Perhaps nothing is more difficult to categorize or quantify than that which takes place in cyberspace. To a large extent, the clout of a region or city in the virtual world depends on public relations.

Los Angeles, a city with a woeful P.R. infrastructure and a weak media culture, has not fared well in the process. In terms of coverage, the region has tended to be seen as a kind of digital desert, or has simply gone unrecognized compared to far smaller high-tech economies like New York, Seattle and Austin, Texas.

Yet recent statistics reveal a city and a region that are far more vibrant in cyberspace than the media, particularly nationally, would lead one to suspect. What L.A. lacks in exposure in the Bay Area- and New York-dominated high-tech press, it makes up with in actual activity.

One interesting measurement can be seen in terms of domain names, which gives a sense of grassroots Web-related action. In this accounting, Los Angeles and particular parts of L.A. come out quite strong, more so than many places often cast as far more important cyber centers.

Domain-name leader

First, let's look at the absolute numbers, as compiled by Network Solutions. Los Angeles-Long Beach actually has more domain names than any other metropolitan area in the country. Southern California cities are well represented among the top 25 in the nation in terms of registered domain names, starting with the city of Los Angeles and extending to Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Irvine. In fact, more L.A.-area cities appear on the list than cities in either greater New York or the Bay Area.

Perhaps even more revealing, particularly in terms of understanding the region's digital geography, are the rankings per capita. Here, Los Angeles as a region ranks a respectable 11th, behind San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Boulder, Colo. and Orange County, but well ahead of such large-scale competitors as New York the self-styled "capital of e" and Dallas.

Not surprisingly, the Westside is well represented in the top 25 nationally led by boutique havens Beverly Hills, which ranks second, and Santa Monica, as well as El Segundo, the airport industrial park that masquerades as a city. These communities draw largely on the area's deep pool of highly skilled talent, which makes Los Angeles arguably the most under-appreciated and underreported cyber-capital in the nation.

This pattern should not be surprising. Because digital industries have the advantage of being able to locate not where they must, but where they please, they usually gravitate to attractive locales, usually with highly upscale demographics. This includes list leader Princeton, N.J., Mill Valley and Los Altos in the Bay Area, as well as Naples and Boca Raton, Fla., and Golden, Colo.

The other L.A. player is Calabasas, which is representative of another kind of cyber center the high-tech nerdistans. These are newer, more antiseptic areas often preferred by scientists, engineers and other assorted data-oriented geeks. This environment includes Irvine, another Southern California center on the list, Silicon Valley and places like Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

What emerges, then, is a picture of a region that has numerous high-tech nodes, on a level very much similar to far more ballyhooed cyber centers.

Certain parts of Southern California are clearly benefiting more from the emergence of cyberspace than others. A look at the pattern of real estate values in Santa Monica, for example, compared to the south L.A. industrial heartland, is illustrative.

But despite this "digital divide," Los Angeles as a whole is far more cyber-oriented than one might suspect. With nearly half its adult population using the Internet, L.A. ranks toward the top in terms of percentage of adult users, outdistanced only by a handful of smaller places such as San Francisco, Austin, Seattle, Denver and Salt Lake City. Los Angeles leads most of the other mega-cities, including e-darling New York, by a considerable margin.

L.A. culture and the Net

This is no mean achievement given the fact that so large a portion of L.A.'s population largely ghetto residents and new immigrants live disconnected from cyberspace. It suggests that educated Angelenos may actually be among the most Internet-oriented people on the planet, more so than residents of the designated cyber capitals.

Why would this be? As the German magazine Geo recently suggested, Los Angeles, with its numerous poles and lack of a center, seems perfectly suited for the chaos and lack of structure characteristic of the Net. The city is indeed one of random access, as opposed to a hierarchical city.

Angelenos go to the Net, I suspect, because it solves many of the problems associated with this city the vast scale, the anonymity of so many communities, the enormous traffic problems, the lack of a coherent narrative vision for the place. All these factors make the Net perhaps more vital to Angelenos than to residents of smaller, more-compact places, such as New York, San Francisco or Seattle, where the city can be experienced more easily on the brick-and-mortar level.

This sense of Los Angeles as a digitally oriented metropolis may be a hard sell to the Eastern media and their Bay Area imitators, who will forever stigmatize the place as a combination of Tinseltown and suburban dystopia. Too bad they rarely follow the precept of that great L.A. figure, Sgt. Joe Friday: "Just the facts, ma'am."

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