BOOKS: TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
The two questions most frequently asked in cyberspace, or at any rate the two most often answered in anticipation, are "what's new?" and "what's cool?" If Netizens are the kind of people who expect answers to these demands at the click of a button, they seem unlikely to want to know "what's eternal?", or "what's transcendentally true?".

According to a survey carried out last year, however, two-thirds of Netizens are believers. The vast majority of these are Christians, who comprised 45 per cent of all respondents. Muslims came in a distant second, with just under five per cent; Jews took third place with three per cent. Hard on their heels, with two per cent of the poll, were adherents of Wicca or witchcraft.

It's a fair conjecture that for some members of the "Net community", as the survey called it, the Net has strong spiritual overtones. Just as Man has traditionally been considered to stand between the animals and the angels, cyberspace seems to occupy a sphere intermediate between the material and the spiritual. And the essence of the Net is the non- material word, which naturally evokes the Word that preceded the flesh in the Christian tradition. If medieval theologians had had the option of going online, they might have decreed it to be superior to earthly, perishable paper as a medium for sacred texts.

At the present stage of technological development, however, the mundane question of size seems to have become an issue. It doesn't take much browsing through online library pages to find links to the Koran and the Bible. The Koran is available for downloading chapter by chapter, like most electronically stored texts. The Bible, however, has nothing less than a "Gateway", accessible in English, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Latin and Tagalog. This edifice is actually an on-screen form which controls a search engine, allowing the user to scan by chapter, verse and key word. New International version, King James, Revised Standard; you name it, it's at http://www.gospelcom.net/bible. Thanks to the Gospel Communications Network, crossword enthusiasts need never open the Good Book again.

According to a recent article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, the creation of a "virtual diocese" has helped kick the French, belatedly, into cyberspace. Last autumn Bishop Jacques Gaillot of Evreux, a left-leaning cleric, was bemused to receive a communication from the Holy See informing him of his appointment as Bishop of Partenia. This is Rome's equivalent of a Parliamentary application for the stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds. Just as MPs may not resign, bishops may not be fired, since they are divine appointees. They can, however, be moved to imaginary dioceses. In the fourth century, Partenia was a hot ecclesiastical ticket, but now it is no more than a vague notion in the Atlas Sahara region of Algeria.

Advised by Leo Scheer, a Net visionary, Gaillot allowed himself to be assumed into cyberspace: Partenia is now a "virtual diocese", to be found at http://www.partenia.fr, complete with a map showing where Partenia would be if it still had a terrestrial existence.

French commentators were thrilled. Scheer modestly proclaimed that 13 January, the day Partenia went up and running, "will ... remain the key date of the birth of virtual civilisation". He makes typically Gallic intellectual play on the fact that Web sites carry "icons": "The icon becomes a point where things are thrown upside down and centres of gravity are completely displaced ... "

You get the drift. But he missed one trick. It should be a cathedral page, not a home page.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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