Interactivity and the Popular Support for Telidon

Terrence Devon (McGill University)

Recently we have seen a significant number of articles devoted to tracing the "failure" of the Telidon project. The focus of these works coalesces around the inadequate planning and promotion of the project by the Department of Communications (DOC). Granted that this is a recognizable shortcoming, there remains the concern that not one of these pieces affords insight into the social formations which grew up around Telidon, and most notably here the interactive dimension of the technology and the subsequent cultural perception that such a technology might be viewed as a creative tool.

For those who are not familiar with the project, Telidon was founded by the DOC in August 1978 and was charged with the task of developing an alpha-numeric (ASCII) videotex protocol, and with the subsequent implementation of a data telecommunication network which would operate with the said protocol (Gillies, 1990; Godfrey & Chang, 1981). Videotex itself is the production of images (including text) on a computer screen. The protocol was developed and named NAPLPS (North American Presentation Level Protocol Syntax), and was complete in February of 1982 (Guédon, 1989). The field trials, christened "Vista," were launched with a prototype version of the NAPLPS code (699) in the early 1980s. Telidon officially ceased to exist in March of 1985.

In Réseaux, a journal published at the Université du Québec, we find an entire issue in 1989 devoted towards videotex as it has evolved in a variety of countries around the world. Télétel (or Minitel as it is popularly known) in France (Arnal & Jouét, 1989), and Bildschirmtext (BTX) in Germany (Schneider, 1989) are both examined here in the search for the "successfully" developed videotex installation. Telidon is reviewed by Jean-Claude Guédon with a view to its "failure." Where the definition of the success of the system is largely calibrated with the level of usage, which in turn, given modern social organization and mass media trends, generally infers the degree of commercial deployment, interactivity as a self-standing category of inquiry is displaced. In addition to this oversight we must also note that no consideration is given to the relationship between the vision for Telidon and the state of the technology at the time of this vision. While I will concentrate on the former of these two difficulties, in regard to the latter I wish only to remark that the vision of Telidon held by its proponents at the time would be far more technically feasible and cost-effective now as against then. This is the case given the advent of micro-computers and the portability of the NAPLPS code, which is currently available for every sort of hardware.

The Canadian Journal of Communication recently carried an article written by Donald Gillies, which focused on the Telidon project. This renewed interest in the so-called "failure" of Telidon must at least in part be attributed to the rise of "Alex," which is Bell Canada's effort to promote on-line data communication for a "mass" market. In what follows then, I will briefly summarize the position of the contribution made to our understanding of videotex databases by both Guédon and Gillies, and propose that "interactivity" be given a more methodic inspection in order to furnish a "social construction" of the project (Luckman & Berger, 1967), which is to say, in order to understand the technology within the context of the cultural formations surrounding it.

Guédon follows the "official" path of Telidon from inception to demise. In this work he furnishes considerable detail concerning both the policy formations which embodied the government project and the industrial milieu which was to spearhead the market. For him, Telidon was an "entrelacs complexe" (complex interweave), and failed largely because the bureaucratic and industrial representatives on the scene were unable to muster the proportion of users necessary to command significant commercial investment toward the wholesale erection of national scale systems in both Canada and the U.S. (Guédon, 1989, pp. 71-72).

Guédon notes that initially the rhetoric of Telidon centred on the interactive potential of the system, but later swung in precisely the opposite direction favouring a broadcast model. While he identifies this element, he goes no further with it preferring instead to concentrate upon the constellation of public and private interests and the general lack of investment on both of these sides given virtually no significant consumption of the media. This train of thought concludes with the insight that an enormous hiatus is to be found between the rhetoric and reality of the Telidon advance. Would we expect its promoters to speak poorly of the project?

Gillies approaches Telidon from the perspective that it constitutes a case in fact of Canadian technological determinism (Gillies, 1990, p. 1). In this he reveals how the policy formations of the DOC were underscored by an implicit faith in the advance of technology as a social good. He states that NAPLPS based software is virtually non-existent in today's market in order to sustain a claim that it is effectively obsolete. This is interesting insofar as the non-existence of a (NAPLPS) mass market is presented as failure while the aspiration toward a mass market by the promoters of Telidon is perceived merely as the rhetoric of, "the benign acme of an interactive utopia" (Gillies, 1990, p. 8).

