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Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth: The DDN Edition
Chirac Declares War on Google Library Project

CIO Today has an interesting article that outlines a cultural "counter-offensive" planned by French President Jacques Chirac to rally against Anglo-Saxon Internet culture. When I first read the headline, I imagined Chirac dressed as a medievel crusader charging against hordes of Vikings and British toy soldiers, but in fact, his fight is with Google's library digitization project.

Google, as you may know, is working with libraries across the US to digitize more than 15 million books so they can be made available on the Internet. Some of us see this as important step to ensuring equitable access to intellectual and cultural resources over the Internet. But to the French government, apparently, this project is the beginning of the end of French culture.

The concern, according to France's chief librarian Jean-Noel Jeanneney, is that the creation of an immense database of content from the United States will taint future generation's interpretation of history and culture, as more people rely on the Internet to learn about the world. If online libraries are dominated by "Anglo-Saxon" cultural content, the French cultural perspective could become buried and lost.

Jean-Noel Jeanneney writes in Le Monde:

The real issue is elsewhere. And it is immense. It is confirmation of the risk of a crushing American domination in the definition of how future generations conceive the world.

The libraries that are taking part in this enterprise are of course themselves generously open to the civilizations and works of other countries ... but still, their criteria for selection will be profoundly marked by the Anglo-Saxon outlook.

...It would have meant The Scarlet Pimpernel triumphing over Ninety-three (Victor Hugo's eulogistic account of the revolution); valiant British aristocrats triumphant over bloody Jacobins; the guillotine concealing the rights of man and the shining ideas of the Convention...

I find it very, very sad that French government officials are viewing the Google library project as part of a cultural war that needs to be fought against America or the English language in general. While too much of the Internet is English-only and society needs to make much greater investments in ensuring other languages and other cultures can prosper online, this doesn't mean that you should go after libraries just because they want to put their collections online.

There is no such thing as scarcity when it comes to how much information you can put online. It's not like there are only 100 terabytes of available space on the Internet that will eventually run out, preventing others from publishing content. This isn't Deadwood, the Yukon or the Comstock, folks; the gold in them thair hills ain't runnin' out. As long as companies keep building bigger and cheaper hard drives, there will always be more room for more content to be posted online.

So President Chirac, please go ahead and encourage Francophone libraries to put their collections online. But don't stop there. Encourage individuals and their communities to become content creators and citizen journalists as well. Encourage French universities to adopt open courseware initiatives, and fund French nonprofits to create community media portals like the new Ourmedia project. Bankroll Francophone nations in Africa to make sure their enormous wealth of cultural content can go online, as can their people, with the skills to become content creators in their own right. Please, go ahead and do all of those things. But don't frame this as a cultural war or counter-offensive against "Anglo-Saxon" Internet culture; giving all cultures the opportunity to share their knowledge, wisdom, literature and history via the Internet will benefit everyone, whether they speak English, French, Arabic, Vietnamese or Wolof.

The war shouldn't be against English-language domination. It should be against ignorance, illiteracy and attempts to control who has access to knowledge. By that standard, the Google library project is hardly an enemy; rather, it's one of the best allies we have. Bon chance, Monsieur Président. -andy

March 22nd, 2005 @ 10:40AM

I declare war on this Chirac's position
How ironic it can seem that me, a French man, learn about that with Inernet...and with an anglo-saxon site !
I don't really know where Chirac is going with that, but I'm going to fight against this position.
Like every French people I have a strong patriot instinct and I milit for preserving our culture and our roots ; but I have the sense of priorities : education, free access to the most sources of knowledge and reducing the digital divide are of course priorities comparing with our French-ego imperative folders...
If I have to look for an excuse for this president who have been brave on other folders, that was the day of Francophony and that was a choice (a very bad one) to affirm French presence.

Posted By: Gregoire Japiot on March 22nd, 2005 @ 3:25PM
Making this more productive
Hi Gregoire,

Perhaps there is a way for the French government to make this a more positive action, rather than as a "defense" against English-American culture. Like I said in my blog, this could be a wonderful opportunity for the French government to encourage bringing Francophone African countries online, with their rich cultural histories. Meanwhile, Claude Almansi recently noted on the WWWEDU email list that projects like Project Gutenberg have published enormous amounts of French language content, despite the fact they're based in the USA. So hopefully this can be turned into an opportunity for partnership, where French, American and other academic groups work together to put all of their cultural work online. The more content, the better for everyone. :-)
Posted By: Andy Carvin on March 22nd, 2005 @ 3:30PM
That looks like a constructive option
Concerning Francophone African countries I've got some ideas. I've joined a group on Omidyar Network that seems to be a good connector between my French network of humanitarian associations working in Francophone African countries and an international-american community like this network.
I'm working on the different regional, national and European subsidies that help the initiatives that goes inn this direction (humanitarian+education+ICT) : and, surprise, all the three are really encouraging this projects ; and the national one is not the least. I'm sure we can find the diplomatical proposition that preserves the France's sensitivity and chauvinistic face AND that goes in the right direction with the good order of priorities.
Posted By: Gregoire Japiot on March 22nd, 2005 @ 3:58PM
French network of NGO's in Francophone Africa?
Bonsoir, Grégoire

Does the French network of humanitarian associations working in Francophone African countries you mention have a general website?
Posted By: Claude Almansi on March 23rd, 2005 @ 5:49PM
Network of French NGO's in Africa
I was just speaking about the NGO's I know, my personal humanitarian network.
For my projects I will need the most complete list of NGO's in Francophone Africa. Some lists are available on the sites of the French embassies ; I'm not sure that the lists are exhaustive, but that's a good base for working. You can see an example for Burkina Faso on this link
I'd like now to propose a website with all this NGO's that will provide the most information : links, connections with other NGO's or UN departments, technical infrastructures and projects concerning digital divide. . .
What specialy interest me in this project is to propose a French and English site that will allow some rich exchanges between networks.
English is definitely The international language, so we have to help French speaking Africans with translations to give them the oportunity to communicate with the rest of the world.
With all the languages you speak (amazing !) you of course are on the best place for being agree with that.

Posted By: Gregoire Japiot on March 23rd, 2005 @ 6:40PM
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