AS the world spirals into the future with new technological inventions and practices, finding bridges between the future and culture will become increasingly important.
From the viewpoint of the sciences, resources in energy are considered to be infinite, and even though there would be expected shortages of finite resources today, new research in biomedicine, life extension, genetics, alternate energy and clean-tech aims to create a ‘promised era of abundance’. The viewpoint from the perspective of economics and developmental planning envisions a world of unending growth and opportunity.
Yet, we are aware that in a goal-centric, rationally driven world, reason alone won’t provide health, happiness and well-being. With the rapid pace of change of technological innovation, the hyper-connected-info-man is living in a state of forgetfulness of cultural and spiritual inheritances, and trying to cope with the pain of modern technology induced stress. People’s cultural past offers jewels of wisdom valuable in a world of ubiquitous, globalized commerce and trade, and in a world where technical innovation propels economic growth while simultaneously negatively impacting the environment.
This article describes my research in humanizing computing technology, the very force that creates people’s ‘mesmerization’ with the new, and people’s forgetfulness of past cultural gifts. In this paradox, I present bridges between ‘culture’ and ‘technology’ with the goal of making people’s forgetfulness into a remembrance to provide means for people to reconnect with perennial wisdom.
I started my technology research at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, just after designing one of the world’s first computer-aided sculpting and design tools at UCLA.
This was a time when computers were large mainframe machines, occupying the size of large rooms, and people interacted with them by punching in cards, inscribing their soft-ware code and feeding them into the mainframe, and waiting for the results of their computation! All this was changed by a radical invention of the graphical user interface at Xerox PARC, which developed the ability to use mouse and graphical display. Gradually computers diminished in size, became available on a desktop, and provided people the ability to ‘point’ on frame buffers on screens and organize tasks on screens in graphical windows. Computers then ‘talked’ to each other, first through wires, and a network of computers allowed people to share and collaborate with each other.
In this era, my work explored visual, kinesthetic gestures as to interact with computers, and gestural interfaces served as a way of humanizing the traditional button pushing paradigm of interactions with computers. As early as 1985, I built a system in which one could wave a gesture on the screen and the computer would ‘understand’ what the gesture meant and translate it into parameters for the design of, say, a Chinese temple. One could make a gestural diagram and retrieve an image of a Tibetan deity matching the diagram. Remember that these were designed in a period when the screen was text based. Gradually, my work added video representations on the screen and the Electronic Sketch Book of Thangka painting project developed one of the world’s first ‘multimedia’ learning systems of any kind.
In the late ’90s, and early 2000s, my work began exploring the idea that computation need not occur only on a desktop, and that it could migrate from the desktop on to people’s clothes, furniture, and cultural objects. While people have developed sophisticated hand skills to manipulate physical environments, which form the basis of traditional artistic and crafts expertise, models of computer interfaces then, and even now, did not incorporate these skills. Towards this, we explored tactile, physical interfaces, building on the paradigm shift: from the notion that ‘computers were interfaces into the world’ to the notion that the ‘world itself is the interface’.
Gestural retrieval of images of Tibetan deities (left); The electronic sketchbook of Thangka painting (right).
With this vision, I established the Sacred World Research Laboratory in India to show conceptual bridges between traditional techno-and traditional cultures, and to root innovation in new computing, communications media in a non-western context. The works of the laboratory, from the 2000s to the present, produced a large panorama of innovation and anticipated many of the innovations in the field of interactive and mobile computing. Technologies were explored in the context of authoring multimedia documents based on themes of Banaras, Gandhi, Health, Music and Goddess, each progressively creating ‘richer’ interactions between people and cultural content in museums, and progressively humanizing the technology. Since these projects were usually presented in museums, they explored the transformation of the museum itself in many ways!
The documentation of traditional cultures through digital multimedia was no passive exercise of ‘scanning-in culture!’ Instead, the laboratory’s work has shown and continues to show that engagement with cultural documentation is also a valuable process to spark off technological innovation – i.e., humanized, expressive technology allowing rich interactions.
