by Jack Kessler, firstname.lastname@example.org
with Selective and Partially - Annotated Lists of Resources, Online and Off-
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: email@example.com. The text contains a selection only: additional online digital information resources develop in France every week, on the Minitel and the Internet -- one can be sure only that there are more, not fewer, than what follows online in France now.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
by Jack Kessler, email@example.com
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In France today the people involved in digitization are drawn from a range comparable in breadth to the great variety found in similar efforts in the US and elsewhere.
Government has a role in digitization in France, at all levels, as do the private sector, the education sector, independent and quasi - independent organizations of many types, and numerous -- nearly countless, as elsewhere -- individuals. The only thing really lacking in France, as nearly everywhere except in the US, is the Venture Capital industry, which started off the whole revolution in the US in the first place and which sustains it there still today.
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Government is involved in digitization in France now at every level, in nearly every political unit and venue in the country, no matter how tiny, remote, and removed from the central French governmental monolith at Paris. [NGov]
Web sites for the smallest villages [Conques] and the strangest French regional governmental entities [Breizh] can be found online now. Local, regional and national government financial and technical support can be obtained for nearly any conceivable project involving digital information, from mounting a Website for a school or a town to scanning a local archive to promoting "interactive poetry" and developing children's writing projects. [Money1]
The recent explosion in French government support for "digital" activity is not so different from such support found elsewhere: schools in the US benefit from or at least are deluged by numerous government programs which supply them with computers -- the Internet in the US enjoyed government support in its beginnings, and may face government regulation and perhaps even government taxation in its future.
But government support in France for digitization exhibits at least two fundamental differences which make it unique, certainly as compared to government activity in the US:
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As a part of "Europe" -- as an active, almost desperately aggressive promoter of the European Union -- France participates in vast numbers of EU - sponsored competitions to develop digitization techniques and applications. These EU competitions entail benefits and restrictions not involved in simply - national efforts: multilingual access is mandated, as are international collaboration and standardized procedures for development and evaluation.
EU "calls for proposals" emerge with promising but sometimes alarming regularity from the corridors of "DGXII" and "DGXIII" and many of the other European "directorates". They pay for a great deal which often looks very promising. [ http://www.echo.lu ]
There is no parallel for this supra - national government level in the digitization efforts of the US, or really of any other non - European country. "International aid" does not qualify: in "European" governmental digitization activities these are not poverty cases, or client - states accepting largesse, but relatively equal participants in the decision - making process which produces the projects -- if French decision - makers feel a necessity for digitization projects protecting their version of "cultural patrimony", they have a chance here of creating these themselves.
"Supra - national" EU government activity has been analyzed perhaps too much, and criticized for its complexity and bureaucracy as much as praised for the depth of its financial support and the breadth of its approach. But it certainly represents a unique aspect of the French digitization situation, one of which Americans operating in Europe ought at least to be aware.
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A second "uniquely - French" factor in digitization also emanates from a very general source. The US economy is booming, the French for some time have been flat on their backs -- this distinction makes a tremendous difference. [Econ]
The US realizes that its national economics has made the transition from an agricultural to an industrial to a "service" economy. There is plenty of literature, and plenty of harsh economic reality, to attest to this change. US farmers have all but disappeared, US industrial unions have shrunk almost beyond recognition, the US workforce, once "redneck" and "blue collar", has become predominantly "white collar" -- one might almost say "pocket protector" -- and now is employed in "service industries".
These same economic changes and transitions have occurred in France, but more recently and at far greater economic and social and political cost. French agriculture has shifted from the broad national voting majority which it held in the last century to the small beleaguered society of vested interests which it is today. French villages have shrunk. French industrial unions are much - diminished in membership and, although they still are vocal -- like the remaining farmers -- the unions are much - diminished in political authority and popular support.
France in addition has had persistent national unemployment of over 12%, and the rising social discontent and unrest which logically accompany this. The US figures never got this bad during the recent recessions, and now the US has recovered to achieve one of the best employment situations in its history.
France, however, is not getting better yet. Fears and insecurity about job tenure and the reduction of the social welfare "safety net" -- and other arguably - necessary economic measures -- now are supplemented by the terrors of urban crime waves, and crippling strikes by a rising army of "the unemployed", and the rise of the country's first significant extremist right - wing party since the second World War. [ http://www.fyifrance.com/fnind.htm ]
Government in France perhaps naturally and understandably is searching for saviors -- critics would say panaceas -- and to some extent inevitably will find these in "hi - tech".
This happens elsewhere, as well. In the US, the multiple problems of the education sector often get "computerization" and "the Internet" simply thrown at them, as though any one measure -- particularly a single technical innovation -- could "solve" such complex social problems, and do so overnight.
