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  paris - annick morel

"parlez-vous l'internet"

For years, one of my best friends talked obsessively about his desire to set up a Minitel service called 36 15 DIEU, dieu meaning God and 36, 15 being the calling number for most Minitel services, an electronic service chat line available to the public for a mere $12 an hour. The anonymous nature of the medium, he argued, would permit the homebound elderly to confess their sins in the comfort of their own homes. I counseled my entrepreneurial friend that the elderly were not likely to have access to the Minitel in their homes, and, that even assuming they did, they probably wouldn't know how to use the device anyway. I insisted that the elderly were more apt to consider the Minitel some strange form of black magic rather than a convenient path to godliness. In any event, I tried to persuade my industrious friend that the Minitel, particularly its sex-laden messageries roses, was already a big confessional, where everybody confessed anything and everything with absolute impunity.

Why does this anecdote come to mind? The answer is an article I just read about a study conducted by French Canadian sociologist, François Bergeron, in which he concludes that the Web is the most egocentric place on earth. Bergeron, who sought to determine the number of times the words I,je,and yo (English, French, and Spanish) appeared on the Web using Altavista, learned that 76% of the pronouns used were either I, je or yo, while we and its equivalents in French and Spanish accounted for only 24% of such pronouns! Whether it's the Minitel or the Internet, it seems clear that the temptation to use an electronic medium to obsess about oneself is difficult to beat!

So what does the average French person think about the Internet? When the Internet issue comes up, let's say at a party, the crowd well-trained in polemics immediately begins to articulate the pros and cons of the new contraption. In the pros column, of course, you find those who already use the Internet, while those in the cons column have only heard about this new fangled phenomenon through the media. This time around, I will focus on the naysayers, who exhibit their very French perspective with respect to this subject.

It is important to keep in mind that the French have a very political attitude towards everything. The Internet, of course, is not spared this type of scrutiny. So the reactions of those in the cons column goes something like this: What, the Internet? That Anglo-Saxon, imperialistic medium imposed on us by the United States, with its insatiable appetite for cultural imperialism? Big Brother at its best! The most undemocratic tool ever developed, limited to an elitist, computer-literate minority!

These negatives are further compounded by the linguistic issue, which is a major obstacle in the Internet's acceptance by those opposed to its widespread use. For instance, the French President, Jacques Chirac, set the tone of the discussion by referring to the Internet as "this Anglo-Saxon medium." While it is true that once you're online you find yourself rather readily in an English-language web site, the more important issue raised is why aren't French-language web sites emerging quickly enough to provide alternatives to the English-language sites.

This leads us to another major issue regarding the Internet in France.

What is the French computing industry doing? The answer is: NOTHING! We don't have any Silicon Valley equivalent, no garage genius, not even garage sales. The only French hardware computer industry, Bull, a state-owned company, was and still is, a major fiasco, proving quite costly for the average tax-payer. In addition, an Internet-related software industry doesn't yet exist in France.

So what is going on with respect to the Internet in France. The answer is quite simple: sales of service subscriptions! Nothing is easier than obtaining an Internet subscription at a bargain price: unlimited connections for about $15/month. Unfortunately, the adage that you get what you pay for is also true here, where hot lines mean busy lines and where connections to your regular provider are highly unreliable.


shermozle said:

Minitel really is an amazing device. The French government's foresight and laissez-faire attitudes to censorship should set an example for other world governments contemplating new technologies. Because Minitel is ubiquitous, it's still immensely useful. You can book trains, see what's on at the movies, chat--just about everything that you'll be able to do on the Web someday soon. But it's all there now in all it's coloured ASCII glory! Until everything is online and everyone has a terminal, we won't see the amount of usefulness you get from Minitel on the Web.

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"The tiny screens and almost unworkable keyboards of the millions of Minitels now in use are clearly inadequate in the age of high-bandwidth communications and powerful desktop computers." - hlr

The French President, Jacques Chirac, set the tone of the discussion by referring to the Internet as "this Anglo-Saxon medium."


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In Paris, the giant new National Library has raised a mix of controversies and admiration from civic-minded Parisians, in this Jam report from Lionel Lumbroso.

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From Paris, Lionel Lumbroso surveys the less than scrupulous practices of bilking money from Minitel users.

internet enters education nationale
Meet a few of the dedicated civil servants behind France's National Education plan for connecting schools to the Internet.

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