"When I get back from school I basically barricade myself in the apartment and never go out at night," says the narrator of Michel Houellebecq's Les Particules élémentaires. "Sometimes I go on the Minitel and check out the sex sites, that's about it." Here those reading the English translation of the novel (in this case Frank Wynne's, called Atomised) will tilt their heads: the "Minitel"? Though he writes more or less realistic novels, Houellebecq does come out with the occasional science-fictional flourish. But in France, the Minitel was a very real technological and cultural phenomenon. "What the TGV was to train travel, the Pompidou Centre to art, and the Ariane project to rocketry," writes BBC News' Hugh Schofield, "in the early 1980s the Minitel was to the world of telecommunications."
Combining a monitor, keyboard, and modem all in one beige plastic package, the Minitel terminal — known as the "Little French Box" — was once a common sight in French households. With it, writes Julien Mailland in the Atlantic, "one could read the news, engage in multi-player interactive gaming, grocery shop for same-day delivery, submit natural language requests like 'reserve theater tickets in Paris,' purchase said tickets using a credit card, remotely control thermostats and other home appliances, manage a bank account, chat, and date." All this at a time when, as Schofield puts it, "the rest of us were being put on hold by the bank manager or queueing for tickets at the station." And what's more, the French got their Minitel terminals for free.
Conceived in the "white heat of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's technological great leap forward of the late 1970s," Minitel appeared as one of the signal efforts of a nationwide developmental project. "France was lagging behind on telecommunications," writes the Guardian's Angelique Chrisafis, "with the nation's homes underserved by telephones – particularly in rural areas." But soon after the rollout of the Minitel, usage exploded such that, "at the height of its glory in the mid-1990s, the French owned about 9m Minitel devices, with 25m users connecting to more than 23,000 services." Initially pitched to the public as a replacement for the paper telephone directory, the Minitel evolved to provide many of the services for which most of the world now relies on the modern internet.
Though developed and implemented by the French government, Minitel incorporated services by independent providers. "The most lucrative service turned out to be something no-one had envisaged — the so-called Minitel Rose," writes Schofield. "With names like 3615-Cum (actually it's from the Latin for 'with'), these were sexy chat-lines in which men" — Houellebecq-protagonist types and other — "paid to type out their fantasies to anonymous 'dates.'" Not long before Minitel's discontinuation in 2012, when more than 800,000 terminals were still active, "billboards featuring lip-pouting lovelies advertising the delights of 3615-something were ubiquitous across the country." 3615, as every onetime Minitel user knows, were the most common initial digits for Minitel services, each of which had to be hand-dialed on a telephone before the terminal could connect to it.
You can see this process in the Retro Man Cave video at the top of the post, which tells the story of the Minitel and shows how its terminals actually worked. (Retro-minded Francophones may also enjoy the 1985 TV documentary just above.) The host draws a comparison between Minitel and the much less successful Prestel, a similar service launched in the United Kingdom in 1979. It might also remind Canadians of a certain age of Telidon, which we've previously featured here on Open Culture. But no other other pre-internet videotex system made anywhere the impact of Minitel, which lives on in France as a cultural touchstone, if no longer as a fixture of everyday life. As Valérie Schafer, co-author of the book Minitel: France's Digital Childhood puts it to Chriasafis, "There's a nostalgia for an era when the French developed new ideas, took risks on ideas that didn't just look to the US or outside models; a time when we wanted to invent our own voice."
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.