Minitel. Welcome to the Internet

Mailland, Julien; Driscoll, Kevin
Cambridge, MA 2017: The MIT Press
Anzahl Seiten
240 S.
$ 35.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Gabriele Balbi, Institute of Media and Journalism, Università della Svizzera italiana, Lugano

The history of the Internet, like that of other digital technologies such as computers or mobile phones, is a growing subject in media studies, the history of technology, contemporary history, business history, and other disciplines. Internet Histories, for example, is a journal launched in 2017, researching the past of the net, and other journals focusing on digital culture, like New Media and Society, frequently host historical pieces.

The book Minitel. Welcome to the Internet, written by Julien Mailland and Kevin Driscoll, two prominent historians of digital culture, is part of this trend. The authors reconstruct the pre-history of the Internet in France focusing on the so-called Minitel, a videotext system launched at the beginning of the 1980s. The Minitel was fueled by a report written in 1978 by two French consultants, Simon Nora and Alain Minc, which contained the idea that telematics (the combination of telecommunications and informatics) would help France to achieve an “information society”. The Minitel was then sponsored by the French government, especially by the Ministry of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone and the monopolist France Telecom. The state delivered millions of terminals free of cost to the telephone subscribers who asked for it. In 1991, according to the authors, one-fifth of French telephone subscribers owned a Minitel terminal (p. 10), most of them concentrated in the large cities.

Users could access various types of content. The Minitel was originally conceived as a digital phone book; instead of leafing through the paper version, subscribers could find the phone numbers of any French telephone subscriber with a simple computer search. Indeed, the Minitel terminal basically looked like a home computer at a time when personal computers were not common in French and European homes. Subscribers could access public service information such as transportation timetables or weather forecasting, but the real revolution came in 1984 when a billing and rebate system called Kiosk (le kiosque) was introduced – a name referring to traditional newsstands. With the Kiosk, France Telecom gave private companies the possibility to promote their commercial services on Minitel, changing its nature. From now on, the Minitel started to be “a platform for the development of services by third parties rather than a service provider itself” (p. 147). Content providers could not easily find a business model, advertising was not profitable and, like the Web today, it was not easy to make users pay for services and advertising. Several possibilities were experimented with, such as different prefixes: “The prefix 3613 indicated a toll-free service fully subsidized by the content provider […] 3614 indicated a partially subsidized connection […]. Users of 3615 paid up to 1.25 francs per minute – one-third of which would be kept by France Telecom and two-thirds rebated to the content provider” (p. 139). But even with paid services, subscribers adopted various techniques for avoiding charges. The Minitel also became a place in which protesters created virtual rooms for discussion, reminding of the more recent mythology of the Web linked to the Arab Spring and the use of Twitter to coordinate the revolts. Probably the most popular content of the Minitel was the so-called messageries, chatrooms used by subscribers to communicate and, particularly, the messageries roses, erotic chats used also by sex workers to promote their services.

Even if this is the first book on Minitel written in English (there are, for example, previous and detailed studies on this subject by Valérie Schafer and Benjamin Thierry in French)1, there are other reasons to consider it a relevant work in the field of digital media history. First of all, it is a study based on extensive archival research. The authors explored the archives of France Telecom/Orange, the National Archives, the National Library of France, and several other institutions as well as several magazines. They also interviewed 30 historical protagonists including engineers and administrators within France Telecom, hackers, industry lobbyists, and journalists.

Secondly, this is a book exploring new historiographic routes. The authors always try to refer to contemporary debates and aim to “use” history to retrace the origins of contemporary issues in digital culture. This method can be helpful, but, as historians know, comparing past facts with present realities risks falling into anachronism. The authors avoid this danger and carefully consider the differences between the two different time periods. Historiographically, the book has another merit in that it deals with failure. Even though the Minitel was shut down in 2012, and thus previous Internet historiography considered it a “failed” medium, Mailland and Driscoll reject this point of view given that it lasted much longer than the American Arpanet and was very popular among users and in French society (so much, in fact, that ceremonies, conferences, parties, and art exhibitions were organized to bid Minitel farewell in 2012). This book makes clear how failures can be successful; the Minitel brought French society into the “information age”, helped the digitization of the country, and made home computers and informatics familiar to users.

The third reason that makes the book stand out is that it is an attempt to de-Americanize Internet history. The authors write an “alternative story” of the Internet, in which Arpanet, the US Army, the American universities, and the counter-culture in Silicon Valley are not center stage. At the center of this narration there is the European model, specifically the French one, made of public subsidies and of a different vision of the telephone and computer networks.

There is a good reason to mention the telephone network here: this book is part of a recent discovery of the value of the telephone in the history of digital media. The two authors have also studied alternative uses of the telephone (Kevin Driscoll, for example, has focused on the history of the BBS, the Bulletin Board System)2 and this book is a contribution to rethinking media history in intermedia and telephonic terms. New media like the Internet do not arise unexpectedly, rather they use or re-use previous media, metaphors, and ideas. We have already mentioned the “kiosk” borrowing its name from newsstands, Minitel terminals mimicking early home computers, and the whole Minitel network being initiated to digitize the classic telephone book. The Minitel was a telephone-based technology, expanding its uses but always rooted in the culture of the telephone.

Finally, the book proposes at least two new interpretations of Minitel history, contributing to contemporary theoretical debates. On the one hand, the two authors strongly oppose the idea that state management is equal to control and censorship. Even if the Minitel was a state-controlled system, it was an early example of a private-public partnership, with the French government developing decentralized communication systems and enhancing the creativity of users, leaving them the freedom to experiment with new services. On the other hand, Mailland and Driscoll reconstruct the history of the Minitel under the methodological premise of platform studies, which is the main theoretical framework of the book. The authors claim that “Minitel offers a unique model for thinking about the design and regulation of platforms” (p. 7) and, following the material turn, they focus on the physical infrastructure of the network (especially in Chapters 2 and 3), study the Minitel architecture (Chapter 4), and consider the role of subscribers in re-using the platform in unexpected ways (Chapter 6). Consequently, Minitel. Welcome to the Internet can be also considered a relevant contribution to theory, applying the newest theories of STS and media studies to a historical case study.

1 See, for example, Valérie Schafer / Benjamin Thierry, Le Minitel. L’enfance numérique de la France, Paris 2012.
2 Kevin Driscoll, Social Media’s Dial-Up Ancestor. The Bulletin Board System, in: IEEE Spectrum 53/11 (2016), pp. 54–60.