12.80 FYI France Resource List: "How to Digitize a Nation..."

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

An Online Essay,

with Selective and Partially - Annotated Lists of Resources, Online and Off-

(The essay and its notes and references and links are presented in 7 files,
designed for use online or for printing and reading offline.)

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. 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 kessler@well.sf.ca.us .

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How to Digitize a Nation...

France: National Patrimony, "Foreign" Digits

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

(Continued -- file #5/7)

 

IV) Issues: Digitization and "Foreign" Techniques

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"Democracy" may have achieved the status of a "universal" value, now at the end of the 20th century. There is a list of such values, now: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other brave documents and efforts are busy propagating the hopeful idea that a minimal level of human decency, commonly - agreed, ought to be obtainable and observable by all of the peoples of the world.

A "Human Right to Information"?

"Digitization", however, is not yet on the list. It may be, some day. Various societies already are thinking about a "human right to health care", and a "human right to housing" -- a "human right to free expression" already is on the books in most places, and a "human right to information" may not be so far behind.

Some day digitization may be deemed standardized enough, and important enough, to be accorded the status of a universal value, somewhat like "democracy" is already. For now, though, "digitization", on anybody's priorities list, remains a less important and somewhat parochial and technical term. Few people so far, for example, would sacrifice their "democracy" to "go digital"; and, despite great strides which have been made in "standardization", there still is a reasonable amount of variation remaining in what different peoples do when they work on "digitization".

Consensus and the lack thereof

This lack of priority and consensus becomes a problem, internationally. Even if "digitization" had been an idea spontaneously generated in a number of locations across the planet, simultaneously -- even if surrogates of Cerf and Kahn and Andreessen and Berners - Lee, and Von Neumann and Turing and Boole and Lovelace, had done simultaneous work in Beijing and Bangkok and Paris as well as where they in fact did it -- the "development" process, more critical in hi - tech even than "discovery", still would have occurred at different rates in different places.

Sooner or later France would have faced the fundamental "digitization" problem which it faces today: the problem of dealing with techniques which are "foreign". So, now, despite great strides in digitization made in France itself, the technical and business literature, the online and offline conferences and discussions, the supporting documentation, and most important of all the general impetus for future development, still reside primarily with the people and government agencies and corporations of, and in the language of, the country which first produced it and "brought it to market", the US.

Values

The problem is greatly exacerbated, then, if the material which one wants to "digitize" is among the local culture's most treasured national assets. Commercial telephony and air travel -- two other "technical" innovations often compared to "digitization" -- made no such direct threat when they were introduced: the telephone did not impede directly upon French song, commercial air travel was not deemed to threaten the French countryside, peace and quiet, or clean air until long after its initial introduction. The railroad and the automobile both scared some horses, and some people, when they first arrived -- but the threat was not to the national pride of and basic cultural values of France.

From the first, however, "digitization" has been a technical innovation directly involved with the cultural foundation of France: with its art, with its music, with the written texts which generations of French students have been taught embody the essence of French culture. From "command line data entry" to "graphical user interfaces", from "word processing and databases" to the "World Wide Web and Multimedia", the raw material of "digitization" has been the artistic and literary and general creative output which France treasures, more than most nations, as its national "cultural patrimony".

Some people, in some places, will die for "democracy" -- others, who also value democracy, may more readily die for their religion -- in France, people will die for their "patrimoine culturel", or at least this is how they portray themselves to others, and how they think of themselves, how they define themselves as being "French".

Priorities

The confrontation between the foreign technique, "digitization", and the immediate subject which it addresses -- not something mundane like transportation or communication, or some business improvement or even a scientific advance, but the artistic, literary and creative output of the nation -- is made that much more dramatic by that subject's being literally the highest on that country's national values scale. There are few things about which the French care more passionately than their culture. There are few areas in which they would be more sensitive to intrusions by "foreign" values: the Thais resent intrusions upon their religion or their Royal Family, the French give priority to their "patrimoine culturel".

Process

There is perhaps no better place, therefore, to consider the potential impact of US "digitization" techniques upon other cultures -- the "scaling up" of digitization to international applications -- than by examining the French as they deal with the impact of digitization upon their cherished "patrimoine culturel": "national patrimony and 'foreign' digits".

