Understanding different ways of thinking: a story

9 April 2017

I can remember quite distinctly the first time I realised people think about the world in very different ways. For me, it all began with music.

I taught myself how to read sheet music when I was around 7 years old, thanks to an old electric keyboard given to me by a friend of my parents, and The Usborne First Book of the Recorder. (It looked like this, if you’re curious.) I remember working through the book, figuring out counting, and mostly being amazed that these little black dots could hold so much meaning. I learned to pick out the tunes for the recorder on the keyboard, and it didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t playing properly with the two different hands on the keyboard because I didn’t know I should have been.

After that, my parents figured I might have an ear for music, so I started violin lessons. I got recorder lessons at school too, and I continued playing around with the keyboard (and later the piano) at home. Each of the instruments provided new pieces to the same puzzle for me. There were always notes displayed with these dots on these lines, and they went from A-G, and there were time signatures, and a way of counting that made sense to me. (Admittedly some of the more complex time signatures didn’t immediately make sense to me, but I got there in the end.)

Then one day, my mum mentioned the sitar to me. It’s her favourite instrument, and her favourite sitar player was Ravi Shankar. We listened to his music on CD, and it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. I couldn’t quite count along, though - not in the same way that I would tap my hand to classical music, or learn how to count the tunes I was learning.

I didn’t have a sitar at my disposal, but I wanted to learn more about it and see if I could pick out the tunes on my keyboard. I read more about his music on the sleeve of the CD, and I looked up more about sitar music in our Encyclopedia Britannica, and what I found confused me even more.

I learned that traditionally, sitar music wasn’t written down at all, and that the basis of the sitar music was something called a raga which could barely be explained even in words, let alone written down in the form of music I was accustomed to.

It feels silly to write this now, but I was a bit annoyed.

You see, I had learned how to read music, not “read Western music” or “read certain types of music but not others.” The whole time I had been learning, I had thought that this was it - this was how all music, in the whole world, was written down. Nobody, nobody I had talked to had told me that this was the framework and the way of understanding just certain types of music, rather than all of them. Nobody had said “well done on learning how to read western music, Zara!”, they just said “Well done on learning how to read music!”

I couldn’t articulate it then, of course, but I felt a bit cheated when I realised that the system of understanding music that I had learned wouldn’t help me with this beautiful new instrument I’d discovered. It turned out that there were different ways of understanding and sharing music, not just one, not just my one. My supposedly all-encompassing, “universal” approach wasn’t universal at all.

Short of shipping a sitar over to the UK and finding someone to teach me in person, there seemed to be few ways forward for my sitar interest. I ended up carrying on with the violin, and learning classical violin. I mostly forgot about wanting to play the sitar, and went years without playing one until I spent a summer in India as an adult and signed up for some lessons. Turns out, it was just as difficult as I might have imagined to get myself out of this way of thinking that I’d been trained in, and open my eyes (and ears) to a new way of thinking.

I thought of this realisation earlier this week, when I had the joy of seeing Anoushka Shankar play in concert. The organising principles of the music she played still intrigue me, and for the large part, they’re still incomprehensible to me.

Aside from a huge difference in quality, to someone with no musical training, the music I play and the music she plays might not seem so different in terms of organisation. There’s no way of really understanding how different that is until you understand one of those systems already – and, crucially, until you try to understand the other.

I think about this sometimes when we talk about how important it is to have people from different perspectives present during the conception, design and implementation of new technologies. If I hadn’t come across the sitar when I did, I might have gone my whole life thinking that everybody understood, read and wrote music in the same way I had learned to. Even with that experience (and many others later on in my life which pushed me to see how restricted my understanding of the world is) it can still sometimes be hard to conceptualise what those other worldviews are.

I was lucky to be exposed to such diversity and such different perspectives at a young age, but many aren’t. Many who are in positions of power now in making key decisions around the technologies we use, might never have been challenged in that way. They might not even realise that they haven’t, but instead think that everyone understands the world in the way they do. I believe this makes their work weaker, their design less inclusive, their decisions less informed than they could be.

So, as ever - a call for pushing your thinking beyond the systems you’re accustomed to, for going to unfamiliar territory and learning how those systems work (or trying to). For striving for diversity of perspective in the work you do, for challenging yourself to try to grasp how others see the world, for realising that even if you try, you might not get there yourself, for seeking others out who can push you to do better – and for acknowledging how much we need that diversity when we’re approaching all sorts of projects, technologies and all.


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