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Web 2.0 and beyond Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll.
Minitel: Welcome to the Internet.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2017.
cloth, 240 pp., ISBN 978–0–262–03622–1, $US35.00.
MIT Press: https://mitpress.mit.edu

 


 

Très bien! Enfin, a book about Minitel for the rest of us. This highly readable page-turner destroys several myths about Minitel, and properly establishes it as a proper précurseur of the Internet and especially the World Wide Web. Indeed, we — collectively the Web and Internet users of today — could learn much from Minitel’s successes, and especially from this book as a guide to Minitel’s rise and acceptance. Policy-makers, at the highest levels, in Washington, London, Brussels, and elsewhere (even Paris) should ponder Minitel’s deployment, use, and even eventual extinction in 2012; this book provides entrée to Minitel’s history within byzantine French bureaucracies, without befuddlement. The death of Minitel, its disappearance from millions of French homes and offices, presents a timely reminder that even the Web, in its current chaotic state, could be something much different and better.

In seven concise chapters, with 32 black-and-white illustrations, Mailland and Driscoll open by explaining network and computer terminologies, à la Minitel, and briefly outlining Minitel’s deployment strategies and philosophy in the pre-Minitel, primitive telecommunications infrastructure of France. Minitel was inspirational and transformational, moving France quickly from a horrific state of telecommunications and computer development, with American (notably IBM) and other foreign computer corporations ready to hijack the French state with proprietary hardware and software. One could make the extreme argument that Minitel was a formal salvo against cosmopolitanism, pernicious technological influences from outside la belle France.

Minitel was indeed open within the bureaucratic context of Postes, télégraphes et téléphones (PTT). How else could Minitel rose succeed and thrive? Indeed, the profits of Minitel rose provided the financial support for many other services without the pink connotation. Michel Landaret, self-proclaimed inventor of les messageries, noted that rose revenue “was considered a cash machine.” [p. 109]

The financial success of Minitel, as this book repeatedly demonstrates, was based on its miraculous ability to manage millions of French francs in the form of many, many micropayments. These micropayments translated into real mega-profits: “... a small messagerie, averaging 150 hours of connection per day, would gross 173,250 francs per month --- this is over 2 million francs per year.” [p. 99] Thanks to a handy conversion table [p. 157], that works out to be $US41,580/month or almost a half a million U.S. dollars per year. Not bad for a system pooh-poohed in some circles in the United States as closed, economically untenable, and devoid of content.

Minitel’s success has been recognized by some luminaries, such as Robert Cailliau, co-creator of the World Wide Web at CERN (or Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire). Cailliau has repeatedly pointed to Minitel’s micropayment strategies as a model for the Web, to control content and provide a modicum of income for content providers other than the monstrous media behemoths. Indeed, Minitel, if unbound by telecommunications monopolies in Europe and elsewhere, would have been the most significant information network in the world, according to Cailliau [1].

One could argue that Minitel might have only worked in France — but I doubt it. Complaints about the digital divide in the United States might be a distant memory if the U.S. Postal Service and the Federal Communications Commission decided to give every American an Internet–connected computer, complete with software, easy instructions for use, and human support. With an efficient system of micropayments, Ameritel (or whatever it might be named) could erase the U.S. Postal Service’s annual losses of billions of dollars [2], plus generate incredible growth for American computer, telecommunications, and information industries. There would be serious political credit for politicians, policy-makers, and bureaucrats for wiping out digital barriers — at least at a very rudimentary level.

In summary, this book should be required reading for any policy wonk, digital historian, captain of a digital industry, and student in the computer sciences. The future of the Internet and the Web indeed may be hidden in plain view in the delicious history of Minitel. En français, formidable. In English, incredible. — Edward J. Valauskas, Chief Editor and Founder, First Monday. End of article

 

Notes

1. For an example of Cailliau’s comments, see Christopher Watts, 1999. “Bring in the cyberpolice,” Forbes (18 October), at https://www.forbes.com/global/1999/1018/0221020a.html, accessed 26 August 2017.

2. On the U.S. Postal Service deficit, see, for example, Ryan W. Miller, 2017. “Debt-plagued U.S. Postal Service eyes bipartisan bill to solve woes,” USA Today (1 March), at https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2017/03/01/debt-plagued-us-postal-service-eyes-bipartisan-bill-solve-woes/97944594/, accessed 26 August 2017, as well as U.S. General Accounting Office, 2016. “U.S. Postal Service: Financial challenges continue” (21 January), at http://www.gao.gov/assets/680/674728.pdf, accessed 26 August 2017.

Copyright © 2017, First Monday.

Book review of Minitel: Welcome to the Internet
by Edward J. Valauskas.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 9 - 4 September 2017
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/8074/6533
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i19.





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