese in a constantly shifting urban social environment, must find spaces for negotiation outside of official narratives that attempt to stamp “Java” as timeless. Yet these spaces must sometimes open up in the tension-filled gaps immediately adjacent to some of the most powerful symbols of “Java” and of social inequality.