But this temptation is so much greater in France, and anyplace where current economic problems are severe.
Political figures -- from the national Prime Minister on down to local organizers -- are personally involved in the digitization effort in France. The politicians are involved in the US as well, of course, but in France the urgency is greater. The US is the world's major industrial and agricultural and political power, and France is not. The US can coast on its national debt and trade imbalance and current gross domestic product and unemployment figures for a considerable time if it needs to -- France cannot.
French national economic policy needs some quick solutions: the general "service economy" model -- and specifically "hi - tech" and the cutting edge of that, "digitization" -- in desperate times could be seen as, and could dangerously become, just such a "quick fix".
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The private sector is as active as government is, in "digitization" in France. Private firms have computers -- and scanners, and email and websites, and systems and data warehousing problems -- all every bit as sophisticated as those found in the commercial world in the US. Paris has flip - phones in business lunches, now, and "http://" addresses in commercial advertising, and "digital infospeak" in meetings and conferences -- France has "Internauts" and "Internautes" and "Surfeurs" and "Surfeuses", all working furiously on the "Ouebbe", and something new called "Cyberdroit" which is invading even its staid legal community now -- just like any advanced "high - tech" culture. [PrivS]
But, as with their government activity, there also is something uniquely - French -- or at least non - American -- in this private sector activity as well.
"U.S." Americans, particularly, need to understand private sector involvement in digitization in France in its international context. Large corporations in France are necessarily international, more so than they are in the much larger and much more economically self - sufficient US. Any large firm in France will have "foreign" offices and "foreign" business and "foreign" nationals working in its ranks, at all levels, and "international" rules and regulations to face in its daily operations.
A "large" US firm, by contrast, can find an enormous market for its products and services simply in "Chicago", or in "The Midwest", and certainly if "The East Coast" or "The South" or above all "California" are included.
The same commercial self - sufficiency cannot be found among large firms in France: not for a long time, in the past, and going forward certainly not in the current depressed economic situation there. Any French firm which wishes to grow must structure itself completely -- its orientation, its capacities, its "corporate culture", its strategic thinking -- to serve an international market.
This internationalist corporate structuring involves much more than just language. Recent "mega - merger" activity provides an example. US banks, like Citicorp, structured originally in an age when the domestic US market was the only one available to them, now are rushing -- perhaps foolishly -- into enormous conglomerates assembling the flexibility they need to compete with international giants like the Banque Nationale de Paris. US publishers, like Random House, are being swallowed now by giant firms, at least in part to make them more competitive internationally -- Hachette was taken over by France's largest producer of missiles now very long ago, but both firms were French, albeit international.
So although the largest US firms, or those specifically involved in international business, may have even more appreciation of the international aspects of digitization's development and applications than do firms in France, it is far easier to find a large commercial firm in the US which has simply no appreciation of the necessity for building in multilingual capacity, or adhering to international norms, or structuring an internationalist approach. The US firm is far more likely to make the mistake which Bill Gates made when he tried to market to the mainland Chinese a Windows95 package which had been developed, and embarrassingly sabotaged, by Taiwanese engineers -- phrases like "communist bandits" and "Taiwanese independence" kept popping up in it unpredictably. [Wired News, January 25, 1997 -- http://www.wired.com/news/top frame/1690.html ]
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As in the cases of government and the private sector, the educational sector has become active at all levels in "digitization" in France.
French schools have "l'Internet". French curricula at all levels are being juggled now to provide instruction in the new digital techniques, French students are working on impressive "digitization" projects [Guenole] -- and are "wasting their study time" in chat rooms, and playing video games off- and online, and hacking, all as students are in the US and elsewhere now.
"Digitization" in education, however, is one small part of a large set of questions, in France as it is elsewhere. The education sector in France suffers from many of the same structural problems which beset its parallel establishment in the US. There is a similar push - pull controversy between public and private education, for example. The French also have a dramatic confrontation under way between the religious and secular branches of their education system.
France still suffers from a long - unresolved balance between local control and centralized Paris domination over education, dating back to the time earlier in this century when a Minister of Education is supposed to have claimed that, "given the day of the week and time of the day," he could, "tell you what every 14 year old in France is reading".
And recently a national election brought into power a Minister of Education who has sworn to reform the elitism of French highest - level "Grandes Ecoles" education, thus resurrecting a bitter controversy which has raged since the founding of those famous schools, in the beginning of the last century, by Napoleon.
But, again as in the US, and despite these many problems -- many although not all of which have their parallels in the US education situation -- much of the leadership in digitization development in France nevertheless comes from pioneering efforts being made within the schools: from both the enthusiasm of the students and the originality of the researchers.