During 1999-2002, we developed the Crossing project, a multimedia exhibition shown across the world, a pioneering effort to unite the finest and the noblest in Indian tradition with the then, nascent multimedia and mobile computing technology. The focus of the project was to create a unique idiom of Indian modernity where none of the streams of knowledge, technology or tradition were at variance, but integrated in a harmonious semblance. It is in this consciously innovated fusion that Banaras gets represented in a unique way, and the project becomes an important cultural preservation tool and a learning tool for audiences.
Physical Computing Browsers at the Crossing Project (left); Mobile wireless information access device with the streets of Banaras engraved on the shell that will let people navigate through the narrow lanes of Banaras (right).
Banaras, Kashi, the oldest living city in the world, is described as a microcosm of Indian civilization. The multiple riches of Banaras invoke many different interpretations. The most significant of them is that Banaras is regarded as the greatest of all ‘tirthas’, Crossing Place, a ‘transitional zone’ to cosmic reality and a portal of spiritual liberation.1 The unique context of its past and its living present makes Kashi the most appropriate subject for exploration for future technology, especially in conceiving and rooting the design of wearable and mobile computing devices, i.e. new forms of knowledge devices, based on and inspired by Banaras, Asia’s seat of spiritual and intellectual tradition.
The project documented and presented modern and traditional multimedia documents of the traditions and rituals spaces, i.e. the abstractions though which Banarsis see their world and create identity.
The Crossing project, in 1999-2002, illustrated the pioneering shift from ‘black and beige’ metal and glass based computing hardware to culturally embedded, personalisable forms. Technology as presented by the Crossing project is not just seen as ‘technology’, but as an extension and expression of a community’s identity. Therefore, technology itself becomes a ‘cultural bridge’.
In 2002-2004, the Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum took shape as one of the world’s first digital multimedia museums. Physically located at Gandhi Smriti, the site where Mahatma Gandhi attained martyrdom, it not only preserves the historical events of Gandhiji’s life, but presents a spectrum of information technology visions inspired by Gandhian thought. The existing collection of photographs was complemented by a museum of multimedia based interactions and presentation.
Spiritually, the project was situated against the backdrop of globalization, polarization of communities, a growing urban-rural divide, rapid urbanization, and the degradation of hand-based skills and village-based art forms.
The project presents a language of physical interface actions derived from classical symbols of the spinning wheel, turning of the prayer wheels, touching symbolic pillars, the act of hands touching sacred objects, collaboratively constructed quilts, sacred chanting in the collective group, the satsanga, and the touching and rotating of prayer beads.
These tradition based interactions inspire a rich panorama of tactile interfaces that allow people to access the multimedia imagery and multidimensional mind of Gandhiji. The technology developed does not ‘merely scan’ Gandhian images; it extrapolates Gandhian ideals to newer domains of product design and, at higher levels, the creation of meaning in a globalized world. For example, the Gandhian commitment to hand-based production and its symbiotic relationship with nature is interpreted in the context of modern culture-conscious design. Here lies the reaffirmation of the Gandhian view, a commitment to the dignity of labour, the bridging of divides, and the leveraging of village creativity and cultural diversity in the face of homogenization.
Misty interface in which people access Gandhian messages by blowing on the mist (left); Capturing the 11 vows of the Man of Truth, the Satyagrahi, the pillar is divided into 11 spinnable, rotatable disks, which spin around the axis. Spinning the disk, akin to turning the prayer wheel, allows people to trigger the playback of a video interpretation of the Satyagrahi’s vow, which forms the basis of Gandhiji’s vision of a Man of Truth (right).
The museum presented over fifty exhibits, each showing Gandhian messages and corresponding humanized interaction, ranging from the time line browser of Gandhi, to sacred pillars that explore the concept of satya, interactive ashrams which apply the philosophy of satya in spiritual practice, to interactive salt urns and charkhas showing the application of satya in the freedom struggle and ultimately an installation where the technology disappears entirely, so that people can hold each others’ hands to affirm the dismantling of class and social injustice.
In one installation the act of blowing and breathing on a large urn of mist congeals into a Gandhian message – ‘be true’. The act of blowing allows people to interact with digital presentations through breath. Blowing causes the mist to disperse.
