3.00 FYI France: Ejournal and archive

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

January 15, 2000 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on January 15, 2000.

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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

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 for 12 months 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


FYI France: Vitrolles -- who watches the watchers?

In these days of AOL / TimeWarner megamergers, and "paradigm shifts" in information management and access, and the "globalization" of "the American corporate enterprise dream" -- and of growing resistance to same -- it might be useful for all of us to consider what just has happened in Vitrolles, a small city in France. It is happening in their library, in fact...

The extremist right - wing Front National party won political control of Vitrolles some time ago. The mayor now is the wife of the party's leading ideologue, and both that couple and their many local and national supporters are vehemently dedicated to propagating their particular political agenda -- throughout their city and, using Vitrolles as a platform, throughout their country.

Now comes the question: what books shall the Vitrolles library buy? what materials shall the numerous local "étudiants", whom the city proudly advertises in its promotional literature online, be encouraged to / allowed to read?

There now is a list -- always, in these situations, there is a list -- the following are the books recommended in October for purchase, by the Vitrolles "élue déléguée à la culture accompagnée de la secrétaire générale adjointe à la vie locale", then to be rubber - stamped by a committee.

We are told (reference below) that, "La liste d'ouvrages suivante, émanant entièrement du chargé de mission à l'animation, a été commentée et validée par l'élue". There is a furor over this now in France, librarians protesting that their normal selection procedures have been circumvented, railroaded, ramrodded -- nightmarish, such terms, to anyone familiar with the history of the European 1920s and 30s.

The actual book choices will make anyone familiar with France and the French, and the way these things are done in too many other countries and have been done throughout history, smile and then perhaps cry a little:

No, I have not read these myself, and in all probability I will not. There undoubtedly is someone reading this now who has read at least a few of the above, and may want to defend individual selections. But that is not the point...

It is not that Messrs. Volkoff, de Fersan, Lugan, Waider, etc. are bad people, or that they do not write well, necessarily... nor is it that subjects like "anti - French and anti - Christian racism", and "the Boer War", and "Catholicism", and "Qui veut tuer la France ? La stratégie américaine" do not necessarily deserve serious and studious consideration, from the "étudiants" of Vitrolles and others. I myself would be interested to read that last - named title -- and I look forward very much to reading Le Carré de Pluton of Brigitte Bardot, some day.

But there are at least two things going on here which should alarm anyone, not just those interested in France and the French. The substance of the list, first of all, appears to represent a political platform. Simply judging from the titles and authors it seems that the political program of the Front National is primarily what is being presented: nationalism, conservative Catholicism, "celtic mythology" for pete's sake -- is this to be Wagner redux? -- and people should be reminded that Mlle. Bardot is married to a Front National party stalwart...

Second, and more important, is the procedure: legal philosophers make a basic distinction between "substance" and "procedure" and then ignore the former, realizing that the latter is what makes societies tick. And here, in Vitrolles, the "procedure" stinks. A bureaucratic zealot is imposing a political platform on the choice of what "the people" will be able to read, disguising it of course as "the will of the people", saying that "this is what the people of Vitrolles really want to read..." and so on.

This is the way these things happen -- it is the way they happened under Hitler, the way things unfolded under Stalin, the way totalitarians and censors throughout the ages have manipulated the media -- read the history, Hannah Arendt and the rest -- arbitrary - or - worse bureaucratic fiat, thinly disguised as "what the people want". Vitrolles, and France, have a serious problem here.

Details of the Vitrolles booklist / "comité de lecture" issue may be read online, in French, at the following address: search on "Vitrolles" in the November, December, and January files -- http://listes.cru.fr/arc/biblio-fr@cru.fr/index.cgi


But Vitrolles may be a microcosm now of something more, in fact -- more than just France and the French and their problems with their Front National. French readers should take no comfort, in other words, from recent setbacks in the fortunes of the FN; nor should they or foreigners feel that Vitrolles and its FN problems are merely a local French issue.

For we all have the Internet crashing in now upon the already severely - unsettled world of publishing and media and entertainment. "Infotainment" is rearing its ugly head in the new AOL / TimeWarner merger -- and the fear as to which shark is swallowing which, and many other fears -- at least the awful possibility that sitcoms and titillation will be all that we have left, once the digital world fully enables the current "Media" empires truly to reach into each of our homes and lives, through our televisions or our refrigerators or our flip - phones or however.

