FYI France

File 10.2012a FYI France Essay :




by Jack Kessler,
for, Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France, 2012, t. 57, no. 6,
"Mondialisation, internet et francophonies"


September 15, 2012

"Imagine a history in which mutation and alteration and flux are the norm..."
-- Simon Schama 1


here always have been several francophonies. From the various patois still thriving in my 1960s first experiences of France -- "Onya vas-y partir-a demang-a mataing-a?", my host inquired, on a farm near Bergerac in 1969 -- to 2010s Internet communities now scattered all over the Globalized world. No less than any other culture -- moreso, maybe, than nearly any other -- French culture has shown variety, and perhaps at few times in its long history more than now.

There is a question, however, about what all this recent variety really signifies: all this scattering -- for all of us, for France is not alone in this... Is it cultural disintegration, a shattering of old established verities without which we cannot survive? Or is it simply, "Same as it ever was"? Or are there new elements, now, newer ways of seeing and doing things far different from, and perhaps even better than, anything we've ever had before?

Questions such as these are a vital part of information service -- whether this means libraries and books, or digital systems and the Internet, or the use of all that, or education for its use -- and now that all of it is combining and recombining, newly-emerging francophonies matter to it all. It is important to "know the customers" and the languages they use.

Globalization seems new. Inter-networked information, too -- the Internet -- also seems new. What real differences are these particular two innovations making? Francophone communities which benefit from both exist all over the planet now.


Globalization diasporas 

As I write this from a street bench in San Francisco I am interrupted, very politely, by young tourists from France, who hesitatingly ask me, in precise lycée-anglais accent-américain, where one might rent bicycles...

This reminds me that in Northern California, 6000 miles from the Hexagone, there are tens of thousands of French people now, citoyens and citoyennes who vote at the urnes still but work in Silicon Valley, live in San Francisco condos, celebrate their fins de semaine in the Napa Valley seeking wines sometimes as good as those back home, devouring cheeses from France itself from the astonishingly well-stocked displays of same at local Whole Foods stores -- some who live here stay only a short time, but others who stay longer have maternelles, lycées, the bac, our famous université at Berkeley. For these people France is home, but so now is La Californie.

We have here, in addition, thousands of French tourists, like those bicyclists, here bravely if foolishly freezing down at Fisherman's Wharf in our foggy summer... wondering at our strange weather...

Also other french-speakers are 'way over here in Northern California: from Senégal and Vietnam and China, students from Morocco, BNP bankers from Hong Kong here hammering-home hitech deals, Stanford and University of California researchers -- and locals like me, simply fascinated with the place and its people.

Does all of this a "francophonie" make? A francophonie Californienne, perhaps -- type-northern, pace our rival Los Angeles cousins -- even a francophone colonia, maybe, with its own cultural characteristics and practices and concerns, linguistic and other... celebrating Bastille Day with a baseball twist...

0ur group 'way over here speaks a different language than that spoken in Limoges. This is not simply a difference between "l'académie" and "airport-French", although there is that too -- and the lilt of the Senégal accent speaking French sounds as distinctive in San Francisco as it does in Lyon.

There is a difference, too, of interests, of subject-matter: transnational communities overseas discuss different topics, using our french language, than we would were we living in Limoges, or in Lyon -- type-northern-california concerns, different ideas, as any commercial marketer would suspect -- we discuss baseball, its many mysteries, and US politics, its many mysteries as well -- we find french or franglais words and phrases for the daily issues of life in la Californie, using our french language(s), touristic and expat and francophile and other.

Where else is this happening? Where else, on our Globalizing and Inter-networked planet, are new outre-mer francophonies flourishing, like ours here in San Francisco?

Everywhere in Asia... The impressive Asian demographics all of us know well, now: their economic miracle, vast arrays of wealth and power and people all shifting in their direction, all so enormous that it seems the globe is tilting -- we must accept that in any of Asia's giant urbanizing regions today there is some francophone population, a growing group already using french.

Modern "megalopolis", urban regions of over 10 million population, counts 13 examples in China alone, now 2. My own little San Francisco, still pretending an official population of merely 800,000, has become just a small peninsular-tip neighborhood on the outskirts of one such megalopolis: "Greater San José", perhaps, 8.5 million souls, a phenomenon clearly-viewed on GoogleEarth.

