30 June 2012

Minitel Is No More

Does anyone remember the Minitel?

It was, as the BBC put it recently, the French Wide Web or more accurately, the Francenet that came before the Internet.

The BBC piece was very good in conveying how the project was both an extraordinary technical achievement - something France excelled at until quite recently-  and a disastrous commercial endeavor.

They introduced an outstanding product which relied on the most advanced digital infrastructure of that era (this is from memory, but almost 80 percent of French phone lines were digital in 1979 and their closest rival, I think the US,  had less than 20 percent).

And their finishing touch was to put it in a regulatory straight-jacket to prevent any innovation and entrepreneurial push.

But in its heyday, "Minitel connections were stable at 100 million a month plus 150 million online directory inquiries." More interestingly, "in 1986 French university students coordinated a national strike using Minitel, demonstrating an early use of digital communication devices for participatory technopolitical ends."

And today was the last day of Minitel.

I highly recommend the BBC piece if history of technology interests you. It is definitely not geeky and quite funny.

Besides all that, I found this line from Jacques Chirac ironic:
 "Today a baker in Aubervilliers knows perfectly how to check his bank account on the Minitel. Can the same be said of the baker in New York?"
You know why the line is ironic?

Today, if you have an account in a French bank your daily statement is two to three days behind schedule. ATM machines are known here as "Distributeur de Billets" which means the only transaction they allow is to withdraw money. You can't ask for your balance and the balance it shows at the end of a withdrawal is a couple of days old. No transfers between accounts, no deposits, no bill payments, nothing.

The other thing I found ironic in the fascinating saga of the Minitel was the irrepressible porn effect. Despite all the regulatory measures France Telecom took to remove from the system anyone who was not a press baron, something funny happened:
The most lucrative service turned out to be something no-one had envisaged - the so-called Minitel Rose.

With names like 3615-Cum (actually it's from the Latin for "with"), these were sexy chat-lines in which men paid to type out their fantasies to anonymous "dates", most of them sitting in the 1980s equivalent of call-centres.
If you want to see what the actual experience was click here

The reason why I found this ironic is the fact that most of the innovations in the commercialization of the Internet came from the porn industry.

People no longer remember that in the early days, the Internet was all text, just like the Minitel. The first method to send graphics files across the Internet was to use a UNIX program called uuencode that converted binary files (including graphics) into text. At the other end, you used another program called uudecode to see the content of the file.

Can you guess what was one of the first uses of this technology?

A David Letterman Top Ten List once ended with the line "Women have boobs, men are boobs" and that summarizes the whole idea behind this.

Porn industry also pioneered streaming video, online payment systems and a whole host of advances we take for granted today. And they would have been impossible if someone did not pay for their implementation. When I feel like an agent provocateur I tell people that without the porn industry there would have been no World Wide Web (or Internet as we know it).

People find it hard to accept because it does not jive with our image of ourselves as reasonable, nice and civilized people. But in reality, the role porn played in all this is a pretty good indicator that our lizard brain controls a lot more than we want to concede.

I have always been aware of this internal conflict in North America as the discrepancy between rhetoric and practice regularly dwarfs the Grand Canyon. But I thought France was different, as almost no one has a prudish discourse here.

This little history of Minitel showed me that the lizard brain is alive and doing well everywhere.

I just felt grateful that, at least, the French did not espouse a prudish rhetoric.

And "cum" remained a Latin preposition.

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