Did anyone read (or care?) about the eG8 Forum that just happened in France? The one where G8 leaders are discussing the need for a set of guidelines for aligning governmental policies towards the Internet in all participating G8 countries.
No? I’m not surprised.
If you do care, check out the Infographic that Mashable published on the event. It’s humorous because of how it pits a net-hostile Nicolas Sarkozy against tech luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt.
I think my favorite tweet from the infographic is from JP Barlow who quotes Sarko as saying, “the internet is the new frontier, a territory to conquer” to which Barlow responds, “and I am in Paris to stop him.”
Jeff Jarvis, a favorite thinker/blogger of mine, tweeted, “at the #eG8 government acts as if it should protect us from the internet. Instead, the internet needs protection from the government.”
That sort of encapsulates why it is hilarious that a bunch of primarily European countries (plus the US and Canada) would think that the world would care about their opinions on how to regulate the internet. I mean, a) Most of the member countries in the G8 are not exactly internet or technological trailblazers, so who really cares what their thoughts are on the internet?; and b) The internet, as platform, and its network of global users (with the exception of China, perhaps) has proven that it will generally laugh in the face of anyone who tries to closely regulate it. After all, ardent internet users are usually light years ahead of the technological curve and the tactics of countries that would attempt to control them.
Which leads me to this: Thank you Sarko for this outstanding opportunity for me to vent some of my now-out-of-date frustration about France’s approach to the internet and web-based technologies.
Having worked briefly (6 months) with a “French web-based startup” while I lived in Paris, I’m going to argue that I have some right to write a bit about what I have observed of France’s relationship with the internet.
Please note, this is not a ranting session about France and its people. I really love France and its people. It is, in fact, because of my love for France and its people, I was seriously pained every day to observe what I did of France’s technologically masochistic tendencies
France is known for a great many wonderful things- things that, as I see it, are mostly rooted in tangibility- art, food, architecture, wine, the countryside, huge airplanes, cheese. France has also been recognized for its achievement of landmark historical intangibles, such as the French Revolution and the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Unfortunately, those both date from the 18th century, and so here we begin to see the problem.
France has lost its ability to embrace and foster the intangible. As a result, in a modern world where elements of intangibility are widely regarded as the inevitable future of many markets and economies, France has fallen woefully behind.
But, if you look closer, there is strong evidence to suggest that France’s masochistic approach to technology and the internet was inevitable. Indeed, a disdain for intangibles is intrinsically French. As a largely hierarchical and bureaucratic culture, France is a country in serious need of more deregulation, decentralization and privatization.
As an example, when I worked at this Paris-based eCommerce firm, part of my responsibility as half of the team of two people who cleaned and organized the entire U.S. catalog of items for purchase (already ludicrous, no?) was to translate the items names and their categorization in the back-end catalog.
The unbelievable truth of this company’s strategy was that all translations and categorizations were completed relative to the original French framework. In the case of the U.S. site there was some added ridiculousness- the categories and terms for items were replicated and translated from the original French, into British English, and my job was then to translate those categories and items names into American English language equivalents.
So, there were whole sections in the food area of the online site dedicated to “French wines,” and “caviars,” and “puddings,” but I had to go through an arduous process to create American food categories, such as “cookies,” “French fries,” etc. When I asked why we had to base our catalogue off of the French and British ones in the first place, thereby creating so much more work for ourselves than would have been necessary if we had begun from scratch with an American site, I was met with a stony stare. I was later informed that questioning the original French framework for categorization was just not done. An outstanding example of French pride, bureaucracy, hierarchy and lack of global insight all-in-one.
In other words, the same culture that allows for a ban on the display of religious clothing in public places, that mandates one style of handwriting for all, and only one version of its national language also has seemingly little concept of the importance of the globally diverse population of the internet, or from the opposite perspective, localization. Don’t get me wrong, in many ways I admire how the French hold on to their language proudly and refuse to compromise in its usage. But this linguistic pride and a nationally shared sense that their global relevance is slipping inhibits their ability to think globally, to develop a global mindset. France is still so stuck on how to force the world to recognize it as a great power, and to follow its models and its rules for governance, that it has forgotten that in order to be relevant, it must also be a part of the brave, new, global reality that operates within and without its own physical borders.
Unless France can begin to embrace the internet as central to its future, and foster more technological and, specifically, web-based innovation, it risks becoming increasingly irrelevant to the 21st century context. France is badly in need of a Twitter, a Facebook, or a Google of its own to send out as an ambassador and a symbol to the world- but from what I observed during my two years in Paris, it is a long way from achieving that. In the mean time, I guess we will all watch Sarko butt his head against some of the greatest thinkers and innovators of the 21st century, and try hard not to laugh.