In all of this Internet and digital information excitement, no "procedures" are emerging of the sort which legal philosophers, at least, like to see. Perhaps the most innocuous of the dangers which might loom initially in such an unregulated world is "Infotainment" -- sweaty gyrating bodies, cutesy newscasters, booming music, and brainless dialog are not the worst things which might ooze from the information pipe. Far worse might be the new methods -- arising in the vacuum currently being left by the defeat and discouraged retreat of the old -- for selecting and distributing information in health, and education, and legal, and political fields.

If mega - corporate "Infotainment" companies are going to dominate the new information channels in _their_ sphere -- defying, or simply ignoring, social regulatory structures which have not kept up with the new technologies -- who will dominate in the health areas, drug companies?... in education, soft drink vendors? Already online advertising is making its way into US schools, and soft drink and other vendors have been fighting each other for turf there for some time -- why should schools serve soft drinks to their students anyway?... and in law and politics?... In Vitrolles, in France, it now is an extremist right - wing political party, the Front National...

One of the great arguments for the AOL / TimeWarner merger -- and for the similar "media" mergers which will follow it soon, in the US and Europe and Asia, as mainstream information industries finally embrace the new Internet -- is that the chaotic and diffuse nature of the Internet will _democratize_ the sclerotic and now over - consolidated and centralized Big Media industries.

AOL's Steve Case makes this point in his presentations. But sure, Steve: I am a longtime AOL fan, shareholder, and loyal user -- I know it _is_ possible, now, to reach "The Internet" from "AOL" -- but users have to wade through a proprietary AOL front - end which now will be overloaded with TimeWarner offerings -- and you know very well, Steve, how hard it is to get new users to see through that AOL front - end to "The Internet"... it's where our money comes from at AOL, after all, all that difficult front - end "wading"...

Critics of the trend -- like a professor of "Media Ecology" at NYU (NPR broadcast), and various irate independent journalists -- worry tremendously that only content owned or at least approved by the giant corporation will get served out over AOL now, that the wrong shark will win in fact, that the tail ultimately will wag the dog. In "Infotainment" this will be bad enough. In politics it will spell disaster. If control over All of Information -- that "convergence" which digital information technologists are so fond of extolling -- now is handed to fewer and fewer large factors in the political process, as well as in Infotainment or possibly even as a result of the Infotainment trend, there is grave trouble brewing.

Over centuries societies like France and the US have evolved extremely complex social and political and legal structures for dealing with freedom of information and communication. These structures balance, very delicately, social and political and legal regulation against deliberate gaps allowing freedom from regulation. The structures and balances so - developed in France have been very different from those in the US. Those of India and China and other societies have been even more different. All this now is at risk in our Brave New Internet World.

What balance, of regulation and the lack thereof, is going to govern AOL / TimeWarner and other giant Infotainment media mergers? They already are beyond the purview of most individual nation - states to govern. Now, via the Internet, they are "going global". The UN cannot even manage a little Balkan or Middle Eastern War, the EU and NATO run only Europe, the WTO has its tail between its legs from Seattle and may not be an impartial arbiter anyway, the US cannot and should not do everything. So who will be "watching the watchers", as Infotainment and the rest of digital information "globalize"? Judging from the Vitrolles example, the regulatory position in the balancing equation is very much up for grabs, now, and already some very old demons are beginning to re - emerge.

Censorship -- thought control -- brainwashing: are the 20th century's greatest nightmares about to become those of the 21st? It is as though, pace Santayana, Franz Kafka's spectres are rising from the gutters to which the previous century washed them, with so much blood. Orson Wells' film of The Trial just has been re - released: go see it -- and wonder, just for a moment, whether information really "wants to be free", or whether it just might prefer a more controlled and insidious and ultimately devastating form, in its natural state. In Vitrolles, in France, citizens are facing this awful possibility on a daily basis now. Sort of takes the bloom off of the Internet rose...


"Oh well", as one of our youthful sons says -- and Happy New Year anyway, everybody.



FYI France (sm)(tm) e-journal                   ISSN 1071 - 5916

      |           FYI France (sm)(tm) is a monthly electronic
      |           journal published since 1992 as a small-scale,
      |           personal experiment, in the creation of large- 
      |           scale "information overload", by Jack Kessler. 
     / \          Any material written by me which appears in 
    -----         FYI France may be copied and used by anyone for 
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 //       \\      isn't going to make them money: if it is going 
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Use of material written by others requires their permission. 
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Suggestions, reactions, criticisms, praise, and poison-pen letters 
all will be gratefully received at kessler@well.sf.ca.us 

        	Copyright 1992- , by Jack Kessler, 
	all rights reserved except as expressed above.


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Last update: February 17, 2000