The Minitel: France’s 1980s “Internet”

Monday, March 3rd, 2014 by brandontruett

Earlier this week I entered the MAL with not much direction. After tinkering with MS-DOS on one of the portable Compaq computers, having merely changed the machine’s time, I enlisted Lori’s help, and she gave me the Minitel, a French personal computer that accessed the Internet before the World Wide Web. Because I wasn’t able to power on the computer (it’s no longer operational), Lori emailed me a book by Marie Marchand that detailed the success of the Minitel. I was quite surprised to learn that the Minitel symbolizes an alternative history to accessing the Internet as we do today. When it was introduced in 1982, the Minitel did not have the typical QWERTY keyboard but rather it arranged the keys alphabetically, the argument being that all users would be on equal footing. While reading Marchand’s account of the Minitel, I was struck by her invocation of publics and egalitarianism. Taking into account the Minitel, Valerie Schafer proclaims that “[t]he world did not begin with the internet” (qtd. in Schofield). I began to reflect on how excavating the history of the Minitel could pluralize and perhaps derail the teleological and progressive history of the Internet, of the world going online together. The current blog post participates in Kittlerian notions of media history as characterized by ruptures rather than continuity. This machine evidences an uneven geography of technological access, thereby undermining notions of geopolitical equality that accompany the popular history of the Internet.

Moreover, the Minitel has only just been discontinued in 2012; according to Hugh Schofield of the BBC, “the whole Minitel adventure can be seen as a typical French experience. Only in France could the public resources have been mobilised to give the project its initial boost. So for a few years, the country was the envy of the world.” Indeed, one might interpret the Minitel as a technological representation of French nationalism, whereby the country entered a race with the rest of the world to go online. As a kind of triumphant mark of socialistic policy, the Minitel was distributed to French households for free by state-owned France Telecom, and allowed users to host their own services. The users had the ability to craft their own public in which to interact when one another and to do so anonymously. The Minitel connected the user to a secure network via a phone line, allowing him or her to book train tickets, inquire into bank accounts, check the weather, et cetera. More scandalous, the Minitel also introduced cybersex and pornography, allowing the user to correspond with paramours via text messages.

While I was ultimately saddened by not having the ability to use the Minitel in the MAL, I think the process of uncovering its history indicates a media-archaeological method. Even though I didn’t go under the hood nor did I fiddle with its software, the machine reminds us of the flawed “idea of inexorable, quasi-natural, technical progress” (Zielinski 3).

Works Cited

Marchand, Marie. A French Success Story: the Minitel Saga. Canada: Larousse, 1988.

Schofield, Hugh. “Minitel: The rise and fall of the France-wide web.” BBC News. 27 June 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18610692

Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media. Trans. Gloria Custance. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.

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One comment on “The Minitel: France’s 1980s “Internet”

  1. angelarovak says:

    I have been attempting to remember where I read about the Minitel before, but alas I cannot place my finger on it! It was most definitely in the context of it originating as an update-able phone book and national directory of sorts. Perhaps some reading on surveillance, census gathering, registering citizens… Regardless, what it brings to mind is the ability for technology to be used to document and follow people, making their demographic information and location not only available to dominate powers but also to fellow citizens. A tracking device? A technology of submission and surveillance? While this may be a more cynical take on the device which you spin as an exciting alternative to the dominate narrative about the rise of the internet and a subversive effort of France to have a self-contained national network, I can’t help but think of how digitizing information in any form arose from and continues to act as a way to catalog and monitor people.

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