So are there francophone communities in those exploding giant Chinese cities? Of course: the French are no less enterprising than other young-entrepreneur populations which have flocked to "Greater San José" and to China, recently.

BNP Paribas, alone, currently employs 13,600 people in its "Asia Pacific" offices 3 : this means many folks, within just this one large group, whose first language is french, who know and love the culture or at least need to know it and are trying to learn more -- plus francophone and francophile families and extended school and tennis and friendship circles, in postings such as Singapore and Bangkok and Beijing and Seoul. See-also LVMH, Havas, and many other globalizing examples.

What is true in Asia is true in Latin America and Africa -- traditionally-francophone and not, as well. French firms, schools, entrepreneurs all "follow the money", no less than others do now, toward far-flung commercial booms in Brazil -- they accompany the Chinese, in the steady quest of the latter for mineral and other resources in Africa 4.

Nearly as often, nowadays, as on the streets of San Francisco -- again today, as I write this, two more francophones just walked by me, both chatting energetically on their earphone-enabled morning conference call, they're a daily sight here in Noe Valley -- the same may be seen, increasingly now, on streets in Lima and São Paulo, Seoul City, Shanghai, Lagos. This is Globalization.


Internet diasporas

The other francophonie(s) factor under consideration here then, along with Globalization, is the Internet. 

From its beginnings the Internet has been its own diaspora: the very concept of decentralized packet-switching, the original ARPA brief on which the technology was built 5, enables its global reach -- its efficiency, reliability, relative immunity to centralization problems of the past, all enable people to spread out -- the inter-networked world of the 21st c. is a new Era of Geographic Exploration like the 16th, this time using airplanes and laptops and now mobiles, instead of sailing ships.

The effect of this diaspora, so far, has been to scatter people -- Internet-armed travelers wander the planet, to great distances far away from "home". Although now in 2012 there are the beginnings of one change in the initial pattern: now centralization ironically may become another effect of the Internet diaspora, as well -- in new inter-networked "centers", information workers increasingly use the improved productivity of digital technology to dispose of routine "face-to-faceless" tasks -- freeing space and time for more complex "face-to-face" interactions with other people 6. Both Global Cities and Social Media trends show this recent re-centralization. Such new nodes themselves may be scattered, however -- Seoul and Singapore and Sao Paulo, plus multiple locations online -- instead of just a given city plus its suburbs, as has been true before 7.

So libraries should hold on to those elegant old central-campus and centre-city locations, expensive as they are.

If the Internet did not invent modern distance communication -- that was more the last century's world-wars, the management of armies located thousands of miles away -- it has brought us instantaneous and continuous communication. 

The problems of long-distance transmission are familiar to anyone who remembers the thrill of leaning-in to hear a scratchy-if-sonorous broadcast from London -- "This, is the BBC..." -- in some then-remote outpost such as Dakar or Delhi or Hong Kong, as recently as the 1960s. For that matter a call to a village visible across a valley, in 1960s France, still might have been routed via Paris, booked in advance and finally heard only faintly and courtesy of that strange extra earphone provided back then -- I still remember French friends cursing at the thing.

Now though mobile telephony brings us "next-door" quality: calls to San Francisco from a train-platform in Shanghai -- I just received one, again as I write this on my cosmopolitan San Francisco street-bench -- remarkably to me, but now a service taken-for-granted by my age 30-something caller in China. And the distributed packet-switching of the Internet gives us the security which Cold Warriors wanted against centralization -- our communications circumvent Paris as well as Omaha, now -- in addition to stronger signals. In many ways it is the best of all possible worlds for communications, certainly compared to what we had in the 1960s -- what a dream, back then, to have had "too much information" be the principal problem... 

The strongest elements of the change are the rapidity with which we now obtain our data, and the fact that digital libraries are "open" 24/7 : there was a time when locating a statistic about India required a postal letter and awaiting a reply, a matter of months -- now, in milliseconds, the datum appears on a user's mobile screen -- and, importantly, now the process works as fast in reverse, for someone in India seeking a fact about France.

And the digital library always is "open". There was a time, too, when American callers grew frustrated negotiating strange Paris time-differences, and French researchers puzzled over "World Series" and other arcane slow-days here. All that is over or nearly-so, now, in our inter-networked world.

