The French have now switched off the service, as – inevitably – the internet has taken over, and articles have been written worldwide to mourn the demise of the Minitel, including the BBC and the New York Times. It crossed the looks of a BBC Micro computer with the function of Teletext to create a form of the internet avant la lettre. So 80s, darling – anyone remember those?
Yet the 80s, with their funny little computers, allowed a glimpse of the future, in which technology would allow deaf people to communicate in new ways with the wider world. My first encounter with a computer was a BBC Micro one at school, when I was about 14 or 15. We finally got a Teletext TV at about the same time, when maybe two programmes a week would be subtitled, if you were lucky, and one of those was Corrie, which only went out once a week then. When Top of the Pops was subtitled finally I could learn the words to all the songs . . . ! It shows how times have changed – it was pretty much the norm then to rent TVs, so off my parents went to pay a slightly higher rental fee for a more sophisticated piece of equipment that came with Teletext.
In its heyday, Teletext or Ceefax – which has now also disappeared to be replaced by a digital version that isn’t quite the same – offered real-time news services as well as subtitles. That sense of continuous access was a very real precursor of the internet. It was also interactive – you could play games, or look forward each day to pressing “reveal” for the next “window” on a simple Advent Calendar.
The Minitel offered similar services, but enabled you to book tickets and see your exam results online. All these functions are now being mourned by devotees, among them an older generation which still has not got to grips with the internet. Its accessibility is widely praised, yet one aspect of that accessibility has nowhere been discussed in Anglophone news media. It offered a live, real-time, message service, much as minicoms did. The difference was that you could do it on a multipurpose platform offered free to every French home, rather than a single-purpose accessory into which you had to laboriously plug in your handset and check the connection. You could have a chat with another person LIVE.
OK. I was a bit slow when I tried it out for the first time – the AZERTY keyboard threw me. But it was so quick, easy and simple to have a conversation with someone completely unknown to me without checking that they too had a minicom, whether they were hearing or not, or whether they knew how to handle Typetalk, and avoiding connectivity issues altogether. As a symbol of deaf participation in mainstream media, it was extremely powerful. By contrast, when I was at uni in the 1980s, we raised money so that every deaf student could have two minicoms, one for personal use and one for their parents – it was a huge step towards independence. We little dreamt that we could have interactive connection like our cousins outre-Manche, or that we would later have SMS, e-mail and Skype to connect on an equal basis with both deaf and hearing people.
Au revoir, minitel!
*For an article in French – read this blog post.