In 1969, when many of us were watching the flag-waving Archie Bunker chew out the Meathead, his lazy, pinko, long-haired son-in-law, the United States government was secretly putting in place a small but innovative network of four computers that would share information and be impermeable to Soviet attack.
Thus, believe it or not, began the Internet.
It’s comical to think that today’s ubiquitous network of computers, modems, data bases, links, services and accesses is an outgrowth of the Cold War, but in a sense that’s the truth. Little by little, the Net, as it has come to be known, grew beyond its military boundaries. As more networks emerged and linked with each other, the Internet grew into the most comprehensive interconnected system of electronic research and information retrieval for universities, industries and institutes worldwide. For about 10 years, the Net had been primarily reserved for academic and scientific exchange and research. The explosion of fax machines and modems since the mid 1980s succeeded in conditioning the tastes of both commerce and the public for rapid and versatile means of communicating, playing, working and keeping in touch. In virtually no time, the concept of e-mail – and the verb “to e-mail” – found a comfortable place in our habits and speech.
The popular imagination continues to be bombarded ceaselessly by news of even newer New Media, CD-ROMs, interactive platforms and, above all, the Internet and its user-friendly hypertextual system of maneuvering, the World Wide Web. The mind-boggling endlessness of on-line capabilities is for many the most exciting intellectual and commercial realm since the exploration of outer space. And, as Al Jolson in blackface announced prophetically from the void of silence in his 1928 pioneer talkie: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” The Internet, via the Web, is destined to dominate daily life so markedly that bookmakers are giving odds on Time magazine naming the Net as 1995’s Man of the Year.
At Paris’ record-breaking Salon du Livre last month at the Porte de Versailles, the most obvious evolution in the annual publishing event was the Espace Multimédia, which took center stage. Even appearances by Salmon Rushdie and Lauren Bacall were dwarfed by the screen and its new tricks. One literary publisher remarked, “I walked for 300 meters and didn’t see a book.” The up-and-coming French magazine >Interactif features in its April/May issue an article entitled “Vers un monde sans papier” (Toward a world without paper).
Bill Gates’ one-day stopover in Paris last month commanded a full page in the March 15 Le Monde. “The information highway will change our way of communicating more radically than the telephone,” the president of Microsoft pronounced. And as both our consciousness and media tools change, the old dichotomies (old/young, east/west, left/right) are yielding to a more apt distinction: the initiated versus the uninitiated, with ability to surf the Net being the rite of passage. It has been estimated that 20-40 million people already possess Internet access and the numbers are increasing faster than the population growth.
Now the rush to get initiated has reached Paris in a big way.
Eyes are turned toward the U.S. since the rage of electronic invention is coming from California and New York. In late March the American University of Paris hosted the first of a series of Internet workshops conducted by 10-year expat Cory McCloud, 26, an American new media specialist, CD-ROM publisher and Web site developer. Within days of the first announcement of the seminar the 60 available places were sold out at 600F a head, with many more applicants spilling over into the second workshop scheduled for May 6. Participants spent six hours collectively surfing the Net via a variety of visits to some of the most remarkable Web sites in the world, visualizing the virtual tour on a high-definition overhead projector.
Among those visited, WWW Paris, renamed the Paris Pages, is one of the largest sites on the Web, boasting the world’s most exhaustive electronic collection of texts, information and images about Paris. There are over 600 pages to consult and a guest book of nearly 350 pages. On a typical day 45,000 documents or images are accessed. Since late last summer the site has been visited over 2.5 million times.
Site founder Norman Barth, an oceanographer at Scripps College in San Diego, California, single-handedly linked together his Paris Web site and has been cited everywhere from Business Week to Japan’s Internet Magazine, the German computer magazine CHIPS and France’s M6. Soon the Paris Pages will include a Cultural Calendar and the entire “Paris-Anglophone” business directory. Barth, whose love of Paris stems from summer visits in the early ’70s, was recently in town to catch up on the human links he had first made on-line. Despite his leadership role in the virtual revolution, he is clear about one thing: “The on-line dimension can never be a substitute for the real thing, no more than computers will ever be a substitute for human beings. The grandeur and presence of the city can never be fully communicated by a computer screen. It can only give a hint of what is there to be discovered and sensed.”
