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 .


How to Digitize a Nation...

France: National Patrimony, "Foreign" Digits

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

(Continued -- file #6/7)


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So the day will arrive, perhaps sooner than we think, when ecommerce and other aspects of digitization do become significant enough economically to matter a great deal to the political world. There are hints of this already as governments in various countries become increasingly interested in controlling the largest "computer" companies, and regulating or de - regulating "telecommunications" industries, and scrutinizing mergers and other combinations of digital firms which dominate markets and cross international boundaries.

Governments and politicians may not even wait for purely "economic" significance, however, if a catalytic issue or event intrudes. Money talks, in politics, but publicity does as well, and good publicity can attract political attention to even the smallest "economic" entity.

"Catalytic issues and events" vary with the nation involved. What might be an important issue worthy of political attention at the highest level in one culture might create little or no attention somewhere else. In the US, economic events matter: a company or an industry which can achieve market dominance in its field attracts attention -- in the gossip and culture and news pages, as well as on the business page -- and the attention of the nation's political elite.

In Iran, a religious issue would be more likely to get such attention: Iran takes an interest in economic affairs, but that interest is not an overwhelming one, certainly not one pursued at the expense of other more serious religious issues -- in the US, by contrast, religion takes a back seat to economics, for the people and politically.

France has its own, perhaps unique combination of such "leading", potentially - "catalytic" issues. Cultural patrimony is a leader among these. France devotes an entire government ministry to the subject, French education emphasizes it far more than it is emphasized in other educational systems. More importantly, perhaps, political discourse in France is filled with it: French politicians invoke the preservation and propagation of national culture at every opportunity, French presidents take a personal interest in "cultural" affairs -- from President Pompidou's support for the giant cultural center in central Paris which eventually was named for him, to President Mitterrand's support for the newer and even more gigantic central Paris library which now is named for him.

In politics, then, the "catalytic" issue or event which provides the opening for much of the strongest feeling and most impassioned debate about "digitization" is that of the preservation of French "patrimoine culturel". This is to the amusement and ultimate mystification of Americans, who simply cannot understand how a nation in dire economic circumstances can spend $1.7 billion dollars on the construction of a new library -- the US hasn't done this, and it is in much better shape financially, and it too believes in the preservation of its cultural heritage.

But different nations have different scales of values. Both may believe in cultural patrimony, as both may believe in financial responsibility. It is just that, on the US scale, finance ranks higher and the balancing of budgets takes top priority, while on the French scale the important thing is cultural patrimony, and top priority there goes to spending money to preserve that. In Iran it might be religion, in Thailand the Royal Family -- not that either nation, once again, does not share the US' great interest in things like civil liberties and economics. It is all a matter not so much of values but of priorities.

The politics of digitization in France, then -- the full exertion of political control over a phenomenon which still is new there as it is in all countries -- has yet to occur. But it does not have to wait, as it does in the US, until digitization hits its full stride as the enormous "ecommerce" or other industry which it certainly promises to become. This may be the priority in the US. But in France, earlier, digitization developments which run afoul of -- or promise possibilities to, as its influence can work both ways -- greater national priorities, such as the preservation of cultural patrimony, may attract the attention and intervention of national politicians much earlier. In Thailand the political issue is the Royal Family, not cultural patrimony or economics -- in China it already is none of these but political control of unruly populations, a traditional fear of that most populous of nations.

The spectre is that political control of digitization overseas, with the legal and police controls which follow it -- one traditional characterization of the law, forgotten so often amid the hubris of international business, is "monopolization of the use of force" -- will pursue very different paths in different countries, depending on the national values system and priorities of those countries.

The politicians may hold off longer in the US, waiting for the economic power of digitization to become larger; they already are intervening drastically in China, where social consensus is considered so much more important than economics or anything else; they may intervene before they do in the US, in France, where threats to and possibilities for the national culture are thought to be more important than anything else, including the cost.

Different nations, different approaches, different problems, different priorities, different possibilities -- there is nothing necessarily the same among the bits and bytes, between France and the US or anywhere else.

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

(First published June 26, 1998)



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Last week the US President's Special Advisor on the Internet told Europe, at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, "If our system flops we might want to learn from you..." (Reuters, June 24, 1998) [ MagazinerI ]

This is a bad approach, unless the US has the political majority or economic muscle to enforce "our system". Any athlete knows the difference between "confidence" and "arrogance": the one helps you win ballgames, but the other just gets you inevitably into trouble.

The issues involved in digitization are important -- to the French with their concerns for "patrimony", to the Thais with theirs for their religion and their Royal Family, to others for whatever interests them most locally, on their particular local scales of values. These are not technical issues.

The President's Advisor, Ira Magaziner, does not face technical questions, of the type which he faced for his efforts with national health care: accounting issues, budget planning, finance expertise and technical medical knowledge. He confronts, instead, broader, fuzzier, more emotive questions which transcend technique -- "digitization" has gotten beyond technique, now, reaching the general public everywhere with the most personal of questions -- questions about which everyone feels powerfully, regardless of their knowledge or ignorance of the technique.