It is important to remember several basic differences which exist, though, between the education establishments in France and the US, which like other differences have a direct effect on the development of digitization efforts in both places.
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One useful axiom for debates anywhere about "R&D / Research & Development" -- an axiom perhaps not well - known but nevertheless true -- is that "Researchers do 'research', corporations do 'development'" [CohenS]. It is important to be clear about roles. This is particularly true in France.
Education in France is didactic. The famous phrase, meant ironically as a slogan in 1968 but true in French schools both long before and now long after, is, "the teacher teaches, the students listen". Students who have tried to innovate, in their own studies not to speak of in trying to change curriculum, have learned the lesson at their peril, at various points in French education's turbulent history.
The attitude extends all the way up through the university level. French universities, even the "grandes ecoles", are not chiefly research establishments -- they "teach". The idea that a student might conceive of and undertake an independent research project -- a cornerstone of much of the US educational approach -- is one foreign to most of French education. In France, "research" is pursued primarily at specialized postgraduate - level "institutes" -- most under the aegis of the giant national "CNRS / Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique" [ http://www.cnrs.fr ] -- which conversely rarely if ever have any direct involvement with the teaching of students.
France has nothing like the giant "research university", such as Clark Kerr's "multiversity" at UC Berkeley [KerrC], nor even the gentle blending of the worlds of undergraduate teaching and "publish or perish" research which are so delicately balanced at places like Stanford or Yale. In France -- loosely, but certainly by comparison to the US -- the teachers "teach", the students "listen" and presumably "learn", the researchers "do research", the corporations "develop".
But "digitization", as developed so far in the US, has relied upon a very different education policy strategy. US education in large part is based upon the idea of "individual" initiative and "independent" research by the student. In US research, students often are as valuable as professors as resources and even as sources for new ideas, particularly in research involving "digitization" -- such would not be the purpose, and might not even be permitted, in an "educational" environment in France.
The once - unique Media Lab at MIT [MediaLab] now has many imitators in many other US universities -- in none of which are hard distinctions made between "teachers" and "students" and "researchers", distinctions which still would be held, and honored, in France.
["Le Media Lab est financé à plus de 90% par des contributions d'entreprises privées, qui se mettent ainsi en bonne place pour recruter les étudiants talentueux" -- Françoise Lazare, "MIT, le corridor du futur", Le Monde Edition Internationale/ Sélection Hebdomadaire Samedi 4 Juillet 1998 / Horizons / Enquête. The astonishment of this French writer, at the commercial / academic combination of US education funding and general approach, is striking.]
US librarians have been aware of this particular French "difference" more than others have. Librarian sabbaticals to France long have featured the perplexed American searching in vain for the giant "research library" at the famous French university, only to discover that university libraries historically have been the least well - endowed of libraries in France -- precisely the reverse of the situation in North America. Few French universities can now or ever have been able to boast of collections as fine as those of the giant Bibliothèques Municipales, for example, while in the US few "city" or "public" libraries can compete with the breadth and depth of the largest US university libraries. [Hassenforder]
In digitization the difference holds as well, although in a slightly different direction. A few French universities and their libraries have succeeded in developing large and sophisticated digitization programs. Most, however, are so busy keeping up with one of the largest student population surges in French history, and perhaps the thinnest budget and student job market in that same history, that it is all that they can do to keep the instructional doors open: outside "research", and pioneering "digitization" projects -- which are not even within their purview in the traditional French educational context -- simply are not on the agendas of most.
The equivalent of US "education sector" research and development in digitization is found less in the universities, in France, than it is in the specialized research institutes: in the tyranny of acronyms -- most associated in some manner with the CNRS -- which in France is held almost rigidly separate from the business of teaching students at universities. The "INRIA / Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique" [ http://www.inria.fr/ ], the "INA / Institut National de l'Audiovisuel" [ http://www.ina.fr/ ], the "INIST / Institut National de l'Information Scientifique et Technique" [ http://www.inist.fr/ ], and many other such all have produced pioneering work -- admired outside of the country as well as within France and Europe -- in digitization and digital techniques.
Two questions which might be asked about the French educational approach, then, with respect to digitization:
a) does the comparatively rigid separation honored in France between "teaching" and "research" assist or hamper the national development of a new technique, perhaps by freeing researchers from teaching duties, perhaps by distancing those same researchers from the young students who might give them the energy and new, irreverent, ideas which have been so important to the development of digital techniques in the US?;
and also, and perhaps most importantly,
b) if a rigid separation between "teaching" and "research", such as is found in France, is more characteristic of most countries' approaches to higher education, what will be the course of digitization's development as it "scales up" from its original US base -- education in Russia and India and Japan and China, and Mozambique, being even less like that of the US than is education in France?