Central to Gandhian philosophy is the philosophy of Truth. Truth for Gandhiji is neither absolute nor mono-dimensional, but considered a mosaic of ideas from multiple diverse religions and influences. In this installation, a prayer wheel becomes a computer interface to interpretations on the vows to be fulfilled by a man committed to Truth: non-stealing, equality of religions, removal of untouchability, swadeshi, fearlessness, bread-labour, non-violence, brahmacharya, non-possession, control of the palate.
E Ashram (left) and E Train (right).
One can explore Gandhi’s ashram and ashram life as a model of self-sufficiency and the search for truth. A model of an ashram is augmented with sensors as a retrieval device. The pillars of the ashram serve as interfaces to topics on Gandhi: the daily regimen, Gandhi’s possessions, his participation in community singing and inter-faith prayers.
An E-train installation explores Gandhiji’s rediscovery of India, how after his arrival in Africa, he embarked on a journey throughout the land of his birth, and realized how the heart of India lies in the village and it was in these journey’s that Gandhi formulated thoughts on how village development was central to national well-being. In this installation, a train with augmented electronic steering controls and accelerator enables people to trace the places Gandhiji visited and learn about their significance.
The electronic charkha installation reveals political, economic and spiritual dimensions of the charkha, the symbol of the spinning wheel. The charkha allows people to explore the transformation of a classical symbol of the wheel into a socially transformative tool.
E Charkha (left) and Charkha Mandala (right).
The charkha, as also the world’s traditional arts and crafts, shows us that intelligence does not just reside in the ‘head’ but also in the ‘body’, i.e., the notion that the mind is distributed throughout the body. Spinning the wheel creates sustenance but reveals a higher intuition of the hand-mind connection.
The charkha was not merely a political symbol but also a symbol of liberation. It points a way forward from the current predicament of globalized economies that large parts of the world fall under, where people can ‘physically’ become engaged to create the products of their consumption and in turn support local knowledge, manufacturing, strengthen communities and economies.
In conclusion, the Unity Pillar installation continues exploration into collaborative interfaces. It requires people to hold hands to light up a pillar symbolizing the destruction of caste prejudice and social injustice. Here the computer has totally disappeared and people themselves have become the interface, touching each other, touching loving human hands, not objects, dissolving the skins of their otherwise separate bodies into a single, unified collaborative body.
In 2010, we embarked on explorations in culture and health through the Planet Health Museum. Against the rapid rise of infrastructure building activity and urbanization in Asia, which has resulted in a exponential degradation of people’s health and environment, the Planet Health museum project commits to the urgent documentation of traditional Green World views, ayurveda and yoga, indigenous systems of medicine and therapies, so that traditional knowledge, which has been ubiquitously available and passed down across many generations, remains forever free.
With an increasing number of people unable to afford skyrocketing medical costs, Planet Health museum addresses the emerging challenge of providing immediate and direct access to cost effective, non invasive, medical alternatives so that modern urban dwellers can ‘retake’ charge of their health.
Toxic Cities installation: Decaying urban environments, pollution and drug dependency. At the far end is a sculpture showing a drug addicted Michael Jackson (left). In contrast, the Green Man sculpture on the right shows Asian model of connection with Nature.
Culture as Health, Health as Culture: The project shows that a potential revolution in health care can emerge today based on ancient health traditions of India that flourished thousands of years ago. In this worldview, healing is intimately linked to ecological awareness. In the ayurvedic and yogic indigenous medical traditions, the body is visualized as a system of ‘interconnected intelligences’. This model of health and well being does not isolate mind, body and spirit into three separate compartments, but views them as one holistic unit which weaves the physical, the psychological, the subconscious, and the super conscious states of being into one whole.
These models of green consciousness, ayurveda, and yoga teach us methods to ‘endure what is not curable, and to cure what one need not endure.’2
Yoga installation (left); Nature based hardware design (right).
Calm in a Hyper Connected Society: The project designed various installations, this time the hardware was made from herbs and nature based materials. Just touching some of the objects/designs is in itself an act of healing.