For the Internet, and for digitization generally, people everywhere and their leaders are worried about intractable issues like censorship, political freedom, cultural aggression and independence, their own histories and national pride -- such issues do not parse easily, and do not lend themselves to technical analysis or resolution.

So does the US have a political majority for this purpose? It is the strong suggestion here that the French case, with all of its differences compared to that of the US, may better represent the majority internationally than the US does -- at least in its degree of eccentricity, and difference from the approaches currently in use in digitization. This week as well Mr. Magaziner's boss is in China, a nation which will have even more political and cultural differences with the US, over the Internet and other things, than France does -- it might be best to discuss things with the French and other more familiar allies first, before plugging them in over in China.

Does the US have the economic muscle, however, in spite of whatever the political majority might or might not want? Undoubtedly -- the enormous wealth of the US, the dynamism of its unique Venture Capital sector, and the strength and aggressiveness of its corporations, guarantee the success of any US approach to digitization which is pushed overseas without regard to the wishes of those upon whom it is pushed.

The Europeans, the French leaders among them, are trying to push back politically. "Europe" is not yet united, however, and its regulators have had little enough success in enforcing Europe's will upon other industries, such as drugs, insurance, banking, and the movies -- European as well as US and other firms -- to cause any realistic fear in "hi - tech" that such regulation will have any significant effect upon the course of digitization for now.

It would be comfortable to imagine an economic answer -- competition, from a European or at least non - US source, for the great forces for digitization currently operating out of US firms -- this is the type of threat which US companies understand, and even enjoy, and are perfectly able to deal with on equal terms. But for now, significant exceptions such as Germany's SAP -- http://www.sap.com -- notwithstanding, the general experience of the digitization market with non - US solutions -- European in origin, or Japanese, or Indian -- has not been promising for real competition: think of the Bull company's misadventures in France, or of the once - promising hi - tech sectors in Bangalore and Singapore and Thailand and Japan, which now have been flattened by the Asia Crash. An international economic answer to the US digitization juggernaut -- of business competition, coming from non - US firms -- does not appear to be imminent.

So the success of the US digitization model in a world governed only by economics would appear for now to be inevitable. The demand certainly is there -- the desperation of much of that demand, born of economic insecurity or for other reasons, appears to guarantee that for now US computers, Internet terminals, digitization standards, and American argot English - language instruction manuals, will continue to flood the users in places as far removed from Kansas as China, Vietnam, Tamil Nadu, Mozambique, Paraguay, and France.

Many of those users, however, in spite of their current desperation, are asking what might be lost in this "Americanization". We in the US should ask these questions, too. Overseas investment always involves unfamiliar risks: we in the US do "investing" very well, but even if "the business of America is business", the most successful businessperson "knows the customer" -- better than we know the overseas digitization user now -- at least to be prepared for surprises when the current rosy business situation changes.

And there are other, non - business, values to be considered, as well. What strategic value does a social force as powerful as a fully - digitized society represent, not only between the US and the rest of the world, but among competing groups in that non - US world?

In the long run, digitization is a technique as powerful and unwieldy as nuclear energy: what will be the result if it is spread -- for purely economic reasons, or not -- first to US friends and only then to US enemies, or the reverse, or more likely to various US friends and enemies each of whom will use the techniques, among their own allies and opponents, for various unpredictable purposes?

Digitization -- so far, in its "US" incarnation -- has not been controlled by government: but in France the government would like to control it a bit more, and even more such control is being demanded in Thailand and Singapore and China and elsewhere overseas -- digitization inevitably will come under some government aegis somewhere, so it would be better at least to consider the possibility and plan for it than to pretend that it never will happen simply because it has not yet.

When Ira Magaziner spoke in London last week he voiced the current "laissez faire -- 'America First'" approach. He is not the only one: his chief is in China this week, trying to convince people there to do things "the American way", and the current issue of Business Week extols the virtues of US economics to the French Prime Minister, encouraging M. Jospin to abandon an economic approach and system which in his country are centuries old and in which he personally and his party believe deeply and fervently.

Digitization will not "scale up" gladly to this "laissez faire -- 'America First'" approach internationally. It may happen. Current US economic power may ensure that American English will be the argot and mindset used by the next generation of "Internauts" and "Internautes", in France.

The generation after that, however, will be of a "Europe" which already in this generation is the world's largest trading body and by then may have the world's strongest currency and a much more competitive general economy; that next generation may also have to contend with an Asia with a restored economy and the largest armies and navies and explosive confrontations in the world, and an India with a powerful and competitive presence in digitization itself.

The current approach works very well, for now. But the digitization industries currently have to see only "six months out", as Oracle's Larry Ellison warns. When things change a little later, and for those of us now who are concerned about preparing for those future changes, a different approach -- a more multilateral and consensus - based approach -- will be needed.

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Last update: November 29, 2007