3.00 FYI France: Ejournal and archive

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

September 15, 2002 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on September 15, 2002.

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Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Ejournal subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: kessler@well.sf.ca.us

Here this file is one of a number made available -- hopefully attractively, all in one place, and relevant to libraries and online digital information work in France and Europe -- as part of FYI France (sm)(tm), an online service to which anyone can subscribe for 12 months by postal mailing a check for US $45, payable to Jack Kessler, to PO Box 460668, San Francisco, California, USA 94146 (site licenses also are available): please write your email address on the front of your check. Please email suggestions for improvements to me at kessler@well.sf.ca.us
 

--oOo--
 

Geert Lovink, and the return of Internet dreams?

 

Geert Lovink is one of the impassioned voices of the Internet. In his just - published book,

 

Lovink contends that the new technology has been hijacked by a very old combination of commercial operators. Although he is hopeful...

I thought it might be interesting then, here, to sit back for a moment and consider where we are & where we are going, now, in the Internet and "things online", at least from this Holland / Australia / European / International point of view.

 

1) Lovink on The Dream

We have moved, Lovink says, from a "cyber - libertarian ideology" to a mere process of dividing the audience share among a "small group of converging conglomerates" -- this in an Introduction which he calls "Twilight of the Digirati". There has been a loss of innocence, he believes, due to the dotcom bust and several other factors:

 

2) Dreams and Realities

Lovink is not the only one.

He had his start in the Amsterdam freenet -- a group which, like The WELL, pioneered some of the earliest public access to the Internet. The utopian, idealistic, perhaps naive idea, back then -- the late 1980s, and early 1990s -- was that "information wants to be free". Communities supposedly would form themselves naturally, online, using the new digital information techniques.

These would be new communities -- people organized not by physical location, or by income category, or even by language grouping or national origin or other traditional restriction, but more by personal interests and ability to contribute -- "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog"... -- a new democracy, made possible by the "value free" sophistications, and global reach, of the new technology.

There were many famous names associated with this idea, which became a broad based global movement: from Ted Nelson to Stewart Brand and Howard Rheingold and John Perry Barlow -- early Apple developers and XeroxPARC visionaries -- Minitel developers in France, Fidonet pioneers everywhere.

It almost worked. It still might. But for now, at least, Things Have Changed. The changes have been, basically, two: in the late 1990s the commercial world discovered the Internet, and in 2000 the bubble of interest and enthusiasm and financial reward built from that initial commercial world discovery completely and spectacularly collapsed. Now, amid the ashes, Lovink and many others are wondering what sort of phoenix -- or rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem -- is going to arise from the dotcom ruins of the First Internet Phase.

E-publishing has been one of the most contentious areas of Internet commercial development. It was very much part of the original dream to incorporate texts into online communication -- the egg came before the chicken, in fact, as "command line" data entry long preceded the Graphical User Interface to which the Web now has accustomed all of us. "Memex" and "Project Xanadu" and "The Paperless Library" were the dreams of some, the nightmares of others.

In France no less than other places -- far more than most, in fact -- all of these ideas were embroiled together in the Internet and dotcom revolution of the 1990s. Today, with the dissolution of much of that, and the very recent severe hardships of giant European ventures such as Bertelsmann and Vivendi, and Vodafone and now apparently even France Telecom, there is much wondering over what directions all this will take now.

E-publishing has run its cycle from "cyber - libertarian ideology" to "small group of converging conglomerates", in France as it has elsewhere. Questions are being asked, now, in France as elsewhere, about the path which all of this will take, in a post - dotcom - bust and post - "9/11" security - and - censorship - conscious world.