While Planet Health was presented as a museum, its larger contribution at a higher level could come from disseminating the learning from the project to create calm for people through mobile devices. The resulting documentation of health viewed as ‘culture’ and new information devices and environments that monitor health provide valuable intuition for creating calm, centredness and well-being in a hyper connected, ‘always ON, 24/7’ information society. In doing so, mobile devices that otherwise distract people’s attention can become devices of healing.
Our most recent project was the Musical Landscapes and the Goddesses of Music exhibition, at the National Museum, New Delhi, in 2013. This exhibition presented advances in interactive art through an exploration of the science, art and spirituality of music, and their reflections in the goddess images across Asian cultures. The project represents one of the world’s first explorations showing the relationship between the sacred feminine and music.
Wave and Vibration, the primal connection between the Sacred Feminine and Vibration (left). The Goddess of Music and Her Transformations across Asia (right).
Through a collection of interactive exhibits employing new musical synthesis based on traditional grammar, interactive multimedia installations and recordings of performances by masters, the project will allow viewers to enter the world of sound, musical landscapes, and its cultural and spiritual aesthetics.
The project presents both traditional and new instruments based on the Indian sitar, Burmese saung harp, Thai xylophone, Korean kayagum, Chinese guzheng and pipa, Vietnamese dan tranh, Javanese and Balinese gamelan, chanting, and others. New instruments with embedded computation demonstrate interactions through gesture, touch, pull, movement, gaze and kinesthetic action. In addition, through responsive computing, people by their position, gesture, and movements control musical events in the exhibition environment.
In an era of rapid technology provoked changes, and an age of information anxiety, the exhibition on music and ‘solitude’ shows healing alternatives of re-‘centering’ available in the practice of traditional music. Newly designed musical instruments in the exhibition allow people to ‘tune in’ and recharge to brace for an environment of change.
The boundary pushing interactions project explored musical synthesis techniques to illustrate in real time the computation of user’s gestures as inputs for musical expression, which is calculated based on the particular parameters of the environment and particular physical gestures used by the visitor, not the predictable replay of pre-stored files. Installations could compose ‘Tan’s of raga based on the visitors selection of notes of a raga, speed-up the laya of an tabla composition through air gestures, listen to user’s breath in playing back vocal songs. These installations serve as a perception magnifier, as they scaffold visitor into the cognition and experience spaces of skilled practitioners.
In some installations abstract musical compositional devices are presented as simple physical manipulations of visual forms, e.g., arranging the minarets of a temple programmes different sequences of musical passages in a musical composition. In many instances visitors’ musical events are layered and fit to map on underlying rhythmic structures of an ongoing musical passage without the appearance of ‘jerks’ or ‘missed rhythms’.
Over the past decade people have been the recipients of physiological and psychological stress, the effects of the tremendous rate of change created information technology in various spheres. In the past, it took sixty years for a technology to be invented, adopted and refined to remain stable. The same technology innovation and adoption cycle has now been compressed to five years today. The shrinking of time has many stressful impacts – it makes educational systems, skills and curricula obsolete in no time. People need to constantly learn and reinvent themselves. As a result people today live in a state of tremendous anxiety and insecurity, created by a 24/7 ‘always on’ culture with no breaks for calm and solitude.
Gesture Interaction with tablas, raising the hand over the tabla changes its tempo (left). Rearranging minarets is a means to explore compositions (right).
In contrast to this environment of the constancy of change, traditional music and its practices, especially in Asia, show us an example of a traditional ‘technology’ that has stabilized over time – instrument forms, melodic and rhythmic structures (ragas and talas for example) have remained stable for thousands of years and handed over as collective inheritances.
When music is perceived or created, it ‘lights up’ different regions of the brain, i.e. regions not only responsible for music cognition, but also regions responsible for linguistics, motor functions and creativity. Music creates calm and well-being through the release of endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine and neurotransmitters. People, who play music together, e.g. Indonesian gamelan orchestra, collaborate better and forge deeper connections. Music is a non-violent form of art. It has universal power of creating harmony and well-being.