Three general levels of problems for the "foreign" user, at least, can be observed in this early phase of digitization's development:

At the most basic level, digitization is a problem for someone French if its documentation is written in English. There is an alarmingly common conviction among digital technique developers in the US that everyone "overseas" having the interest and the wherewithal to have a computer and use a scanner or the Internet in fact knows English.

They don't. In France as in most countries, many people are multi - lingual and do know English, but many -- most -- are not and do not.

More important, however, is the ability to use technical English, which is several orders of magnitude less widespread in France than even limited - newspaper English is. Anyone in the US who does not understand the distinction and knows French should try reading a French technical journal sometime.

For digitization, technical language includes words and phrasing which are not yet in any French dictionary, or for that matter in any English dictionary, or even in general use in the US itself yet. How is someone in Montpellier supposed to divine what a "killer app" is -- or a "browser war" or a "Java applet" -- without a whole lot of help which is not even available yet in the US?

Beyond such simple, straightforward "language" problems are several which are more subtle. "Hi - tech language", to begin with, often is not even recognizable to many native English speakers because of its jargon and convoluted syntax.

A minor industry has grown up in Silicon Valley itself of mere "writers" -- people with degrees in "English" or in "Literature" or "Journalism" -- whose job simply is to translate the English of the engineers into English which can be understood by others.

Such translation was not so important in the earlier days of digitization, when engineers communicated only with other engineers and developers all had a cultural and educational background in common; but when the "personal computer" was launched, and particularly when "The Internet" took off, the "uninterested general public" user arrived -- someone who not only did not know but did not care about the engineer's proprietary language and background and mindset, but who nevertheless had become important, perhaps most important, to the enterprise -- and the absolute necessity of such translation was born.

Non - English - proficient users, then, have a double barrier to overcome: not only must they learn the English - language medium which still characterizes most of digitization, but they must use it in a specialized technical context which in fact befuddles English - language users as well.

One additional non - linguistic but still simple problem faced by the foreign user, then, has to do with the sources of knowledge about digitization. Digitization is one of the few areas of technical knowledge for which information can be found only by using the technique itself. For most subjects, a researcher can consult multiple sources in a variety of formats: information can be found in magazines or newspapers or at conferences or among one's peers, a telephone call may be made or a "book" purchased or a letter written and one received or a symphony heard -- increasingly, as well, digital sources can be consulted about nearly anything.

But for digital subjects -- for digitization -- only digital sources will do. Digitization is too new, and it changes too rapidly: anything about it "in print" is out of date, in many cases so much so as to make the information useless or even harmful to the research effort -- telephone calls, even if they reach live people, reach individuals rather than the broad collectives which in fact are developing the techniques, conferences happen only once a year -- the only place for finding up to date "digitization" information is via email or on W3, online, in the "digitization" world itself.

This poses logical problems, and dangers, for digitization which already have been noted -- see "Commentary", above. For the foreign user it compounds the difficulty of becoming and staying informed about the phenomenon considerably: the very resources which someone wishing to learn about digitization would want to consult are online, products of the very digitization which has yet to be learned -- if you don't have the Internet yet you can't learn about it, if you don't yet have a computer the indecipherable offline documentation is no help in learning how to use it. It is no wonder that people "overseas" feel enslaved by the "foreign" technology -- it begins to feel like an endless game of "catch - up" which one always is losing.

This problem is severe in France: and it is much more severe in countries which have even less Internet access and fewer computers and scanners, in addition to less command of English and of technical English.

More complex, then, than "simple, primarily - linguistic problems" -- among the many difficulties which confront a "foreign" user of digitization -- are several problems of economic power associated with digitization's development in France and elsewhere outside the US.

Digitization is the product of an enormous but finely - fractured industry in the US. In spite of the romantic publicity accorded certain highly - visible industry "leaders" -- the "Adobes" and "AOLs" and "Microsofts" and IBMs" and "Ciscos" and "Pixars" of digitization -- the typical US user has access to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other firms which can provide products and services useful in a local digitization effort.

This is less the case in France, and not the case at all in many other places. Outside of the US, remembering that digitization still is a primarily US - led effort, the only firms which really have a presence in digitization efforts are the big ones. It is tempting to the point of being tragic to sit at an Internet terminal in Lyon, viewing all the wonderful variety of suppliers and consultants listed on the US Yahoo service, only to realize that so very few of them have any ability much less experience at delivering their products and services to users located in the Rhône - Alpes.