 

3) Beta Tests

Examples sometimes help -- at least to illustrate the ideas, if not necessarily to suggest that the problems have been solved and the question answered. The three which follow are from France:

This site gives you a place to advertise your smallpress or self - published book. For years, France has had its very sophisticated Salon du Livre -- an annual gathering in Paris of publishers, retailers, collectors, authors, librarians and documentalists, the "who's who" of French publishing, and a French answer to the enormous but somewhat unwieldy Buchmesse at Frankfurt. But all this is only annual, and it is expensive: fancy show booths and trips to The City and hotels and entertainment do not come cheap, and the expenditure for only a few days of exposure -- albeit to "the right folks" -- is not one which budding or struggling authors or small presses and bookstores easily can afford.

The idea of Planetexpo's founder, then, is to provide all of this online -- to a far greater public, at far diminished price, on a year - round 24/7 basis. Online, an author can show her texts to anyone Ouebbing in at anytime from anywhere. The site does not sell books, but links to the "exhibitor's" own site provide the seamless interface, so beloved of Internet fans, for ecommerce. Short of or perhaps beyond selling, then, the site also offers "forums, chats, de'bats", other features -- the full panoply of digital information - enabled context and discussion, allowing authors to discuss things among themselves and with their reading publics.

Interesting idea -- certainly appears to fill several needs, and to do so economically -- some question whether "the right folks" in fact would be reached by it, but then of course the composition of "the right folks" can change over time...

This second site actually publishes texts -- both digital and printed versions. Its very large and growing selection includes classics, and modern works, and specialized literature of various types -- professional publications, theses, academic works. As in the case of the first site, Editions Zéro Heure / 00h00 offers games, discussions, debates, personalized shopping, an attractive and agile interface -- again the full Internet ecommerce panoply.

This third site illustrates the ebook reader, and perhaps the demise in France -- for now anyway -- of this particular approach to the marketing and distribution of epublishing, via the handheld electronic "reader". Cytale offered a "Cybook" -- € 456 plus € 19.66 per month for 12, or a minimum 700 euros / dollars investment...

Cytale just announced its bankruptcy: 2000 - 2001 losses of € 8,754,758, on sales of only € 2,444, or a grand total of only four Cybooks sold.... bad price points -- too high -- and so much for the greater profit margins theoretically obtainable from electronics versus texts, profits which require sales to be realized -- ebooks will just have to slog along at lower margins, in France anyway...

* http://news.zdnet.fr/story/0,,t118-s2107849,00.html
* "Cytale dépose son bilan," Livres Hebdo, no. 467, 26 avril 2002, p. 64.

 

4) Scenarios

So what is / is not going on, here? How is epublishing progressing, or not, in the months since the dotcoms crashed, and since the world gained a new awareness of a need for "security" in things online? In France as, perhaps, elsewhere...

There are four possible scenarios, it seems to me: they each may happen, at the expense of one another, or they may all be happening together --

The hope for a Paradigm Shift motivated the early visionaries. They got more than they bargained for. The "information wants to be free" idea was that the domination of publishing, by a few increasingly large commercial firms in a rapidly shrinking industry, might be broken up by the democratic chaos of the Internet, so that new alternatives might form.

This was the basic hope which motivated all three of the examples given here. Print publishing was dominated by larger and larger firms, throughout the latter half of the last century -- industrial concentration was high and getting higher, particularly in France where older and smaller firms were getting bought up by large ones often not even in the industry -- minimum print runs were climbing, so that anything under 3000 exemplaires was considered too small even to consider. Thence, somewhat, the idea of econferencing and epublishing and edistributing, for small presses and even for publishing generally -- always with the dream that the new paradigm, somehow, would be cheaper and more efficient, friendlier...

The same dream, or fantasy, rules now in economics and global business, ironically. As in publishing, Globalization ran afoul of its old economics paradigm in the 1990s, so much so that reformers such as Joseph Stiglitz and George Soros now are calling for a new model -- something acknowledging market imperfections, something which sees that policy can contain feedback loops and be "reflexive".

The congruence of the two tendencies is not a coincidence. The 1990s were dramatic times. Much has changed, in the ten years since. The changes, in each case, have been made to the same "market mechanisms" which during the 1990s were allowed to govern each -- both epublishing, and economic globalization. To some extent the difficulties now, of both, are difficulties of having relied solely upon "the market".

