Commons Conversations

On the Fringe of Minitel: Alternative Uses of a State-Sponsored Communications Network A Participatory Masterclass

Commons Conversations
21 Oct, 2019

On the Fringe of Minitel: Alternative Uses of a State-Sponsored Communications Network A Participatory Masterclass

with Julien Mailland
Assistant Professor, University of Indiana, Bloomington

Lunch provided for those who RSVP in advance, here. Please remember to bring your laptops!

1980s France was peculiar: most of the populace was online, checking the news, buying, chatting, and having virtual intercourse, via a plugged-in little computer box called "Minitel." Handed out for free by the PTT, the phone company, Minitel made France the most connected country in the world until the introduction of the commercial Internet in the mid-nineties, which dwarfed it. In Silicon Valley's dominant tale of American success, Minitel was a "backwards," "censored" communications network. This narrative obfuscates the fact that state intervention, when well crafted, can in fact support thriving private innovation, as it did in 1980s France. This talk will summarize the key features of the official Minitel platform which supported such innovation, and pose it as a hybrid, open-closed, public-private system. Then, the talk will focus on the affordances of the platform for unplanned, unofficial activities such as political and community activism, hacking, and art. And, punk's not dead, and neither is Minitel! While the network was officially closed with pomp by bureaucrats in 2012, there is an active revival scene, led by original-gangster hackers and members of "the youth" currently attending French engineering schools. After checking out recent Minitel hacktivism and art performances, we will actually connect to Minitel sites that have been restored by their creators and ported to the modern Web. Minitel stands for "Médium interactif par numérisation d’information téléphonique." We'll put interactif back in the mix, by connecting, live, with minitelistes in France. Please bring your laptop to participate (current Minitel interfaces work better with web browsers than with smartphone OSs).

About Julien Mailland

Julien Mailland is an Associate Professor Telecommunications at The Media School at the University of Indiana Bloomington. His first book is now out with MIT Press. Minitel: Welcome to the Internet (with Kevin Driscoll) is an exploration of the technology, culture, and policy that sustained the world’s first mass-scale online system for more than thirty years. As today’s internet is being broken up into an archipelago of walled gardens, Minitel offers a compelling counter-example of a platform that balanced private innovation with the public interest. Minitel was shut down in 2012, but its history of Minitel should continue to inform our thinking about Internet policy, today and into the future.

Julien co-founded the Minitel Research Lab, USA, with Kevin Driscoll. The mission of the Lab is to create a comprehensive, independent digital Minitel museum and resource center; explore the technical, social, political and legal significance of the Minitel network; and make creative use of the machines to incite critical thinking about network design. The lab maintains the world’s largest digital Minitel musem at and tweets from @minitelresearch. The work and collections have been featured in Wired, ARS Technica, Fox Business News (U.S.), Le Monde, Libération, NEON (France), and Computer Magazine (Ukraine).

RSVP for the event here

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