Whatever answers might be found to these and other such questions, however, at least the lack of similarity should be clear: "education" works on "digitization" in France, and elsewhere, but it works on it in ways very different from those adopted on college campuses in the US.
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A second general difference which distinguishes education in France from that in the US, and which has a direct impact on the development of digitization in the two countries, is the overt hostility of French education toward the commercial world and "corporations".
Business and academia are traditional enemies in France, for all sorts of complex social and philosophical reasons, taken from a thousand years of French history. From the clerics of the earliest cathedral school of Notre Dame, looking down their noses at the mere merchants of medieval Paris, if they noticed them at all, to the gloriously - academic French collegians of the 19th century, studiously avoiding involvement in anything which smacked of mere "trade", to the Sorbonne idealists of 1968, who hated capitalism with a fervor which they themselves never really understood, "the academy" in France always has been the opponent of "the workplace". [Academe]
But, in the US, digitization is the product of a close combination of business and academia. Stanford University was a small liberal arts college bountifully endowed with large tracts of undeveloped California real estate, back in the 1950s. Stanford then made the decision, however -- as a private college they were able to do this, as state - supported schools were not -- to develop that land in partnership with private firms. Those firms were the enterprises of Stanford alumni, pursuing commercial activities and drawing heavily upon the university's professors' and graduates' technical and commercial expertise. Thus the Stanford Industrial Park, the union between "business" and "education" in the US, and eventually the fabulous, and fabled, "Silicon Valley" were born. [SaxenianA]
It is a process which is unthinkable in the context of French education. It was unthinkable for many US universities at the time, as well. But gradually -- quickly, in many cases -- the Stanford experiment, or at least variations of it, was developed at other US campuses, from Clark Kerr's "multiversity" at UC Berkeley (1958) [KerrC], to the "Harvard - MIT - Route 128" axis, to the "Research Triangle" of North Carolina, and many others.
In England as well, by the 1970s, various universities were making the attempt: Oxford failing in several early projects [Oxford], Cambridge succeeding, and several of the old "red brick" universities succeeding spectacularly, at engineering productive marriages between the commercial world and the campus.
But none of these was the Sorbonne. Not even Cambridge and Oxford, certainly not Harvard and Stanford, had the degree of ancient and hidebound preservation of tradition and privilege which characterized French education, still, in the 1960s. It took literally a revolution -- in education and very nearly in the general society itself -- to reform a French higher education process which had ossified in the previous century.
The reform process still is under way, in France, and currently is in a very unhappy phase, in which budgets are thin, classrooms are crowded, parents and students increasingly are discouraged and disgruntled, and politicians are calling -- once again -- for a general and radical house - cleaning. New alliances, such as one with the commercial world, need a solid basis from which to start, and the educational half of such an alliance is not yet solid in France.
As recently as 1993, a high - level academic meeting in France, discussin digitization, very hotly debated an extremely cautious suggestion that "representatives of industry" might be invited to a subsequent meeting. The foreigners present -- American, Canadian, English -- politely stayed mute.
The unanimous consensus among the French, at that meeting, was that, in their country -- still and perhaps forever -- "education" and "the commercial world" had to remain apart, even to the extent that French "businesspeople" would not be invited to the later meeting and would not even be permitted to attend if any were to appear, valuable though their experience and contributions might be. One famous French researcher in attendance declared, "if business representatives attend, I will not".
Quite a difference from the US case, where nearly every university now invites "practitioners" to lecture on campus, at least as "adjuncts". Corporate CEOs / PDGs, along with professionals of various stripes (lawyers, doctors, actors, writers, librarians), "teach" at most US universities now -- certainly in graduate "business" and "professional" schools but often even in undergraduate classes.
In the US, this approach is particularly important for the development of computers and digitization, which literally were developed originally by combination "business / academic" firms such as Stanford's Hewlett - Packard. The budget for "R&D" alone of the Hewlett - Packard company -- over $3 billion in 1997 -- exceeds the entire operating budget of most universities (Harvard's was $1.3 billion for that period).
This process of combining "business" with "the academy" has grown enormously, recently. Yahoo and Cisco and Intel and all the others in "Silicon Valley", all are placed strategically - near -- near at least culturally and in most cases still even physically -- their inspiration sources at the university.
The combination of "business" with "the academy" is difficult for the French -- the difficulty certainly is a distinction of their particular situation as compared with that of the current US. Once again, however, perhaps, the situation in France also is more typical of the approach of the non - French world in general to education than is the Stanford model. The French dilemma in combining "business" with "education" perhaps is worth serious study, by anyone who thinks that "scaling up" the digitization techniques developed in and around Stanford, to applications in Russia and China and Mozambique, will be obvious or easy.