There is a conventional answer to these difficulties. Anything new simply can be slotted into an older pre - existing category. What librarians and lawyers do... So "planetexpo" can be seen as nothing more than a telemarketing approach for an old - fashioned vanity press; "00h00" as nothing more than book retailing; Cytale and its Cybook nothing more than a particular retail product, a handheld electronic gadget like an electric shaver or any other...

A certain type of mindset insists on seeing everything this way. Globalization and all of its problems now, for example, is labeled "nothing new", by some historians: the known world was as "global" and much more closely tied together during the 1800s, under British Empire hegemony -- they say -- or under the Hansa or the Chinese Middle Kingdom or the medieval European manorial system, and the Roman World was "global" for its time as well.

One great advantage of such a fitting of new wine into old bottles is that this allows old conceptual tools to be brought to bear on new problems. The old "vanity press" and "telemarketing" literatures have much to teach the Planetexpo people about the effort which they are undertaking online; traditional print publishers can offer much to 00h00; electric shavers have to be reasonably priced, and beautifully packaged, and must never -- never -- require any sort of monthly "subscription", as Cytale might have learned from its consumer electronics industry predecessors.

The old approaches overlook new aspects of the new problems, however. Primary among these is the general institutional setting in which epublishing and the Internet now are taking place. Too much discussion of them views only two possibilities, for example, for their sponsorship and regulation and general management: either "government" or "business", or at most combinations of just these two. So when a firm or organization searches for support for the development of their particular idea, the search too often goes simply either to "government" -- a grant of money, hopefully without too much regulation, from some government department -- or to "corporate", either obtaining support from a private commercial firm, or becoming a private commercial firm themselves. There seems to be no other way... "venture capitalism", invented for the purpose of funding the dotcoms, would have been overlooked, and the initial stage of Internet commercial development might never have happened...

Currently the leading theory on where all of this is headed is derived from precisely such a conservative mindset. The financial markets, in the US and overseas, all are betting heavily now on increasing productivity gains, resulting from mainstream industry's adoption, finally, of the Internet techniques pioneered by the dotcoms -- the great hope of Alan Greenspan and the "productivity paradox", realized at last -- big league Corporate America, and some of Corporate Elsewhere, is all Going Digital now. The financiers' hope is that AOL Time Warner, and Mitsubishi -- and Walmart, Exxon, General Motors, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Citicorp, AXA, Carrefour -- now at last, in 2001 and 2002, have developed Intranets and Internets and Extranets, just like the little 1990s dotcoms which those big firms formerly reviled, so that productivity gains finally will yield improving earnings, by 2003 and 2004... We'll see...

Things may simply be changing -- still -- of course. One lesson taught, severely, by the dotcom bust -- probably still unlearned by many firms -- was that information technology is highly changeable. Just as any little dotcom startup which tried to build its business model on Telnet and Gopher was overtaken by the World Wide Web, so any firm now -- small or large -- which tries to shift its model entirely to the Web may discover that XML or VRML or LINUX, or some other and newer alphabet soup buzzword, already has contributed an approach which will render the Web, even the Web, irrelevant within another six months...

There is, on the other hand, the famous example of Microsoft, which built an entire industrial empire on slightly outmoded technology: neither DOS nor Windows ever was accepted as being the best in its field, by experts, and yet both have dominated commercially -- the economics terms include "critical mass" and "market share", and both may be present and sufficient to allow Corporate America to impose the Web, now that it is already in place, even if something newer and better does come along.

But, then too, Something Entirely Different just may have happened...

The example comes from the current Soros / Stiglitz battling -- the two of them versus others -- over the New Paradigm which international finance, economics generally, and Globalization in all of its various forms ought to assume. Both Soros and Stiglitz realize the limitations of the old model, and both now write and speak eloquently about that: as experts, Soros having made so much money working with it, and Stiglitz having demonstrated its inadequacies convincingly enough to have won a Nobel Prize for his efforts. See,

Both believe that the international economy, and international relations generally, are long overdue for an overhaul or a new system to replace the Bretton Woods institutions, which fell out of date a long time ago.

