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Histories of the Internet in France: Minitel, the internet, and Usenet

The Centre for Internet Studies will host two presentations about the historical development of the internet in France. Valérie Schafer will talk about “Rethinking the Minitel History and the French ‘Internet Delay’”, and Camille Paloque-Berges will talk about “Mapping a French Internet experience in the 1980's : the European cooperation of Unix networks”.

2013.11.19 | Janne Nielsen

The event takes place Wednesday 4 December, 10:15-12:00 at Aarhus University, ADA Building (building 5342), room 333, Helsingforsgade 14, 8200 Aarhus N.

Rethinking the Minitel History and the French "Internet Delay"

In 1990, while the Web was created at CERN, 5 million Minitels had been produced in France and 12,377 online services were offered. One may legitimately wonder about the impact of the Minitel, since the Internet arrived in the 1990s in a French landscape of users and consumers already accustomed to online services and interactivity. Accused of the "French delay" in the Internet, the role of the Minitel and the transition to the Internet in France need to be assessed both in terms of continuities and breaks. Our presentation based on our researches on the history of Cyclades (a packet switching network developed between 1971 and 1979 at IRIA by Louis Pouzin and his team and based on the datagrams - then adopted in TCP/IP) and Transpac (the network which supported the Minitel traffic) and the work we conducted with Benjamin Thierry on the telematic history propose to rethink and nuance the responsibility of the Minitel and more generally of the French common carriers policy in the "French Internet delay".

Mapping a French Internet experience in the 1980's : the European cooperation of Unix networks

Our study tackles the history of the Internet before the Web. We focus on the Unixian networks, a human and technical network of computer researchers and engineers using and experimenting with the Unix operating system, and who developed one the very first computer social networks, Usenet. We consider that in the shadow of the French domestic telecommunication network (Transpac and Minitel), which innovation power was taken over by the success of the Internet in the 1990, the Unix/Usenet networks introduced the first Internet experience for the European communities of computer scientists and engineers in general. In France in particular, this experience was tackled head on right from 1982-1983, following the pioneer work of the Dutch Mathematical Center, making the French Unixian community one of the first to experience global communication networks and paving the way to having the first TCP-IP connection in 1988. We base our investigation on the study of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers's Computing Lab archives, mostly correspondence and lab memos that help understand how the social and professional network of Unixians made possible the implementation of a technical network for electronic communication. We also study native digital archives from Usenet, the “European Usenet logical maps. We thus interrogate the social, professional, institutional and technical conditions of this experimental project, and show the problems Unixians faced in developing network infrastructures (in terms of hardware and software policy equipment, network protocols and norms in regards to national telecomm monopolies, scientific recognition and administrative management). Seen through the lens of Unix hacker philosophy, these tensions nourished a general climate of defiance towards authorities and a libertarian view of computer network communication, which we confront to metaphor of the "electronic frontier" that was one of the most powerful utopia drive for the spreading of the Internet.


Valérie Schafer Valérie Schafer is a researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research (Institute for Communication Sciences, CNRS). She holds a PhD in technical history, and she specializes on history of computing and telecommunications. Her current research deals with the Internet history in France and Europe. She’s the author of La France en réseaux (années 1960-1980) [France in Networks (1960-1980)] (2012) and co-authored with Benjamin Thierry, Le Minitel, l’enfance numérique de la France [The Minitel, the French Digital Childhood] (2012), with Hervé Le Crosnier La Neutralité de l’Internet, un enjeu de communication [Net Neutrality: A communication Issue] (2011) and with Bernard Tuy Dans les coulisses de l’Internet. RENATER, 20 ans de technologie, d’enseignement et de recherche [On the Internet’s Sidelines: RENATER, 20 Years of Technology, Teaching and Research] (2013).
Camille Paloque-Berges Camille Paloque-Berges holds a Phd in Communication and Information sciences and specializes in the history of digital networks communication from a social and technical standpoint, and in the methodologies associated with studying native digital documents for Internet heritage studies. She is currently a research engineer for the laboratory Histoire des Techno-Sciences en Société at Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (HT2S-Cnam). Her most recent publication is "Une pédagogie documentaire par le folklore : analyse des modes d'emploi de l'Internet au temps de la frontière électronique" (Documentaliste-Sciences de l'information, 4/2013). She published in 2009 the book Poétique des codes sur le réseau informatique. Publications in English can be found on her website.