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Beyond government and the private sector, and beyond even the educational establishment, numerous organizations which do not fit neatly into any such broad category have been active in digitization, in France again as elsewhere.
Political action is a well - documented growth industry on the Internet. Clubs and various other associations are digitizing things furiously, in France as in the US, and developing access methods which will "spread the word" to their various constituencies. Religious groups are particularly active in the US, promoting their religions but also espousing causes -- from pro- and anti - abortion to Bible reading -- using the Internet and CD-ROMS and massive scannings of textual material, and every new digital technique, all as soon as they become available.
In France, health groups are very active online: Médecins Sans Frontières has an elaborate Web site, the Minitel has long been a provider of local health care information, French SIDA / AIDS information is among the most valued in the international health care community -- all of this information is being developed and provided now in various digital formats.
In both countries, too, sex sells, still -- in digital formats as it has in others -- the degree of imagination and variety of sexual experience offered in CD-ROMS and Web sites and DVDs, by anonymous groups before one even gets to the enormous commercial market, appears to be limitless (relevant links *not* supplied here -- no way).
And, speaking of such limitations, libraries are digitizing and are "getting online", in France as they are in the US:
Libraries might be classified in any of a number of ways, for present purposes. Many are "government", many are "private sector", quite a few more are in "education", and most span all three -- at least in mandate and function if not in origin and formal accountability. So, for the purposes of "digitization", libraries might best be viewed as general "organizations": less important who supports them than whom they serve -- less like a government ministry or a university and more like Médecins Sans Frontières -- less interested in their own program and more concerned with getting information out to a broadest possible public -- and even, most of them, interested in arcane and invaluable although currently - unpopular things like preservation.
Thus defined, most French libraries today are at least interested in digitization, as libraries are elsewhere; many are among the leaders in its development in France. The various preoccupations of others with digitization -- with sex, and politics, and commercial development, and the interface between business and education -- all interest libraries as well, and they interest libraries perhaps more objectively and dispassionately than these things interest their direct participants.
French libraries, like their US counterparts, have been among the most active organizations in their country in crusades to counter censorship and political extremism -- in digitization as generally.
The more courageous members of the library profession in France have been in the forefront of efforts to develop a French synthesis which might bridge the gap between academia and the commercial world there. The campus library often has been the entry point for commercial vendors in the development of digitization -- far easier to make a sale to a service - minded librarian than to a research - oriented academic, and certainly an overworked and impoverished teacher.
With even greater courage, French librarians -- "government", "commercial", "academic", "school" -- also have faced the necessity of reforming their own profession, to account for the new digital media and techniques. Nothing requires so much courage as dealing with something which threatens your own position. Their national library school long ago changed its name -- and its curriculum -- to encompass digital information, without abandoning the non - digital mandates which preceded digitization.
Long - standing French distinctions between "librarianship" and "documentalism" and "preservation" have been combined with new approaches derived from "l'informatique" -- the combinations are not always steady or happy, and some have not been successful, but at least they are being tried. The old distinctions -- rivalries -- help now, ironically: not having had a single profession which enveloped all the others, there now is no single monolith which must be torn apart to let in the newer skills -- "information", in France, has several different professional traditions on which to draw.
Organizations, then -- among them libraries -- are as instrumental in developing digitization in France today as are government or commercial firms or the giant but rigid education sector. France is filled with clubs and associations and "boundary - spanning" organizations like libraries, of countless types, the efforts of which form an important part of the development of digitization in the country. [ http://www.fyifrance.com/fyi1plib.htm ]
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Beyond even "organizations", though, the true secret to digitization's development is in the numbers: in the enormous volumes of numbers -- numbers of approaches and techniques and capacities and data statistics and connect - time hours, numbers of users, and above all "percentages of increase" -- which digital information makes possible.
The numerical explosion which has taken place in the digital age causes some to consider it an Industrial Revolution as significant, and disruptive, as the one which launched the modern age: rarely have things grown so quickly, spread so far so fast, involved so many people -- never before has its progress been traced so minutely, in numbers.
The capacities of media formats which preceded digital media seem finite by comparison, viewed from a numerical point of view. The data collections of previous generations which once seemed so enormous now seem small, and appear to be getting smaller. When the US Vice President begins speaking of the entire contents of the Library of Congress -- bibliographic records and text and images and all -- as being merely bits to be transmitted along a cable within a particular length of time, a "paradigm shift" really has occurred: the "LC" of my own childhood was a thing of unimaginable size, the idea of its contents being sent from point A to point B in one fell swoop literally inconceivable. Now politicians talk about this glibly, as though it might even happen -- and it might, soon.
