Tuesday, 12 December 2006

Beginner's Mind

This morning the toughened, bidi smoking, sun-blackened rickshaw driver cracked into a beaming grin and starting waving inanely. I thought he was a dangerous nutcase until I peered out and saw the busload of chattering and gesticulating schoolkids fizzing in their schoolbus next to us at the traffic lights.

Everyone here seems to love children. People are willing to immediately drop the persona of public reserve in order to relate to a child. On the tube in London, or on the Clapham omnibus I used to notice an initial avoidance and uncomfortable embarassment before people would respond to my son's insistent attention seeking. Here no one pays any attention to me or Barley but goes straight for Oshin. There's none of that politeness and deference to parents. Here children belong to everyone.

Oshin's always been a particularly cute kid but he gets a lot more attention here than he ever did in Europe. Wherever we go people are winking at him, pinching his cheeks, giving him things, dancing with him and all but pulling him off us. And children are much more welcome in all sorts of contexts here than in the west. From rock concerts to dinner parties, cinemas to building sites, kids are just around as part of the fabric of society rather than tucked up in bed or locked in nurseries.

This is the country, after all, in which children are worshipped. Or, to be more precise, god is worshipped as a child. At this time of year in the west we remember the infant Jesus, but the mischievous Krishna, on the contrary, seems to be up to his tricks all the time.

And there's a corollary devotion to education. A four-year-old playmate of Oshin's who had come to visit us, had to pack up his toys and go home at 6pm to do his writing homework. And not just any old writing, but cursive script, his mother told us.

There are a number of reasons I'm so interested in language at the moment - HP's focus on it, a couple of recent publishing projects, the linguistic diversity of India, living in a foreign country, my cross-cultural marriage. But a really important inspiration is watching my son as he discovers language.

So this morning it occurred to me that it would be interesting to approach this whole art-making thing from the perspective of a child. I remember quite vividly learning to draw the Bengali alphabet It was drawing then, rather than writing. Over the last couple of days since looking at the GKB <>, I've been thinking of the Tamil script. I wanted to treat it in the way I used the crop circle patterns for my Portsmouth Cathedral book for Art and Sacred Places <>. Layering and superimposing the letters on one another. One of the original ideas for the 'Basket of Fish' was to make some kind of animation in which sharp words and letters would coalesce and then blend again into an ocean of noise. Perhaps that might work with Tamil letters, particularly given their rotundity.

This kind of technique might also make a lovely children's book, revelling in the sumptuous gestures of the script. There could also be a sound associated with each letter. And there could be an interactive element whereby consonants could be paired with their vowel modifier signs. Numbers could be used to specify note lengths. And perhaps pitch could be manipulated in some way too. Could a digital tuner be used to read the note input via a microphone and then generate an appropriate audio sample?

Eventually, with a text to speech module, this could develop into a songwriting machine, or a generator of Bob Cobbingesque poetry <>.

It might even be (oh horror!) educational. But of course the first requirement is fun. I'm not sure it's possible to learn anything if it isn't fun. So this could be a kind of hybrid etch-a-sketch<>, Stylophone<>, Roland TR808<>, HAL<>, tamagotchi<>.

The tamagotchi bit would be if it could talk back. Like the entity Yashas installed at Srishti for the interim semester show. Now THAT provoked a lot of thoughts. What kind of conversation can one have with a machine? Of course this is a question at least as old as the Turing Test. But what kind of answer do we get if we think of the conversation as being a musical one as much as linguistic. Could one collaborate with a machine? Jam together? A generative compositional tool , like Eno's 'koan'<>, that responds to subtle cues - say Heart Rate Variability<>?

In light of Shekhar's thinking about the human internet - if we could reliably converse with a machine might we be in a better position to share our strengths, rather than competing with one another. If as Ray Kurzweil opines, we're heading for the singularity whether we like it or not, why not make it a convivial merger? Surely robots can read Illich<>?

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