Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll, authors of the book Minitel, answer some questions posed by Platform Studies series editors, Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost. Mailland and Driscoll will be speaking at the Comparative Media Studies colloquium on Thursday, September 21st.
Your book looks closely at how Minitel was not only a revolutionary communications system and computing platform, but also a particularly French one. Can you sketch out a few ways in which Minitel was unlike what the BBC and British entrepreneurs were doing across the channel, and what was happening with popular computing in the US?
The designers of Minitel embraced a hybrid architecture that balanced the public and private interests in the platform. Contemporary videotex systems such as Prestel in the UK and BTX in Germany mimicked a broadcast media model in which central servers overseen by state agencies hosted all of the system’s content. In contrast, private organizations maintained the majority of Minitel services. State agencies merely oversaw the routing and billing of connections between end-user terminals and privately owned servers. This arrangement gave Minitel developers a lot of freedom in their selection of tools. While state officials certainly hoped that entrepreneurs would choose a locally made machine like the Honeywell-Bull Level 6 minicomputer, Minitel services could be built on any machine with a suitable operating system. Computers by IBM, DEC, AT&T, and even the Commodore and Atari were used as Minitel hosts.
In the US, meanwhile, access to publicly funded networks like NSFNET was limited to a lucky few with a connection to a military, university, or corporate research organization. The rest of us were at the mercy of the private sector to provide a large-scale social computing platform. Lacking the central coordination of Minitel, the market for online services in the US fragmented into mutually incompatible walled garden: CompuServe, Quantum Link, the Source, Prodigy, GEnie, etc. The problem of fragmentation was further compounded by a double-dipping business model that required users to pay both a monthly subscription fee and a per-minute toll. Getting online was expensive! Although several hundred thousand Americans subscribed to an online service in the 1980s, relatively few could afford more than one.
Fragmentation extended to content providers as well, meaning that each system offered a different (and unstable) menu of games, bulletin boards, databases, and news feeds. As the number of sites and services on Minitel skyrocketed—reaching more than 25,000 by the early 1990s—competition among walled gardens created confusion that drove away would-be users and gave content providers cold feet. The dotcom explosion of the late 1990s revealed a pent-up enthusiasm for online services that went untapped for nearly two decades.
Minitel’s standard platform for online services reflected a long tradition of centralization in France—in the design of roadways, provision of media, and structure of the State itself. France Telecom made an end-run around the early adoption problem by giving Minitel terminals away to anyone with a phone line. At a moment when home computers were rare and expensive, anyone in France could pick up an interactive video terminal from the local post office, free of charge. There was no upfront cost to use the system and curiosity-seekers could explore public services such as the electronic phonebook (l’annuire éléctronique) free of charge. With this built-in audience of potential users, entrepreneurs flocked to the system, enthusiastically expanding the French cyberspace. And with every new connection, the State took a small slice of the revenue, resulting in a steady profit for both industry and the government.
Once we start to understand the Minitel as French, can it help us understand US institutions such as the kit computer, the “appliance” computer, the bulletin board system, and so on, as being particularly American?
Tracing the cultural values embedded in Minitel allows us to reflect on the role of technology in moments of social change. On election night in 1981, the victory of socialist candidate François Mitterand was announced on TV using the blocky graphics characteristic of a videotex terminal. In these early years of the Mitterand presidency, Minitel came to symbolize a new, high-tech future for France. Political elites and everyday citizen alike could draw inspiration from the little glowing box.
At the same time, the technical culture of hobby computing offered a different vision of the future. Although the computing hobby was not uniquely American, Silicon Valley remained at the center of microcomputing’s imagined geography. Kit building, made-to-order peripherals, and hackable software created a bridge between the computing industry—then dominated by time-sharing, data processing, and other Big Iron—and the rich tradition of technical hobbies such as model rocketry, audiophilia, and amateur radio. Computing seemed poised to reinvigorate American ingenuity and self-reliance; the PC as a 21st century Winchester.