The quantitative receives so much attention in the digital age, in fact, that the qualitative becomes lost within it. There is a popular faith now -- one at least implicit in the "artificial intelligence" debates, which pit believers in "bits" against believers in "consciousness" -- that all things can be reduced to numbers. So much can be, after all: so much of the input which reaches our five senses can be digitized now -- sight and sound and touch and smell, and perhaps some day soon even taste, and each of these in combination with the others -- that the oldest philosophers' arguments about whether we are in fact only the sum of our senses are being resurrected. Numbers, wielding the irresistible attractions which so fascinated the Greeks, once again have captured the popular imagination.
One of the most important numbers in digitization, surely, is the number of users. All the computers and CD-ROMs and Internet addresses and browsers and telecommunications techniques -- and digitization projects -- in the world are of no importance if the number of users is unknown, and if those users are not understood by the projects and entire industries which are developing digital products and services for their use.
The most unique thing about digitization, then -- as a medium, as a technique -- is that the users themselves are developing it. Few users copied manuscripts, few printed books, very few printed magazines or newspapers or produced their own radio shows or television programs or movies. The parallel between digital information and the telephone is drawn very often; but from a user's perspective the parallel could not be less apt -- apart from a few lone eccentric inventors, in the US and the UK and France, late in the last century, virtually no telephone users ever have made their own telephones, or tried to preserve the contents of their own telephone conversations.
Digitization has made the users the inventors. Word processors and spreadsheet programs and imaging software are spreading all over the globe, on every little "pc" or "network computer" that is sold to a computer user now, and scanners -- which used to be expensive and complicated but which have followed Moore's Law now down into affordability -- also increasingly are everywhere. Far more digitization projects exist and are under development on the hard disks -- some on Websites, some in RAM -- of the computer users of the world than ever could be counted or even imagined in any inventory of "current digitization projects" which might be undertaken.
France had 333,306 Internet "hosts" as of January of this year. Estimates of the number of individual human users which this base figure represents now exceed 1 million, of a total population in France of 58+ million. The most remarkable thing about Internet statistics, however, is not their impressive absolute quantities -- these are large numbers -- but their phenomenal rate of growth. The total number of French Internet hosts has climbed radically each year, from 93,041 in 1995 to 137,217 in 1996 to 245,501 in 1997, to the current 333,306 in 1998 (http://www.nw.com ).
Accurate numbers of the total human users have not been kept -- the Internet was not designed to track this, and what estimates currently are in use are derived from often - questionable polling techniques only recently applied -- but considering that "hosts" now are able to provide connectivity to far more individual users than they generally were able to provide in the past, these are enormous increases. Few technical innovations -- few innovations of any type -- have reached as many human beings, in so short a time, as digital telecommunications has via the Internet.
What, then, are the users doing with their digital access? Via the Web, via telnet, via ftp and email and even through the postal service one now can reach literally countless numbers of digitization projects which have been mounted simply by individuals. These range from the fabled "box of recipes" advertised in the early stand - alone "database" software publicity, to the contents of closets, to "personal web sites" containing family photos of a vacation, to detailed genealogies, to the rantings of future novelists.
The digitization projects of "mere individuals" -- people who are not, or whose projects are not, yet, part of the "government / corporate / educational / organizational" official hierarchies -- also include digitizations of ancient manuscripts, from professors working on these in their "off" hours, fascinating "art" projects, MIDI and other pioneering digital music undertakings, multimedia approaches which the Entertainment industry has not even thought of yet.
The greatest mistake which anyone interested in "digitization" might make, furthermore, would be to ignore those "digitization projects" which reside on -- somewhere "in" -- the systems of "mere users". Much of it may be garbage, of course, but this also is true of much which is in print or said over the telephone or presented on the radio or screen, and most which appears on television.
But it is early for digital information -- the entire technique was invented only a few years ago -- so, if one makes some assumptions about the greater likelihood of pioneers than followers to produce interesting material, perhaps the proportion of "good stuff" to "garbage" still is higher for digitization's users than it is in the case of other media. The hard disks of most university professors, anywhere nowadays including France, contain digitization projects of one kind or another, most of them highly complex and quite a few of them of great real or at least potential value.
And confining the search for interesting digitization projects to professors as users would have overlooked the little Website of two graduate students, David Filo and Jerry Yang, who had trouble finding things online -- as who has not -- and developed a little subject - classification - list - linked - to - a - search - engine which became Yahoo, and which may replace LCSH and MARC, and do so sometime soon. [ http://www.yahoo.com , http://www.yahoo.fr ]
The "Web browsers" which we all now use online originated as an "after - hours" project of a young graduate student in Illinois, relying in turn on the "after - hours" project of an equally - young researcher in Geneva. The "next thing" in these digital domains may well be "Java", an independent project of a small, well - caffeinated, research team then at Sun. Some eccentric individual, somewhere, undoubtedly already is working on Java's successor, as well.
