IFSR Newsletter 1996 Vol. 15 No. 2 June
Portsmouth School of Architecture
Gordon Pask, who was born on June 28, 1928, died at the London Clinic on March 29th, after a long and painful illness. With his death, Cybernetics has lost not only one of its earliest and most profound and original masters, but one of the characters who continued to give it color in a gray world. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth who married him in 1956, two daughters, Amanda (and her husband Jonathan) and Hermione, and a grandson, Nicholas, as well as many students, friends and others whose lives he deeply touched. His early life was marked by difference. A sickly child born 20 years after his nearest sibling to Mary Pask and her fruit importer husband Percy, he was not expected to survive. This early practice in survival ultimately stood him in good stead, for at the end of his life, he continued to amaze his doctors, friends and family with his ability to remain alive. As a frequently bed-bound child, his education—and his world—were largely self created. (A continuing trace of this was the food he always left on his plate for the fairies who had been his childhood companions). Already and precociously qualified as a mining engineer, he went up to Cambridge to study medicine (eventually becoming a licensed practitioner in Tennessee), but rapidly moved into other areas. He met his lifelong colleague Robin McKinnon-Wood (1931 to 1995) with whom he founded his company “System Research” (the singularity was crucial) and they began building machines and theories.
Pask and McKinnon-Wood, together with some colleagues, are responsible for many developments in computing, including the creation of the first self-adapting program (SAKI), a basis for all typing tutors and the first mechanical “agent provocateur” (MusiColour). This latter, which reacted to music by proposing patterns of light intended to develop the musical discourse with the musicians, clearly indicates two other of Pask’s delights: his insistence he was an artist, and his fascination with the theater, drama and nightclubs, made constantly apparent through his choice of “uniform”. He drew charmingly, and wrote lyrics (he always said he would have given much to have equaled Noel Coward). Drama was a concept central to both Pask’s life and his work. In this vein, he was the first to assert that computing is—like drama—a medium, not a tool.
At a young age, Pask was already accepted as both mascot and master of the emerging discipline Cybernetics. He impressed Wiener, McCulloch, Rosenblueth, Bateson and Mead and became deeply committed to the insights of Heinz von Foerster (who he called his mentor, and for whose Festschrift he wrote his last paper). He began his work in learning (he detested the notion of Instruction, Computer Aided or not) and in the creation of transconventional concepts of what computation might be about. He developed hydraulic and chemical computers. He concerned himself (long before the current fashion) with questions of consciousness in machine embodiments.
And he produced his remarkable “Conversation Theory” to put forward and develop his position. Conversation Theory is a constructivist, relativist theory based in the understanding that each student must accept responsibility for his own learning, that his understanding is uniquely his, and that such understandings are communicable and learnable (only) through conversation. He developed these ideas in numerous learning environments, and through their ramifications in, for instance, how matter to
be learnt should be structured and differences in how we choose to learn (learning styles). He also saw clearly the limitations of his initial approach, and attempted to generalize Conversation Theory. Firstly, by considering the conversation as part of a gigantic and endless continuum of interaction (life) – the Interaction of Actors Theory – and secondly through the generalization of structuring rules for the modification of bodies of topics to be learnt.
Unfortunately, his voluminous writings are often hard to understand. He could not always bear in mind the limitations of others. He wrote with an intensity of concentration that was awe-inspiring, or, more often, a need to incorporate (adumbrate) as much as possible within his own scheme. Often, he tried to tell us too much and what he was telling us was too far ahead of us.
He was awarded the first D. Sc. from the Open University for his contribution to Educational Technology, and in 1995 a Sc. D. by Downing, his old Cambridge college, in recognition of his research and his contributions to science. He was an Honorary Member of the Austrian Society of Cybernetic Studies.
He was deeply attached, and loyal, to his friends and, particularly, to his students. At his best, he was an amazing teacher, capable of inspiring a belief in self and in standards that far exceeded what the student had previously anticipated, conjuring deep new insights. He held full professorships at Brunel University and the University of Amsterdam (where he was proud to be part of the research program “Support, Survival and Culture”). In his later days, his intellectual home became the Architectural Association in London.
There is no adequate label for a polymath such as Gordon Pask. But if he had had to choose one word, it would have been “cybernetician”. He was a passionately convinced cybernetician, for whom Cybernetics was one of the three or four really great insights of the twentieth century, and to which he remained true throughout his life. He lived by this creed, externalizing and examining as much as he could of the regulation of his self, through the external modification of his moods and nervous functioning, to the theoretical consideration of how humans can be together, conversation.
Cybernetics and Human Knowing, vol. 3 no 4,
Systems Research vol. 10 (1993) no 3.
Pask’s daughter, Amanda Heitler, is collecting stories about her father. If you have one you would like to send her, please do so at 5 Cobham Road, Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey KT1 3AE, UK