The products and services appear to be there -- "just a mouseclick away", the way they would be in Cupertino -- but in reality they are not: in reality the little firms and the small consultants exist exclusively to serve users in Cupertino, not in France -- they would not have their language, or their payment capacities, or their delivery logistics, or their business priorities, aligned sufficiently for "overseas" service -- the "overseas" user usually, eventually, will have to fall back on dealing with "IBM", with the "big US firms".

This dependence is not so apparent to US - based digitization users. From the US, the digital world does seem at times to be an enormous commercial democracy, a huge marketplace composed of many small contestants, all of them vying for the favors and the dollars of the user and many of them doing so on very much of an equal basis with the biggest firms. There is no reality in this democratic and competitive picture, however, for most users in France, and certainly no possibility of it at all for a user in Thailand or China or Mozambique -- over there, still, one deals primarily or exclusively with only the biggest firms, in a less - than - competitive market situation for a small user.

There is an exception, of course, for the growing world of local sources. There are many such in France, now. Vendors of the products and services of the large US firms exist in France and they do a healthy and growing business -- these firms and individuals work in French, have knowledge of local approaches and conditions, and increasingly deal in French services and even French products. A large firm or organization still has trouble sourcing a LAN or a mainframe or a database package in France from an exclusively - French resource, but increasingly a smaller user can find many things which she needs for a local digitization project -- except perhaps the basic hardware (the plugs can / must be French, from the BHV!) -- from local, user - friendly, sources.

Another exception to the general economic domination of digitization overseas by large US firms can be made, increasingly, for the growing digital "service" industries. As digitization becomes more and more available, and as digitization users become more and more sophisticated, the rapidly - growing number of information and consulting services available in digital formats becomes increasingly useful.

Digitization is the quintessential "service" industry: more than its "hardware" and its "software", increasingly it is providing a "service" -- as "computerization" and "digital technique" have become more standardized, or at least more accessible to users -- the true "value - added" appreciated and paid for by users is service: the "user training", installation and maintenance "help", "troubleshooting", "continuing education" functions have become more and more important in digitization, as the importance of "wiring" and "assembly" and "coding" problems has receded.

Nowhere is this digital "service" function so important as it is overseas, where US language are not spoken and US approaches are not understood, and nowhere is it any more available, now, in an era when CD - ROMs and DVDs and Internet email and html are nearly as accessible overseas as they are in Cupertino.

A user in France may not yet be able to order a computer economically via the Internet, or obtain a fancy software package cost - effectively -- although both are close, now -- but she can get, and be offered, digital "service" online, via plentiful and highly - competitive consulting services increasingly available online.

Such services, for that matter, also can go in the other direction easily: "digital service" can be offered to France from the US, and also to the US from France.

Europe, like the US, currently is in a policy - making phase which favors the restriction if not the full dismantling of governmental and other interference in what is called the "free market". The EC's Bangemann Report, competition trends in the European telecommunications and other industries, and the pressures of its prolonged economic crisis, all have produced a "laissez - faire" phase in European policy - making very much in contrast with previous "social welfare" and outright "Socialist" eras.

The social policy pendulum always can, however, swing back -- in Europe and elsewhere -- it has swung back and forth in the past, between "intervention" and "laissez - faire", and it would be naive to think that it will not do so again.

Many of the pressures calling for a return to intervention are economic. Resentment of the economic domination of digitization by US firms is one such pressure. Others include a growing resistance to digital pornography, and to crime and privacy issues and extremist political activities in the digital media -- all such activities are able to get more absolute "free speech" protection in the legal and philosophical regime of the US than they do in Europe.

One most immediate economic issue of digitization is the looming issue of taxing ecommerce. The US wants ecommerce to be tax free, for fear of "killing the goose that laid the golden egg" in these early days of the commercial Internet. Rumblings in favor of taxation, of the type heard in some US state capitals, are accentuated in Europe by fear of the growing market domination by large US firms: eventually this will renew the classic confrontation between "protection" -- of the Europeans, as Alexander Hamilton protected the "infant industries" of the early US -- against the current official US position of "free trade".

Free trade, however, favors the largest trader, and the trader with the largest profit margins. The modern concept was a 19th century invention of the British, at a time when British trade and the British navy ruled the seas, and the British Empire was on its way to taking over 2/3 of the world map.