At the same time, international relations theorists such as Joseph Nye and Robert Keohane have come to the realization -- much bolstered by dramatic proof offered at recent World Trade Organization and Earth Summit meetings -- that the international system of nation - states also is, after the 350 years since The Peace of Westphalia, in need of a similar upgrade or replacement. See,

See also,

 

A key element of the Keohane / Nye solution, in the political realm, is the trans - national actor : the NGO / Non - Governmental Organization, such as Amnesty International or Greenpeace or Médecins sans Frontières, able to organize and operate across national boundaries, practically disregarding the policies and antiquated bureaucracies and operations of nation - states -- as so many of these trans - national NGOs demonstrated recently in the streets at Seattle and Genoa, and at Kyoto and Rio and Johannesburg.

If there is a role, then, for the trans - national actor in politics -- for even the individual, like the lone woman in Vermont who was able to engineer an International Land Mines Treaty, receiving the Nobel Prize for that, despite the opposition of her own national government, or of any group -- there now is a similar role in economics. Large "multi - national" corporations long have been trans - national, in fact -- circumventing or simply disregarding particular nation - state policies and procedures. Now, international transportation and communication and interdependence -- all of this greatly enhanced by the Internet -- have progressed to the point where nearly any sizeable commercial operation of any kind not only can but must consider trans - national competition, and supplier and customer sources, if it is to survive. Epublishers, as well...

Which brings up the possibility of the non - commercial trans - national actor : the NGO in Lyon, interested in the environment, which wants to contact a similar group in Leipzig before the issue of building new dams to respond to the recent German flooding gets finalized -- or a hospital in Texarkana, needing to obtain information about West Nile Virus from clinics in Nairobi -- or a university or its library in Nanjing, wanting to share information and even establish joint programs with an institution in Québec...

Well, isn't this the dream, again, of those early and enthusiastic Internet pioneers -- of Fidonet, Minitel, XeroxPARC, Apple, Barlow and Rheingold and Brand and Nelson -- and of Geert Lovink? Wasn't that a fundamental idea of the earliest thinking in John Quarterman's and originally William Gibson's "Matrix", that private individuals would be able to use the new networked information technologies to transcend some of the barriers which surround them and hem them in -- tax laws perhaps, and criminal laws on occasion, but also nation - state barriers and local biases and preconceived notions derived from all sorts of over - generalized and antiquated ideas? The trans - national actor: in epublishing, Internet development, politics, other things...

Or is all this -- as The Who predicted so famously back in 1971 -- simply and yet again, just "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" ?

Geert Lovink says that he is optimistic. I am beginning to share his optimism myself : although slowly -- glacially -- it has been a long dark winter, recently, under the mixed promise and threat of developments like commercialism and general public access, and now the arrival of Infotainment and the rest of Big Business online. But things may be getting better, with the trans - national possibilities now out there at last.

 

As Lovink also says, in his book:

Anthony Giddens would say, "There is a need for a Third Way"...

You can say that again -- both of you can say both of those things again -- while I was writing this piece, a publisher came along via email and offered me the full text in ebook form of a new author, and I previewed it and ordered it and paid for it and received it, all online, during a short break between writing these paragraphs --

Godeluck suggests in her Introduction the idea of "a geopolitics without nation - states", one which will have nothing to do with "structures of geopolitical conflict such as war, separatism, or unifying urges such as the construction of 'Europe' or the Umma" -- and the site offers other articles by her, interviews, discussion, debate.

Marketing, purchasing, and distributing this ebook -- from France, which is about 5,580 miles away from where I am at the moment -- all took about four minutes, without me having to leave my office or really interrupt my work at all... and I'll be reading the thoughts of Solveig Godeluck, on geopolitics and the Internet, the moment I am done writing this...

 

Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

--oOo--

--hjlm--

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