Willem Velthoven

Mediamatic Magazine 8#4

spring 1996

Religion Issue
The word avatar does not occur in this issue of Mediamatic.


vol. 8#4 The Religion Issue - Mediamatic Issues

The quality of Internet search systems improved greatly during the preceding year. Besides the increased chance of actually finding something, they now offer insight into the frequency of occurrence of words. Of course, word frequency on the net is in no way representative of general usage trends. This makes it all the more interesting: it offers insight into the language and areas of interest of the early adopters that now inhabit the net. This might endow such statistics with a certain prognostic value.

In introducing our religion issue, I've counted a number of religious and other frequently occurring terms, by way of comparison:

net 11.609.022

computer 5.759.383

science 3.848.510

art 2.864.707

God 1.528.818

money 1.305.716

culture 983.871

sex 887.068

father 722.079

mother 698.852

agent 573.768

spirit 493.707

religion 448.384

hell 271.317

cyber 264.570

demon 240.287

heaven 225.969

belief 153.136

Devil 117.238

Kirk 114.394

Allah 107.795

Elvis 100.542

avatar 45.861

Buddha 40.874

confession 30.836

voodoo 28.331

incarnation 17.700

Jaweh 13

The word net itself heads the list, for obvious reasons. Neither should the disproportionately high rate of occurrence of computer or science cause any surprise, given the history of the net.

It is interesting that art occurs twice as frequently as God, which only barely succeeds in topping money. It is difficult to say whether this is a sign of increasing secularisation or evidence of the cultural value of the net. Indeed, when you see that culture occurs ten percent more often than sex and twice as often as religion, you might almost believe the latter....

God easily scores highest in the category of universal persons; twice as much as either father or mother (father+mother=God). Spirit is also high on the list in this category, easily outscoring demon, devil, Elvis and Kirk. Agent scores notably high as well, almost equalling mother and father....

And we can see that cyber is firmly ensconced in between hell and heaven.

The increasingly popular avatar is a special case. The word originates from Sanskrit and literally means descent - in the Hindu religion, the descent of a god into the world of human beings, analogous to the Christian concept of incarnation. One could say that Jesus was an avatar of God.

The Hindu avatar is a great deal more multifaceted, however. A godhead can simultaneously possess a number of avatars of different kinds. Avatars remain in direct contact with their godhead and have divine characteristics and consciousness.

The god Vishnu has the greatest number of avatars, and also the best-known, including Krishna, Rama and Buddha.

However, on the net, still populated mainly by Westerners with a Judeo-Christian background, avatar occurs three times as frequently as incarnation. This is not the result of a revival of interest in Eastern religions, but rather because of Neil Stephenson, who endowed the term with a new meaning in his book Snowcrash. In Stephenson's book, an avatar is the virtual personification of a human being in the Metaverse, Stephenson's version of Cyberspace.

In the meantime, the net is full of people calling themselves Avatars, along with two MOOs, several bands and a great number of companies, ranging from Avatar NuMedia to Avatar Real Estate Development. The term is all the rage and is used without further explanation.

Most of the users don't know the word's origin and have no idea of the irony of this inversion of meaning: from god--become--flesh to human--become--virtual.

Or is there no inversion, and should we assume that cyberspace is to the earth as the earth is to heaven? Then, people are the gods of the algorithms! In the next issue of Mediamatic, the Secret Agent Issue, we take a closer look at the increasing complexity of the relationship between human beings and codes, which are authoring themselves with greater and greater frequency....

When you search the net for sex god willem, you'll find that this article by willem about god and only mentioning sex briefly, is scoring exeptionally well. This is not because sex and willem are a special couple or because other sites about willem, sex or god are pointing to this page. It's just because the content management system (CMS) that we are using, anymeta, is very sexy for search bots.