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What is the First Sound of the Future?

By Shawn Van Sluys

When Musagetes conceptualized ArtsEverywhere in early 2015, we determined that many voices must be present side-by-side across all of the issues and themes that intersect throughout the online platform. (Read here about the themes of ArtsEverywhere.) We wanted ArtsEverywhere not only to feature the ideas and insights of artists and cultural workers, but also those of policy makers, educators, scientists, children, and so on. And, since ArtsEverywhere situates the arts in relation to all aspects of the world around us, we include voices across all forms of difference and a breadth of lived experience. Such polyvocality (beyond the literary origin of the term) is vital to the aims of ArtsEverywhere.

I was thinking about this recently when I was listening to an episode of “Under the Influence,” Terry O’Reilly’s documentary series on CBC Radio One. He was talking about VocaliD, self-described as “a voice company that is bringing speaking machines to life.” The company realized that most mechanized voice machines, such as the one Stephen Hawking uses, don’t offer the user more than a handful of pre-determined voices, making it impossible for people who rely on text-to-speech technology to express themselves in their own unique voice. We need only think of how particular we feel about our own voices to understand the enormity of VocaliD’s program: They have a voice bank to which anybody can donate their voice. You simply record yourself speaking for several hours, upload the file to their website, and, voilà, you are a voice donor. Or, if you can’t speak, just record a few simple sounds and they can reconstruct your voice.

Voicelessness in the form VocaliD addresses—the physical absence of a voice—is overcome through technological innovation, yet another (laudable) cybernetic solution to the problem of human fallibility. But beyond that, VocaliD offers us a metaphor for polyvocality in the struggle for social justice.

Frequently the language of social justice conflates a metaphorical voicelessness with the silencing of voices or with dissenting voices that choose to be silent. We often hear that “we” (presumably the ones who already have platforms on which to speak) must “allow” or “help” others to speak. It overlooks the truth that those who do not speak are not necessarily voiceless; often they have been compelled to silence or they keep their silence as an act of resistance. Our individualistic, consumptive, stratified society filters through only the voices that gird up the status quo while blocking voices of dissent and difference. We see this in the expression of class struggle in São Paulo (see Queer City), in the repression of migrants and displaced persons (see Free Home University), the suppression of artists’ freedom (see Artist Rights), and in the divisions of race, gender, and politics around the world.

VocaliD offers us a metaphor for polyvocality in the struggle for social justice. It harnesses collective action and individual will to celebrate the differences within humanity—even at the level of the unique sounds of our voices, the principal instrument of so much artistic creation.

Hold that thought.

Meet Hatsune Miku, the first-born vocaloid-humanoid hybrid, or as her name translates, “the first sound from the future.” She’s 16 years old but was born only nine years ago. She’s a pop star with millions of glow-stick-wielding fans crammed into giant stadiums. And she is a hologram, a mere illusion of zeros and ones fixed into an image and a sound.

Hatsune Miku is impressive in all her colourful, 3-D glory, never tiring, never missing a beat (unless the power goes out). But much more incredible is her voice. She was created as a musical instrument, or more specifically, as the voice of Yamaha’s Vocaloid 2 singing voice synthesizer; the hologram is merely a body for that voice. She was designed, literally, to be a platform on which anybody can make music, and for that crowd-sourced music to be performed at her concerts. (Yes, she tours globally.)

Jaron Lanier (watch his lecture here) always says that the most important aspect of a technology is how it changes people—that digital technology is a game of social engineering. In his book You Are Not a Gadget (2010), he explains the oft-forgotten aspect of the Turing Test: it cuts both ways. Is the computer’s intelligence as advanced as a human’s if a judge cannot distinguish between texts written by each? Or has the man in the hypothetical scenario degraded his own mind so much that the judge can no longer distinguish his communication from the computer’s?

VocaliD and Hatsune Miku illustrate the veracity of Lanier’s creed: technology changes us. But in what way? Does it give greater voice to the silent, the silenced, and the voiceless? Or does it subsume a plurality of expressions into one voice—the dull monotony of layered MIDI-synth’d oomph, constrained by the limitations of zeros and ones?

Hatsune Miku, the hologram, appears to be a platform on which music can be created collectively. She is a 16-year-old avatar on which teens and tweens not only project their desires and anxieties (a role literature used to play), but also become part of the creation itself. (Try telling Justin Bieber what to sing.)

The vocaloid and the hologram are another piece of the sinister reduction to sameness to which a useless application of technological innovation can lead. The same scientific and mathematical inventions undergird VocaliD and Vocaloid. One allows for greater uniqueness; the other, a dull sameness. Which one will really be the first sound from the future? A plurality of human voices that improvise the world or the single techno voice that speaks for all?

*****

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Shawn Van Sluys is the executive director of Musagetes and the editor-in-chief of ArtsEverywhere.ca.

[Photo courtesy of mikuexpo.com]

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