So one of the most interesting outcomes of a study of current digitization efforts in France, or anywhere, is discovering the daring and inventiveness, and sheer imagination, of the digitization projects of individual users.
Charles De Gaulle famously pointed out that the politics of his country was characterized by France's having "256 varieties of cheese". The Internet there has, as of January 1998, perhaps more than a million users. If the same variety applies to the Internet as it does to cheese, in France, there is much of great interest and unpredictability to be found among those French users.
Hard disks in France are as unpredictable and exciting as hard disks in the US -- in some ways more so, particularly to a US observer.
There are monasteries in that country [ http://www.apollonia.fr/monasteries/monalist.html ], and village inns, and farmhouses and wineries [ http://www.vins-bordeaux.fr ] and small homes up in the Alps, where digitization projects are under way which defy any generalization about "French culture" which might be made based upon the official Paris efforts. Many of these -- but not all -- make their way eventually to the Minitel and the Web.
But the decentralized availability of digital technology -- which is quintessentially an "intermediate technology" as E. F. Schumacher intended but might never have imagined it -- provides isolated users with creative possibilities such as few technologies ever have. Of the supposedly - democratic possibilities of this more below, but at least in France one generalizes at one's peril about digitization there based upon a few leading Parisian examples.
Generalities about "France and the French" break down when they are applied to lists of the digitization projects of individuals. Much that is useful can be said about the uniqueness of French government's approaches to digitization, much also about the approach of French corporations, and educational institutions, and even independent or "boundary - spanning" organizations like France's libraries.
French individuals are as unique and eccentric as any other: true to De Gaulle's suggestion, they cover an immense variety -- but the variety of individuals' interests, as represented by their digitization projects, perhaps is no greater in France than it is in the UK, or in Canada, or in the US, or in any other large country.
So long as the variety and the value of their contribution can be recognized, though, one additional feature of the digitization projects of individuals perhaps can provide a basis for comparison.
Lost in all the sound and fury about "quantity", in talk about digitization -- the "numbers", of users and projects, and bits and bytes and capacities -- is any concern for "quality". This need not even be a concern for quality of an evaluative sort, although increasingly there are calls for this among digitization's developers and users now.
"Quality" also describes differences which simply cannot be accounted for by "numbers: in our case, certain digitization projects which may not be "larger" or "smaller" or "more" or "less" than certain others -- or "better" or "worse", for that matter -- but projects which are of value simply because, "qualitatively", they are different.
The digitization projects of individuals in France -- there are many of them, of immense variety, we now know -- may be distinctive simply because they are French. This may not be such a "global village" after all -- there may be some virtue in preserving some of our differences, even in Cyberspace.
French government agencies and commercial firms and schools and libraries are "different" -- differences which show up in their digitization projects and in their approach to digitization generally -- more detailed examination than can be given here of the digitization projects of French individuals may reveal interesting differences at this most fundamental level as well.
Are French individuals more or less interested than Americans are in politics, in sports, in family life or religion or traditions, in sex, in art? These old questions have much new material to cover in the digitization projects of French individuals.
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One ingredient of the US formula for digitization, however, clearly is missing in France. Venture capital is hard to come by in France. Yet it is the life's blood of the digitization industries in the US.
In the US, where digitization first was developed and still continually is being reinvented, the "venture capital process" by now is well - established, if it continues to be so unorthodox as at times to be borderline illegal. Nearly any US entrepreneur with an interesting idea can approach many hundreds of "venture capital" firms, now, for financial support in developing and marketing that idea. Assistance can be as little as a check for $10,000, and as much as full management support and development, and credit lines and cash amounting to many millions of dollars, normally in exchange for substantial stock ownership and continual supervision and even interference in the operation of the firm.
The "VC" firms in the US invest the money of wealthy individuals. The larger ones tap the funds of independent investment organizations in addition. Increasingly the process also is tied in to a host of affiliated activities: a "VC" firm client may -- in the usual case "must" -- use attorneys, accountants, and other ancillary agencies which do a steady and lucrative business with the parent "VC" firm.
Such activities would be illegal in many countries -- they are considered at least "improper" in most. Banking and securities and "antitrust and competition" laws would prohibit the investment itself, not to speak of the "tying - in" of a variety of other activities.
Laws, however, can be circumvented, and very often are in many countries, particularly in statute - driven legal systems which do not have the flexibility of case law to allow them to adapt to new situations. So, even more important than overt legal restrictions, in many places, are customary practices and traditions which militate firmly against the type of collusive investment activity which supports the crucial Venture Capital industry in the US.