Simultaneously, though, in the modern "family" mothers now may work in one location, while fathers work in another, and children are in nurseries and schools and other activities in a third or fourth or fifth location -- increasingly what connects them are digital media, Skype and Internet and email and texting, tweets, nursery video monitors, home security systems. Mom's location may be London, Dad's may be Shanghai, the nursery may be in Palo Alto or on a hill in Lyon or in a Shanghai hotel. And later on when the kids are more mobile, "school" might be located anywhere: near the family's base in Singapore -- the new Yale program there 8 or maybe INSEAD's 9 -- or far from it at one of those now-world-leading hi-tech institutes in Bombay or Bangkok, neither place imaginable as-such just a generation ago... or at that older one in Massachusetts...


The francophonie effects of all this spreading ought to be clear -- to anyone who ever has tried to keep a family together, to anyone who has tried to educate them, to anyone called upon to provide them with information, such as a teacher or a librarian.

Distance communication is different. The bright mornings of family breakfast table conversation, and evenings of librarian-assisted printed-book-research in the Main Reading Room, being over... -- or so it now seems, for many of us -- the paper documents in-basket, too, having been vanquished and banished from "the office", finally after the long battle of the Productivity Paradox 10 -- and where formerly finding data was a primary research task, oceans of raw data now flood upon us in our information-overloaded era.

France has been a leader, in all this. From its early INIST 11 efforts to its equally-early development of the Minitel 12 -- public networking before the Internet -- France and the French language have been online. 

So francophone communities, to the extent these have become scattered around our new Globalized and Inter-networked world, are online more than most -- a French librarian, more than others, must learn about and deal with the online-digital preoccupations of these people.

Best evidence of both Globalization and Internet diaspora has been the evolution and immense popularity now of "Social Media" --

Few firms in history, or nations or religions or cultural movements, ever have had or even plausibly could claim a billion adherents. Facebook does, though: 955 million and still rising, anyway, at latest count as of June 2012 13.

The principles of the Facebook phenomenon are not so unusual, they in fact are few and are widely and deeply shared by a rapidly-mushrooming number of similar Internet sites: whether it is "tweets" on Twitter, or the phenomenal image-based communication of Pinterest, or the cascading growth of global distributed gaming sites -- Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games / MMORPGs 14. I expect iTunes or Amazon or IRCAM(?), or maybe La FNAC(?), to develop this for music too.

The francophonie effects of Social Media, like those of the Social Changes leading up to it, are many.

For instance newspapers, Le Point and all the others -- no longer paper, these -- offer hundreds of Social Media sites as "share" possibilities now, places online to which people re-post the information they read and view and hear, boards and forums where they discuss it and from which they re-post again to other online places, in the Internet's one-to-many geometric progressions.

How much of this is French? Where is it? What languages do they use? What languages might they use? These are the old francophonie questions, and they are of even greater relevance now.

Promoting the French language -- in government policy, corporate and educational life, media and cinema and literature and culture -- must include and incorporate Social Media, then. It is not just the websites, services, apps / applications: it is also the participation -- it is where the party is being held, nowadays, where the discussions are taking place, the meeting is under way and French culture needs a seat at the table. 

A monolingual global culture going forward would be impoverished 15. But it is not a possibility: lingua franca changes, as the French themselves know from experience, and a serious competitor for the current-reigning English already is emerging, in Chinese. Far more likely then, in the Globalized world now emerging, will be what we always have had, multilingualism 16. Even at times of comparative linguistic domination -- english now, french at one time, spanish in its colonies, chinese in its empires, Rome... -- in fact there have been multiplicities.

The race here is not to the swift but to the patient and persistent. The Internet is polyglot, it can wait and change, its Unicode "speaks" 100 living languages 17. There is opportunity here for english but also for chinese, and more than before for french now, and for many, many, others 18.


Present and future communities

What, then, will our future communities look like? Where will they be? It has been said that we are becoming a "Global Village" 19, that, "It Takes A Village" 20 -- although if that gets scattered, albeit digitally-linked, over the entire surface of the Globe, will anything remain of our traditional concept of "village"? And will anyone in the "village" speak French?

