I first learned of the Minitel in the mid-eighties, from my brother who moved to France to pursue graduate Engineering school. He described it to me with some level of excitement, as a highly advanced gadget that connected millions of users across the country to all kinds of information. The national phone company would give you a Minitel terminal in lieu of the white pages directory, as you would not need that tome to search for people’s phone numbers, plus you would get additional information such as stock market data, news, and game scores for sports. You would still get the yellow pages book though.
A year earlier I had stayed in New York for my graduate Engineering degree, and had nothing like the Minitel available to me, but I remember being able to walk to the local convenience store to buy a cheap plastic case phone for less than $10 that I could plug in my wall, and I could take with me at the end of each year when I moved. These were the early years of telephony deregulation in the US, and entrepreneurs were already capitalizing on the opportunities this provided. These were also the very early years of the internet, and the power of the infrastructure being laid out by the US Department of Defense was about to get unleashed into the hands of American entrepreneurs.
I first visited my brother in 1990 after he settled permanently in France. I don’t remember using the Minitel, which by then had become a successful local version of the internet, where you could buy all kinds of product and services. I read today that revenue from it to France Telecom then was in the hundreds of millions of US dollars. To tell you the truth, I had come to France for the first time to visit him and get enriched with all the art and culture that intensely permeates Paris, the city that gave rise to the Enlightment. Interestingly enough, I had planned this trip, along with two college friends, partially by sending the first email I ever sent (from one computer lab in a West coast university to a computer lab in another university in the Northeast). That was the year ARPANET was decommissioned, and there was no real widespread commercial internet that I could use. My brother, with his Minitel, seemed to be ahead of the game. But I couldn’t email him even if I wanted. It was not even a thought to be considered.
While in Paris, I don’t even remember being curious to check the Minitel out, I already had experienced plenty with the 512K Apple Macintosh I used to write my Master’s thesis at the graduate students lounge five years prior, with its groundbreaking operating system, and was proficient with all the DOS commands on my very first PC, and IBM XT, which I had bought four years before. Technology, to me, was something you could go buy and make your own. You could get it off the shelf at the convenience store, or you could custom order at the computer store, detailing how many 5 ¼ inch drives you wanted, or whether you wanted a 10MB or 20MB hard disk drive, or how much RAM to add over the standard 256K. Technology was not something the government or a big agency would lend you, placing it in your home for you to use. It was something personal, that you could own, customize, where you could create things, which you could improve and innovate with.
I did not connect to the internet from home until 1996. My brother along with 1.5 million other users was connected to this internet precursor a decade earlier. By 2012, when the outdated Minitel was decommissioned, most everyone in France had moved on to the internet, accessible mostly through hardware designed, developed, and continually innovated upon in Silicon Valley.
Although I haven’t visited in a while, and despite having family there, and roots going back to the mid-19th century, I continue to be in awe of Paris, its beauty, its culture. The seeds that germinated there during the Elightment reached our shores, and fomented our belief in reason, knowledge and freedom. Individuals striving to perfect their adherence to these values on this side of the Atlantic, over two and a half centuries, with ups and downs, refined our disposition, and removed the limits on our call to innovate by making these values deeply personal. And that is what makes our will to innovate so unique and never ending, and the whole world has benefited ever since and is better for it.