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Why Europe Is So Unwired


Message 15:
Date: 9.1.94
From: Nicholas Negroponte
nicholas@media.mit.edu
To:lr@wired.com
Subject:Why Europe Is So Unwired

Do you realize that in France the first six letters of a keyboard don't spell QWERTY but AZERTY? In March of this year, when French Culture Minister Jacques Toubon announced the decision to rid the French language of foreign (read: English) words by making it illegal (a US$3,500 fine) to use such words in company names and slogans, I was sadly reminded of a 1972 job I conducted for the Shah of Iran. My task was to provide a color word processor - the Shah wished to see Farsi texts in which color depicted the age of a word. His desire was to understand his language rather than purge it. I suppose, by contrast, Minister "James Allgood" plans to change all stop signs to "Arret."

Given this backdrop of nonsense at the highest level of government, is it much of a surprise that Europe is such a weak player in the computer and telecommunications industry? Of all fields, this industry is truly global and borderless. And as with air-traffic control, English is the lingua franca. Bits don't wait in customs; they flow freely across borders. Just try stopping them.

Wired's first World Wide Web page, for example, was developed in Singapore - a place whose support for freedom of the press is dubious, a place William Gibson referred to as "Disneyland with the Death Penalty" (Wired 1.4).

Many artistic, industrial, and intellectual movements are driven by distinctly national and ethnic forces. The digital revolution is not one of them. Its ethos is generational and young. The demographics of computing are much closer to rock music than theater. French rock star Johnny Halliday is allowed to sing in English, after all.

If Europe wishes to remain at the vanguard of culture, it must step off its high horse and look more imaginatively at the future. Maybe it is time to discontinue ministries of culture.

Being Wise Not Smart

Jacques Attali - special advisor for the last 12 years, since he was 38, to the president of the French Republic - whom Mitterand referred to as his "personal computer," has written 17 books on everything from Europe to the history of time. So why didn't such a smart interface agent move into the digital generation? Because like most places in Europe, France is a top-down society, where a job is a place one occupies and protects. It is not a process of building, creating, and dreaming. Incentives for young entrepreneurs are almost nonexistent. Compared to their US counterparts, French young people are just not taken seriously.

Double-breasted wisdom reduces risk. A generally aging population enjoys stability and places confidence most easily in those who have had considerable and tested experience. Ballet dancers, downhill skiers, and mathematicians may peak at thirtysomething; CEOs and national leaders, by contrast, are groomed by the passage of time. The word "leader" presumes age, despite Alexander the Great, who at his death was six years younger than Bill Gates is today.

I happened to be in Paris in May 1968, when students my age took to the streets. I asked myself, Why are we, in the United States, so complacent and docile? Fourteen years later, I found myself working directly for the Elysee Palace. And, guess what? Many of the people orbiting Mitterand were the same people who had hurled paving stones through the tear gas in 1968.

Venture Void

When people ask me why so many new ideas in my field come from the United States, I talk about the respect we give to young people and to our heterogeneous culture. The real difference is our venture capital system, which is almost totally absent in Japan and Europe - where accountants intermix venture money with large leveraged buyouts. Therefore, the statistics do not show the real difference between them and the United States, where venture capital firms spent US$3.07 billion in 1993. The result is many fewer young European and Japanese companies that combine the genius of the hacker with the drive of the entrepreneur. This is particularly important when the entry cost is nontrivial and distribution determines the difference between success and failure.

New ideas are not just about capital. They are also about risk and the willingness to take it. The flip side of venture capital is the risk young people are frequently willing to take with something even bigger. I have seen marriages fail, people work themselves to death (literally), and an obsession for success that overshadows every other human dimension. Good or bad, such obsessive commitment is a key part of many new ventures. The currency of achievement is often not money but personal fulfillment and passion, something too easily thwarted by the bureaucracies of a homogeneous, old society.

The Nail That Sticks Up Highest

I was once asked by a former Japanese minister of education what I would do if I could do just one thing to improve the grammar-school system of that country. My reply: "Abolish uniforms."

While Europe has less obvious uniforms, educational freedom is still limited. Only England respects and even cultivates idiosyncrasy. The result of this lack of educational freedom is less playfulness and an infrequent convergence of intellectual cultures, which is where computer ideas have traditionally come from. One of MIT's most significant computer forces during the early '60s came from its model railroad club. Another came from the Science Fiction Society. Multimedia has disparate roots in storytelling, drama, music, and cinematography.

The point is that new ideas do not necessarily live within the borders of existing intellectual domains. In fact, they are most often at the edges and in curious intersections. This means that institutions like universities and PTTs have to embrace some very anti-establishment ideas. Europe's dominantly state-run universities and PTTs just don't do that very well. They run a close first and second for knocking down new ideas. The European Union is now faced with a global information infrastructure in which it just may not be a playeur.

Next Issue: Human Interface: Sensor Deprived


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