Our future communities will be different than they've been: this alone is hard for many to accept -- instincts for preservation and the past are fundamental, we all have them. The best we can do is to incorporate that yearning into whatever thinking we do about the future. We must not over-react in thinking about our future(s), though: the time-honored adage is, "If your only tool is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail"...

We will continue to communicate, to research and read and learn and express ourselves -- and we will continue to do this in French and in other languages besides English.

We do possess some exciting new tools: Globalization, the Internet. But we must remember that these two are just part, of many factors already influencing the futures of our francophonie(s): for example Global Warming and Rising Oceans will greatly decrease, or increase, the number of francophones in the world -- as will political revolutions in Egypt and Syria and Southeast Asia, as would war in Iran, as will dramatic social change in Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa and China.

We have vastly improved "command & control", as well, over our communications systems and devices: so much so that we now already take for granted digital libraries, paperless offices, distance communication and education, and telework, all laughable science fiction a short time ago. Still, these are small parts of the "command & control" picture: larger and deeper political and legal and social developments could derail such merely-technical dreams -- censorship, intellectual property reactions, unresponsive political and legal systems, archaic and arcane social strictures, all still are much larger parts of our community structures than our latest largely-technical innovations, such as Globalization and the Internet, as they forever have been.

Cost, too: the seemingly-arithmetic practicalities of economics, the "dismal science", govern the coming development of our communities far more than Globalization and the Internet will. Nothing works well if you cannot afford it, as the current world of the worst business recession since The Worst One now is being reminded... 21 We have no guarantee that the economic status quo ante will be restored: if what emerges now, instead -- what new "rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem" 22 arises out of the ashes of our initial 21st c. economic hiccup -- requires great income inequalities, increased "natural" unemployment 23, inadequate healthcare and aging population and guest-worker and other demographic anomalies for which we are hopelessly unprepared -- for example a France with not 3 but 6 million unemployed, not 10% but 20% national unemployment, a Spain and an Italy each with double that, a Japan and Russia with half their present populations, a desperate bankrupt Greece become a gang-ridden offshore-finance criminal enclave -- then cost will become a problem...

Moore's Law 24 famously feeds Internaut optimism, but its insulation from the more dismal aspects of economics is naive: costs do not go down -- they cannot -- for populations both shrinking and increasingly-impoverished, the "social disruptions" become too much, scarcities and worse ensue.

So future communities probably will contain more that is French. More French language may be spoken in them, in Greater Ho Chi Minh City and Greater Shanghai and Dakar Métropole and even Greater San José, in addition to other existing and nascent francophone communities on the Internet, and out all over the globe.

But it is important to remember that this is not and never will be the total picture, of our community future, linguistic or other -- that total picture always will be complex, not focussed upon technology, entirely or even at all, and filled with surprises.


We may be some distance yet, then, from Schama's, "history in which mutation and alteration and flux are the norm..." -- the future is a thing, "seen as through a glass, darkly" 25 -- but for many of us, at least, in daily life and in many places on the planet now, and french-speaking and otherwise, the uncertainties and the thrills of our new Globalized and Inter-networked world already are arriving.


Jack Kessler,





1^ "Imagine instead a British history in which mutation, alteration and flux, rather than continuity and bedrock solidity, are the norm..." -- Simon Schama, A History of Britain (Macmillan Audio, 2000) Preface.

2^ --


4^ Robert D. Kaplan. Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and The Future of American Power (Random House, 2010).

5^ --


7^ Saskia Sassen. The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton University Press, 1991).




11^ --

12^ --


14^ -- http:/ /

15^ Umberto Eco. The Search for a Perfect Language (Wiley-Blackwell, 1997).

16^ -- see, Net.Langue, réussir le Cyberespace Multilangue (C&F editions, 2012)

17^ --

18^ David Crystal. Language and the Internet (Cambridge University Press, 2006) 2d ed.

19^ --

20^ -- Hillary Clinton

21^ John Kenneth Galbraith. A Short History of Financial Euphoria (Penguin, 1994).

22^ William Butler Yeats. The Second Coming (1919) --

23^ "The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down..." -- Bob Dylan. Workingman's Blues #2 (2006) --

24^ Moore's Law -- --

25^ 1 Corinthians 13:12







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