Scaffolding Novice Users into Skilled Musical Spaces: The exhibition presented interfaces for new musical instruments which take into account complex input parameters, which are processed in real time into meaningful musical phrases. These scaffold visitors into the cognition and experience spaces of skilled practitioners.
The incorporation of the hand and the body in the act of musical interface has been the basis of traditional instruments, and the limits of physical gestures possible and the positions afforded by the body and hands were crucial parameters in the form and design of musical instruments. These perimeters are disappearing with the advent of digital musical instruments, e.g. starting from the digital piano, to the newer computational screen based instruments using buttons and slider interfaces on glass screens.
Pagodas – Music in the Akasa Plane. This installation section explores musical instruments and sounds created and inspired by the elements. Visitors embrace the pagoda to listen to prayers to Ether.
In ritual traditions and centering practices, meditative states can be invoked by specific finger positions and body gestures. Similarly in musical production, the gestures and dexterity of the hands, and the execution and experience of ‘pulls’ – e.g. the glissando of a sitar – lead to a heightened physical activity engaging not just the hands, but the entire abdomen; and certain finger plucks of strings engage all muscles from shoulder to the hands to the palms, leading to a heightened state of exaltation.
Hence, design of proper tools sensitive to interactions with the body could allow people to experience well-being!
Even though musical instruments’ properties, such as pitch and timbre can be computationally modelled, interacting with nature based materials in traditional instruments, e.g. flutes, xylophones, provides for a different kind of a ‘touch’. These not only provide a complex texture of sounds, harmonics arising out of the medium of natural materials (e.g. bamboo in flutes and mouth organs, wood in xylophones, gourds in the vina), but allow the musician to deeply reflect on the symbiotic relationship between musician and nature, the plentitude offered by nature, and the musician’s gratitude to nature for the gifts of music.
Child’s Prayer – Prayer for Modern Man. Green Man, Re-questioning of the current economic paradigms: Interactive wood carving allows people to make a prayer to create a world of musical creativity, eco sustenance, and compassion. Visitors can place flowers through a hair pin on the wood carving to play back prayers for the Greening of the Hyper-connected Man.
Since the modern ‘hyper connected info man’ spends a significant amount of time interacting with glass screen displays, this work shows alternative interactions with organic natural materials which serve as computing hardware, with the goal of creating well-being during the computing interaction experience, and hence such nature based textures and surfaces can serve as a form of personal techno detoxification. At a larger scale, nature based materials used in computing hardware will enhance recyclability of products at the end of their life cycle, and reduce environmental toxicity.
The body of work – from Banaras, Gandhi, Health to Goddesses – present a creative vision of Asian traditional cultures where cultural forms symbiotically meet and embrace futuristic technologies in a celebration of originality. The works speak to a new generation of innovations at the ‘edge’, lying ahead of the curve, originating from non-western nations, and to a new generation of interactive art which brings the dimensions of touch, essential to the practice of traditional arts, hand based creativity, well-being and livelihoods into the design of modern technology.
As the world becomes rational and goal driven, and as communications exponentially speed up, and as the increasing, explosive amounts of information and distractions inundate the hyper connected info man, the explorations mentioned in this article show how the arts and culture can humanize technology and support a society rooted in well-being!
1. M. Khanna, personal communication, 2002.
2. B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga. Schocken, New York, 1966; ‘Sacred Tech’ (interview), Print (New York), January 2007; ‘Design as Goddess’, Abitare (Italy), August 2006.
R. Makkuni, Living Documents for Knowledge Capture and Learning. UNESCO World Culture Report. Paris, 2000.
R. Makkuni and M. Khanna, ‘The Crossing: Living Dying and Transformation in Banaras’, Sacred World Foundation, San Francisco, 2003.
R. Makkuni, ‘Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum’, Exhibition Catalogue, Sacred World Foundation, 2005.
R. Makkuni, ‘Reset Design’, Domus (Italy), 2005.
R. Makkuni, ‘Culture Conscious Design and Museum Interactions’, Context 8(2), Autumn/Winter 2011.