In Paris, where inventions, products and services derivative of American society have steadily been arriving – often time-warped – in progressively quicker and more grotesque installments since the end of World War II, the Internet may represent the final curtsy in the Americanization of the French capital.
As one American photographer remarked, “When I got here I could barely find a hamburger. Then we marveled at the presence of Dan Rather’s Nightly News on Canal Plus. CNN followed, along with Century 21, Häagen-Dazs and Pizza Hut. Now with a modem and the Internet, being in Paris is like being anywhere.”
More like “everywhere.” Although it is embarrassing to speak of McLuhan’s “global village” in 1995, the concept has never been more real – or virtual, the term used to describe the electronic equivalent of real time and place.
In fact, as we rush into the evolved electronic phase of human communication, the sense of place itself is rapidly losing importance. And what’s Paris if not a place? Accessibility is no longer a matter of possibility; it’s a matter of choice – a modem, a phone call, a credit card number, and you’re in! The workplace, the meeting place, the public places for which Paris has been so special are just keystrokes away. Lots of like-minded folks are sharing (or are about to share) not only ideas and projects but tables and rooms at “La Coupole electronique.” Paris at the end of the century remains surely a destination for millions of visitors, but the writer’s café, the artist’s atelier, the entrepreneur’s conference room, the tourist’s sidewalk terrace and the poet’s pub will be increasingly found in digital forums, a Web site or at Apple’s new e-World rather than on the boulevards of Saint-Germain or Montparnasse.
Example: the number of people visiting the virtual Louvre on-line has already passed the number that physically visit the museum every month. The implications are astounding. The imagination starts to spin–or cringe–with possibilities of virtual museums and exhibitions. “An artist’s complete works can be assembled with a page of links,” McCloud said, and one can hear in his voice that it is this, the artistic combination of composition, that has driven him into this land of no return. “Multimedia,” he said, “is really just the book catching up with the multitude of forms that information takes today. In the 15th century, at the advent of printing, text and still images were the only way one could imagine mass dissemination of information. Today we are constantly bombarded by countless forms of media. It only seems natural that the means of publishing would adapt itself.”
McCloud’s activities in Paris reflect this world view. He and his Marais-based company, Gyoza Media, are developing a CD-ROM of the Philip Glass opera “La Belle et La Bête” with the entire 1945 Cocteau film incorporated. Son of a graphic artist and philosopher/typographer, educated at Choate School and Reed College with stints at the Sorbonne and the American University of Paris, McCloud arrived in Paris at 17 with Mac in tow and with a handwritten letter from San Francisco beat poet and bookman Lawrence Ferlinghetti addressed to George Whitman at Shakespeare and Company, where young McCloud started working, hanging out and sinking professional roots.
Today, aside from his American University seminars and Gyoza Media, he is setting up a “virtual office” called WebFX, designed to function as an international Web development site, operating between Paris and San Francisco, and offering publishers and other companies the means of creating their own Web pages and connecting them to the Net. “The two things that have changed my route in life are Paris and the Mac,” he says.
There is a parallel between today’s pioneers in new media and the avant garde writers and artists of the ’20s and ’30s. Despite all the hype about the explosive growth of the multimedia industry and all the money there is to be made in a hurry, McCloud contends that “the majority of interesting work is being done by starving artists or the rare small company more concerned with the quality of their content than with pleasing the venture capital firms. The hype has served to give the illusion that there are millions to be made on a CD-ROM production today, an illusion which can make rights-intensive projects very difficult to get off the ground.” McCloud knows this firsthand; he has had to take massive personal risks to keep his fledgling enterprise above water. Getting from month to month in this multimedia adventure, as they say in French, “n’est pas évident.” And virtual food just isn’t the same.