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The Real Cost of Information

The Internet is still a rather exotic tool of communication in France. A couple of months ago, at the opening of Paris Grande Bibliothèque, French President Jacques Chirac, betrayed his ignorance in front of a crowd of journalists by asking what a computer mouse was. At the recent world economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, France was ranked twentieth world-wide in the number of Internet users per thousand inhabitants. To create an alternative website under these circumstances, you need a stubborn optimism, a deep passion for the net, and a profound belief in what you do.

Aris Papatheodorou, co-founder of the "libertarian" website Samizdat, definitely has these three qualities. "We don't qualify as anarchists, but rather as independents. The great majority of our subscribers do not identify with any ideology, but do consider themselves to be politically to the left of the established left." With a big smile, he offers coffee, explaining why he really needs some: he was out late the night before, postering neighborhood walls with signs protesting France's proposed immigration legislation. Aris is a man of action; his fight is not merely virtual.

"So what is 'Samizdat'? Does the name imply a Russian connection?"

"Samizdat refers to the clandestine press in the former USSR. We first used it in the early nineties, when we were issuing a very confidential bulletin, based on information we got by connecting to various European BBSs. This was part of the European Counter Network (ECN) -- a group of European people with a similar libertarian approach to politics. ECN currently exists in Denmark, Holland, Germany, England, Spain and Italy and the Canada."

As Aris summarizes them, those years were mostly dedicated to exploring the many aspects of communication.

For all countries with an ECN group -- Holland (Xcess4all), England (Contraflow), Spain (UPA), Italy (Isolarenet) and France (Samizdat) -- 1995 was the year of the Internet.. "We didn't want our website to be linked to any organization. Nor did we want to be a newspaper with an Internet address: the idea was to provide a "container" that would hold many and various expressions of ideas -- sometimes converging, but not organically linked," explains Aris.

So the French Samizdat was created in September 1995. In December of that year, France was paralyzed by a wave of strikes, which eventually spread to the civil service. All public services were shut down. The majority of the working population supported the strike, showing a general disapproval of the government.

Here, Aris's eyes sparkle: "When the December protest began, we saw an opportunity to test a lot of propositions about communication, things that we had been discussing in the abstract for years. The strike gave us the push we needed to really do something. For us the Internet had a lot of inherently interesting qualities, like speed and the relative horizontal leveling of communication, but more importantly, we regarded the Internet as a tool. Our interest was not in the Internet for the Internet's sake, but in how we could use this tool.

"So we started sending information to the universities on strike. We found out that Internet access was very limited in French universities. But we later learned that individual students would print the data we put out and post it on the walls of their schools. Ironically, in December 1995 the main communication tool was the fax: suddenly, French university people and civil servants discovered what the Tiananmen Chinese students had discovered five years before."

How has Samizdat evolved since then?

"We have a much more precise idea of what we want to do. We know that the Internet is not a tool that causes action. What we try to explain now in our manifesto is that the most radical act we can accomplish is to give people access to communication and give them the possibility to take ownership of it; we agree to play the role of the obstetrician of history, as Big Charles (de Gaulle) would have said, but we don't want to be a press agency that broadcasts information. We want to work with social experiments, to give people electronic means of communication. Our first idea was to create a "container" for various groups who would manage their own space, while we would manage Samizdat and ECN. But only two of us know the HTML language, and it's a lot of work.

"We don't want to recreate middlemen. We're looking for exactly the opposite: autonomy."

What does the future of ECN and Samizdat look like?

"Our new resolution is to complete whatever we start, which was not the case before. We have to archive and reference the content of our mailing list -- that's very important. We're thinking again about developing a free BBS here for people who can't access the Internet, along with an FTP site, using Intranet technology. We're producing hypertext information in Italian and French, keeping the hypertext aspect of our respective sites on diskettes.

We have to encourage people to connect their sites into what is at stake for them in reality, and not to become net rats -- like you have library rats. I'm optimistic about the net's capacity for unselfish forms of mutual assistance and solidarity, what the Americans call 'fair use,' a true community spirit that gives me hope."


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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Aris Papatheodorou

"We don't want to recreate middlemen. We're looking for exactly the opposite: autonomy."


Samizdat icon.

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