This contradiction pervades both of the works here under consideration as the authors struggle to condemn the utopian thinking of the proponents of Telidon, the commercial forces unable to create a market, and the deterministic power which was said to drive the whole machine, and all the while consider the project a failure. Are we then to understand "Alex" as a success insofar as it has gathered a market base and is proceeding toward a national scale operation? Is it not a blow to the argument claiming Telidon to be a project in technological nationalism to see that it failed, and consequently was rejected on the national scale as a project in technological determination? And what of the other forces surrounding Telidon, the organizations which grew with it demanding access to the technology and there also to the power to disseminate?

Unfortunately, such organizations have been lost to these investigations. I happened to have been a member of one of them named, Toronto Community Videotex (TCV), which in fact was heir to a portion of the Vista equipment after the collapse of Telidon. Much of the exuberance surrounding Telidon, I would argue, has its source in the spirit which emanated from organizations like TCV, organizations which were formed by individuals who had a vision of a community based network. Moreover, such organizations also bore the insight to declare themselves the producers of videotex art, which work could later be marketed to the commercial sector. These two movements, when brought together, display the productive and consumptive cycle which any media of communication circumscribes--at once the locus of access and interaction. To place communications solely within the market driven economy is to risk misunderstanding the nature of communication as defined only by the structures of a technological system--of a media--and not as a social force with deeper cultural implications.

Telidon then cannot be seen solely as the pawn of big business nor as the handmaiden of technological determinists. It must rather be dynamically configured as it is a medium of communication and subject to the multiplicity of social forces so engaged. Telidon did produce NAPLPS, and this code is far from dead--it has only been asleep waiting for the world to catch up with it--working in the "background" as they say in UNIX. I conjecture that NAPLPS will one day be the global standard for data telecommunications videotex as it is a compact and universal code based upon ASCII.

Telidon also poured equipment into centres such as TCV, and the ripples from its splash appearance are still reaching the shorelines. The measure of success and failure governing a means of communication cannot be solely calibrated to the development of a mass market, and indeed, for interactive systems the case may be precisely the opposite. At TCV during the period of the Vista trials, a publication was assembled under the title, "Art is Communication." Given this insight we should recognize that the success or failure of Telidon cannot be said to be grounded in its mass marketability nor in its signification of a technological determination. Rather, we must examine it is a means of communication, as a social and cultural tool, and as a impetus to the mastery of communications media and their cultural appropriation.

All of these factors remain buried in the obscure organizations which were spontaneously composed to take part in, and take a stand on, Telidon and similar projects. Political activity begins with assuming the right to participate. If examined carefully, I would argue, the content of the Vista system was far superior to that currently presented by Bell on "Alex." Superior by virtue of its relation to culture, and this in terms of its information content and social use-value. Nevertheless, Alex is succeeding and Vista failed.

Notes

1
The Canadian government donated approximately 10 Norpak IPS 1 and 2 workstations to Toronto Community Videotex in 1984 and a grant of $40,000 to maintain and deploy the equipment in the form of an interactive videotex database which would serve the Ontario arts community. This project has evolved considerably since its inception and is currently called the (Ontario) Computer Collective.
2
UNIX is an operating system available for most hardware. UNIX is a multiuser multitasking system which can run computer processes and programs in the background, leaving the terminal free for other tasks.

References

Arnal, N., & Jouét, J. (1989, novembre). Télétel: images des utilisateurs résidentiels. Technologies de l'information et société--Réseaux, 2(1).

Gillies, D. J. (1990, May). Technological determinism in Canadian telecommunications: Telidon technology, industry and government. Canadian Journal of Communication, 15(2), 1-15.

Godfrey, D., & Chang, E. (Eds.). (1981). The Telidon book. Victoria, B.C.: Press Porcépic.

Guédon, J.-C. (1989, novembre). Norme ou système technique? Les avatars de Télidon au Canada. Technologies de l'information et société--Réseaux, 2(1), 69-80.

Luckman, T., & Berger, P. (1967). The social construction of reality. New York: Anchor Press Doubleday.

Schneider, V. (1989, novembre). Choix techniques et dynamiques sociales dans l'introduction du vidéotex en Allemagne Fédérale. Technologies de l'information et société--Réseaux, 2(1).

Technologies de l'information et société--Réseaux, 2(1), novembre 1989. Special issue on videotex.



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