But there was nothing inherently individualist or American about hobby computing. As it emerged in different parts of the world, the microcomputer was held up like a shiny 8-bit mirror, reflecting the hopes, dreams and visions of a wide range of local communities. In France, the visibility of Minitel shaped the culture and technology of microcomputing. French micros such as the Oric Telestrat and Telmi Périminitel combined the communication features of a standard Minitel terminal with the volatile memory and CPU of a generally programmable PC. Hobby computing magazines such as Science et Vie Micro routinely featured articles explaining how to combine a micro with a Minitel, further blurring the boundaries between the two phenomena.
To understand the reinvention of computing during the 1970s and 1980s, we must search beyond the Silicon Valley enclave. People living under a variety of political, economic, and cultural regimes imagined different futures for their microcomputers. In the recent book Hacking Europe, the authors follow the flow of people, ideas, and devices across borders and through (or around) institutions. Machines produced in the UK found their way to computer clubs in East Germany, magazines published in the US were read by enthusiasts in Poland, and programs written by teenagers in Finland served as inspiration to store owners in Greece. These interwoven histories recast hobby computing as a fundamentally transnational phenomenon that benefited from, as well as contributed to, the globalization of media technology during the last fifty years.
The follow-up to those two questions: Is there anything that seems more or less culturally universal, or at least something that seems to apply very widely, that you see highlighted by the design and use of Minitel?
Efficiency was a recurring source of conflict in the history of Minitel. In fact, the tussle over efficiency seems to lie at the heart of the tension between public and private interests in telecommunications. For example, the regional bureaucracies charged with overseeing Minitel could be painfully slow in providing simple services such as the creation of a new electronic address (e.g., 3615 NAVY). Unsurprisingly, this administrative inefficiency opened the door for line-cutting, back-scratching, and other forms of petit corruption.
Yet, the history of Minitel also illuminates the problem with a single-minded pursuit of efficiency in technology design. In 1985, France Telecom introduced a new Minitel feature, intended to shorten the time it took to restart an interrupted session. Functioning much like the “cookies” in our web browsers, this new feature kept a small snapshot of your last session in memory, enabling you to resume a lost connection right where you left off.
Instead of celebrating the cost-saving new feature, however, users were horrified. A prominent consumer reports magazine called the new Minitel “a snitch in the house” and compared it to the Orwell’s Big Brother. Thousands of angry minitelistes returned their terminals in protest. Administrators scrambled to control the damage, quickly rolling back the update and removing the new feature.
The Minitel cookie controversy is a neat case study in the challenges that face any mass-scale social computing system. Where engineers saw an uncontroversial boost in efficiency, users experienced a violation of their privacy. The Minitel case had a happy ending for users but unfortunately, today’s platform providers seem less inclined to roll back unpopular changes.
What do you think we’re missing today, in the advanced networked environment we have, that Minitel offered to users in its heyday?
Minitel was a mass-scale social computing system assembled in the public interest. This commitment to serving the people of France shaped many components of the system, sometimes to the detriment of its technical development. When computer networks mediate public culture, the public has a stake in the regulation of online speech, citizenship, and commerce. Facebook and Google may not want us to see it this way, but platforms and states share many of the same governance challenges, and the consequences of their decisions are just as real.
One of the key roles of the state in overseeing Minitel was to facilitate the resolution of conflicts. All of the administrative decisions regarding Minitel were subject to due process and could be appealed in a court of law. Today, the subscribers of Amazon, Apple, and Paypal have no similar avenue for redress. The courtroom process in 1980s France might have been slow, messy, and imperfect—in other words, inefficient—but it offered a mechanism by which private individuals could protest the decisions made by Minitel administrators. Can we even imagine such a transparent, justice-oriented process for users of Instagram?
An equally pressing concern at the level of infrastructure is the lack of a reliable net neutrality policy in the US. Whereas other countries have taken steps to define fairness in the circulation of information on privately owned networks, regulators in the US have failed to adopt and accept a policy that will ensure the generativity of the internet into the future.
By turns fascinating and funny, the history of Minitel offers a valuable addition to the well-known histories of Cold War computing and Silicon Valley entrepreneurship. It offers a lived example of a mass-scale social computing platform operated in the public interest. Instead of stifling innovation, the French state provided a reliable platform for the creation of new, independent sites and services. Ironically, perhaps, Al Gore’s vision of an “information superhighway” was first realized by Minitel, a public infrastructure for private innovation.