Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Vak-pedia: Can technology democratize our oral traditions?

A rich tradition of proverbs did not make it to the written word, but holds sway over our actions

It is surprisingly difficult to find the folktales from my childhood or my grandmother’s proverbs on the web. It is not that Google’s search methodology has failed—it demonstrates the drought of information on the internet on India’s vast oral traditions.

India has a long and distinguished ‘Great-Tradition’ of literature in the established classical languages such as Sanskrit and Tamil. There is, however, an even richer verbal tradition of folklore, proverbs, remedies and morals in every Indian language that never made it to the written word but continues to hold sway over our everyday lives and actions. Historically termed as the ‘Little-Tradition’, it is in many ways all pervasive and easily accessible but in other ways strangely undemocratic, given the biased and selective dissemination paths.

While we are notionally a literate nation, we are still largely a verbal society. The vast collective knowledge and traditions of India are not on the web because we just couldn’t type them out. However, with voice becoming the new keypad of the digital world, the textual dominance of the current Indian internet will be swiftly disrupted. It is in this that I carry the hope of our cherished oral traditions transcending the narrow walls of caste, region, gender and language to become universally retrievable and culture-defining exhibits of the Indian internet.

Rapid advances in machine learning over the last few years have led to astonishing progress in speech recognition tools leading to the emergence of voice from the fringes to becoming the default input method in apps today.

Google’s voice recognition engine for English, for instance, has seen an improvement in word accuracy from 78% in 2013 to 95% in 2017. This scorching pace of progress also rings true for Hindi and other Indian languages—where we can expect, in the next couple of years, near-perfect voice recognition that even takes into account our multilingual speech (the type where we use Hindi, English and Kannada in the same sentence) predilections.

Yet to come, however, are the powerful digital tools and user experiences for the widespread sharing and productive use of our oral traditions. True, the history of voice-oriented applications in the digital world is short but there is plenty of evidence out there to suggest that voice platforms that can scale rapidly on the back of user generated content across a variety of engagement formats (Twitter vs Quora vs Wikipedia style for instance) are just around the corner.

Specific to the Indian context, I am encouraged by the nature of conversations and content on platforms such as Vokal and samosapedia that are already on the path of bringing our oral histories onto the web.

At the same time, let’s not forget that the digital world is no different from the physical one and can replicate all the biases and barriers of gender and community. We, therefore, need to think consciously of the whole gamut of user experiences as well as the necessary agency required to make these experiences universally accessible and equitable.

These are exciting times we are in. Times that remind me of the moment of change that the brilliant A.K. Ramanujan describes in his seminal lecture “Who Needs Folklore?"—In a South Indian folktale, also told elsewhere, one dark night an old woman was searching intently for something in the street. A passerby asked her, “Have you lost something?" She said, “Yes, I’ve lost some keys. I’ve been looking for them all evening." “Where did you lose them?" “I don’t know. Maybe inside the house." “Then, why are you looking for them here?’ “Because it’s dark in there. I don’t have oil in my lamps. I can see much better here under the street lights," she said.

Until recently, many studies of Indian civilization have been done on that principle—look for it under the light, in Sanskrit, in literary texts, in what we think are the well-lit public spaces of the culture, in things we already know. There we have, of course, found precious things.

Without carrying the parable too far, one may say we are now moving inward, trying to bring lamps into the dark rooms of the house to look for our keys. As often happens, we may not find the keys and may have to make new ones, but we will find all sorts of things we never knew we had lost, or even had.

This is a guest column by Kartik Srivatsa, co-founder and managing partner of Aspada Investment Advisors. The Bharat Rough Book is a column on building businesses for the middle of India’s income pyramid.