The inability of the French education system to envisage direct cooperation among "students", "teachers", "researchers", and "businesses" -- a combination which was the key to the development and success of Stanford University's "Silicon Valley" -- already has been mentioned here.
Another example can be found in the self - policing measures of French professions, such as accountancy and law but extending even to engineering and librarianship -- measures designed from tradition to delineate a profession and distinguish it from others, but which hamper its ability to combine with the others in the new "Venture Capital" undertakings required by the US model of hi - tech development.
Professional strictures, for example, in most countries would prohibit the close ties between attorneys and VC firms which exist in US hi - tech. In the US, the lawyer is an integral part of the firm's development and operation -- from setting up personnel policies for the new firm to eventually handling the entire "IPO / initial public offering" -- some attorneys even serving on the firm's board of directors from the outset.
The lawyer's role is not the same in other countries, however, where the distance between the professional and other professionals, and certainly the client, is deemed to be essential to the relationship and to the professional service to be provided. In the maelstrom of digitization activity in Silicon Valley, all relationships are fast and close -- too fast and too close for similar professions overseas.
Even if France permitted its lawyers this degree of involvement with their clients, there are not enough lawyers in France to go around: around 30,000 attorneys in all of France -- 1 per 2000 population -- versus well over 120,000 in California alone, 1 for every 275 Californians.
To be fair, Venture Capital activity in France currently is hampered by more than just structural and traditional problems. France has been in an economic slump. Budgets are thin, unemployment and interest rates are high (of these figures national unemployment is the most worrisome -- several years of 12+% "chomage" have put millions of discouraged and disgruntled French workers out into the streets), economic activity is low, and investment capital is not readily available -- most of the latter left France long ago for the US, in fact, to be invested there in all the "refuge capital" devices of the US dollar.
If a French digitization entrepreneur is in need of venture capital these days, in fact, she has a better chance of finding it in Silicon Valley, in California, than in Paris. Either the money simply is not there, in France, or if it is it certainly is not doled out to unknown new entrepreneurs in $10,000 amounts.
The current financial / economic situation of France will change, of course. Recovery already is occurring, and more is predicted, to such an extent that France, as a part of Europe -- if the dreams behind the "Euro" and the European Union really come true -- may become a part of the economic powerhouse and largest trading unit of the 21st century world.
Even so, however, the structural problem will remain for the French: their laws, and their banking and investment and professional traditions, do not provide for or even permit the type of combinatorial Venture Capital activity which has brought about the growth of digitization in its initial, US, instance.
Or the French may do it differently. In the 21st century, if they get through their 20th, the French may develop different ways of approaching industrial policies for innovations such as digitization which do not resemble those used in the US's Silicon Valley at all.
The French have a pejorative term for the way they have done things until now: "dirigisme" -- the concentration of all power at the center, and direction of all activities from that center, very often by the French state.
Critics have disparaged the "dirigist" approach, calling it the "Colbertism" of French policy. But it has been the French Way until now: the Minitel was developed by the national government - owned - and - operated France Telecom, government ministries have dispensed most of the money and many of the ideas which have driven digitization activities and development in the provinces -- "Paris and the French Desert" was the title of a famous tract favoring decentralization, popular in the 1960s -- and even the idea to build a new national library was sprung, like Athena nearly fully - clothed, from the head of the French President himself, and closely supervised by the highest echelons of government throughout its development.
This centralized, "dirigiste" approach may be the French model for digitization, eventually. There are forces which militate against it at the moment -- current financial hardships, current EU policies such as those derived from the famous Bangemann Report favoring privatization, recent disenchantments everywhere with "big government".
But the forces in favor of dirigisme are stronger and older in France. Central control may well run things, including digitization, in France again during the next century. That will be the government -- the national government, from Paris -- not a random assortment of independent groupings of professionals and capitalists, ungovernable and chaotic and very un - French, along the lines of the US Silicon Valley "Venture Capital" model.
This outcome has yet to be determined. For now, at least, the lack of a US - style "Venture Capital" industry is one of the most significant distinctions of the French approach to digitization. They have built enormous hi - tech Silicon Valleys as real estate developments -- several of them, including Marne la Vallée where many of the BnF's books may well end up (initial plans for a small "atélier de restauration" have grown into recent "collection de sécurité" schemes, to contain one copy of each work, all of it entirely off - limits to user contact -- see below) -- and they have subsidized developments and directly supported French digitization firms.
But the engine has been missing -- the "Venture Capital" engine which is so inimical to everything understood in France traditionally about the role of government and regulation, and the separation of education and industry, and the professions.
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