An elaborate supporting theory constructed to prove that each country could exploit its particular "comparative advantage" was seen to founder in the Third World in the latter half of this century: the products and services of the US and European "developed" worlds had the larger profit margins, and their trade was better able to survive economic expansions and contractions, than were the "fungible" products of the "under - developed" nations, for which a small competitive price difference meant literally "no sale" and very often starvation.

The same now is true of digital ecommerce, the motor which is taking digitization into the next millennium, in this era of "free enterprise" and minimal government intervention. Ecommerce "free trade" will favor the largest and most profitable trader: that trader, for now, unquestionably is the US -- and in fact a fairly small number of very large US firms. Taxation of such ecommerce, at this point, could well "kill the goose that laid the golden egg". But US participants in the upcoming "Internet tax" debates should realize that, from a European point of view, that goose is American -- someone in France may very well feel willing to risk killing it in order to protect some native French "infant industry" in ecommerce.

The saving factor in what could become an ugly international trade confrontation could well be digital "service". Insofar as purely "service" industries become a significant part of ecommerce -- current general industrial trends are making "service" industries and the "service" economy more important everywhere now -- and insofar as ecommerce "service" is relatively independent of location, it mattering increasingly little whether the "service" being rendered is "located" in the US or in France, or anywhere else -- email and W3 can reach anyone from anywhere -- perhaps French digital "service" industries will develop which will equalize the current influence of US digital "service" industries, and negate the general advantage which the large US firms currently have in digitization. Users may be able, at some point soon, to choose and use digital format services spread somewhat more evenly over the planet than they are now. This would remove a great deal of the current pressure overseas which might favor any ecommerce tax.

But until that development and that equalization occur, the international economic picture in digitization is tremendously one - sided, favoring a few very large US firms at the great and increasing expense of all overseas digitization users. It is a situation which will not be resolved by any resuscitation of 19th century "free trade" thinking.

The simpler "primarily - linguistic" problems discussed above, and the "economic power" problems, are involved in nearly every aspect of digitization. No matter what the subject - matter, or the purpose of the project or communication, or the nature of the particular user, if that user is French there are problems, currently, stemming from unfamiliarity with "Anglo - Saxon" language and approaches, and resentment over "Anglo - Saxon" economic domination. These problems are small, for now. But they are of a type which tends to fester, and to grow, with a change in economic and especially political conditions.

The "politics" of digitization has not really been addressed yet. The novelty of the technique and its applications still is such that people do not yet know where they stand: clear lines have not yet been drawn, positions have not yet been taken, parties not yet formed, confrontations and conflicts and political solutions not yet sought and fought and lost and won.

But it will happen. The politics of digitization still is only in its "implementation" phase: until the "personal computer" and the lifting of the US Internet's academic "acceptable use" restrictions, both really just a little while ago in slow - moving "political" terms, digitization still was being "invented" -- since then and still today digitization has been "implemented", put into practice, developed in the form of "applications". A next phase could well be reached once ecommerce becomes a significant international industry, or the backbone for international industries: "money talks", and once ecommerce represents large amounts of it people in politics will listen closely -- politics is very much of a "rule - making" activity, so one thinks of the Golden Rule, that "whoever has the gold makes the rules..."

Ecommerce is large, already, but it is not yet really a "significant" economic activity, yet -- it does not yet matter enough to enough people -- to make mainstream politicians want to take hold of it the way they now do "tobacco" or "automobiles" or "oil". Current ecommerce projections, for 2001 put it at $206 billion or 2.7% of GDP in the US, $64 billion or only .9% of GDP in Europe. (Forrester Research, Business Wire June 26, 1998).

It is the marginal dollar, however -- the last dollar spent -- which makes the difference in economic growth and expansion, not the absolute dollar which may be lost in the routine of ongoing operations. The most recent, experimental, marginal dollar is the dollar which gets attention: of Boards of Directors which agonize over whether to spend it, of advertising departments which devote a disproportionate amount of their time to giving it publicity, to the political committees and politicians who notice it far more readily than they notice routine budget items. The "new" dollar amounts in ecommerce already are far more significant, in this sense, than the larger dollar amounts of traditional trade, which are "older": $64 billion and $206 billion amounts are not "small change".

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