Obituary: Professor Gordon Pask

Gordon Pask was one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary intellectual movement that sprang up after the Second World War. "The science of control and communication in the animal and the machine" was how it was defined by Norbert Wiener, the American mathematician who in the 1940s coined the name cybernetics, the "art of steersmanship", from the Greek word kubernetes. Pask's book An Approach to Cybernetics (1961) is still one of the most accessible introductions to the subject.

Pask was a rare man in other ways. He was an eccentric in the best sense; gifted and original as a scientist, artist and lyricist. He had an exceptionally productive career (several books and over 200 published papers). His many contributions are still being assimilated in psychology, educational technology, cybernetics and systems science.

The founders of cybernetics included biologists and neurologists, mathematicians and engineers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and economists. Many were world leaders in their fields (Wiener had helped develop the world's first computers in the 1940s). They recognised that many problems can only be solved by interdisciplinary working, and sought to establish a common language and a shared set of principles for understanding the organisation of complex systems.

In many ways they were successful. Cybernetic concepts such as flow of information, control by feedback, adaptation, learning and self-organisation have permeated many disciplines, especially those concerned with natural and artificial complex systems. By the Sixties, there was a conservative backlash against cybernetics. Many thought its claims too grandiose and did not share the vision of the need for a new synthesis. Some scientists played safe, borrowing the ideas but not using the name. Daughter disciplines have developed: artificial intelligence, systems science, cognitive science, the new sciences of chaos, complexity and artificial life. At times, the new disciplines have overshadowed or forgotten their parent.

Gordon Pask was, by nature, a transdisciplinary, holistic thinker. He always held true to Wiener's original vision and remained committed to cybernetics as a unifying discipline.

His major work was the development of Conversation Theory, with applications in education (the two main works were Conversation, Cognition and Learning, 1975, and Conversation Theory: applications in education and epistemology, 1976). This grew out of his work with teaching machines. Pask conceived human-machine interaction as a form of conversation, a dynamical process, in which the participants learn about each other.

More recently, he worked on Interaction of Actors Theory, which takes a broader look at communication and the dynamics of social systems. In true cybernetic spirit, he worked hard at building unifying bridges between the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. He recognised common concerns with the discursive and interpretive practices that help form individual and cultural identities and that establish institutional practices as the norm. His wish was to develop a social cybernetics that would help combat terrorism, oppression and social conflict. His vision was of a healthy society, in which there is unity without uniformity, love, peace and justice for all.

Pask was also much concerned with the role computers and the new information technologies can play in making positive contributions to our lives. He foresaw most of today's new developments decades ago. His book Microman (published in 1982, and co-authored by Susan Curran) gives an accessible account of many of them. In particular, he looked to the day when all human knowledge would be located in self- organising, interactive, multimedia archives, with intelligent agents to support learning and access.

In his youth, Gordon Pask was a geologist and a theatrical producer. He painted and designed stage sets. He built special-purpose, electro- mechanical, chemical and biological computers. An early system, "Musicolour" (1953), drove an array of lights that adapted to a musician's performance. This was followed by Saki (1956), a "self-adaptive keyboard instructor". Saki was the world's first adaptive teaching system to go into commercial production. His chemical computers, from 1958, were self-organising systems that grew their own sensors, primitive eyes and ears. Recently, workers in robotics have rediscovered and taken up his ideas in this area.

Later systems were even more sophisticated in their use of computers to aid teaching and training. Caste (1972) was a "course assembly system and tutorial environment", in which learners could, holistically or serially, work through complex bodies of knowledge. Thoughtsticker (1974) helped you map your ideas and suggested novel combinations and perspectives. "Colloquy of Mobiles" was a cybernetic sculpture in which automata "conversed". Armed with a mirror and a torch, a human spectator could join in.

In 1953, with Robin McKinnon-Wood, Pask founded System Research Ltd, a non-profit research organisation. For 30 years, he was the company's director of research, attracting funding from a wide range of agencies (including the United States Air Force, Ministry of Defence, Department of Education and Science and the Social Science Research Council). His research teams worked on skill acquisition, styles and strategies of learning, learning in groups, knowledge and task analysis, processes of design, decision-making, problem- solving and learning to learn.

By the 1960s Pask's many achievements and colourful personality had caught the attention of the popular press. He became known as "the Cambridge scientist who never sleeps", because of his habit of working non-stop on problems once his interest was caught. His views were sought on a range of topics to do with the impact of computers and automation.

In 1969, he became Professor in the Department of Cybernetics, Brunel University. He attracted postgraduate students from many different parts of the world and involved himself wholeheartedly in their supervision. He was a gifted and inspiring teacher.

From 1974 to 1979, he was visiting Professor in the Open University's Institute of Educational Technology. With Brian Lewis and David Hawkridge, he helped define educational technology as a coherent discipline. He also acted as visiting professor in a number of other institutions: the Universities of Illinois and of Mexico; Georgia Institute of Technology; University of Amsterdam; Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia; Concordia University, Montreal; and, in the United Kingdom, the Architectural Association.

Pask travelled widely as an envoy for cybernetics. He helped build up the international community of cyberneticians, particularly in Europe, but also in North and South America and the Middle East.

In recent years, Pask fostered the so-called "new" or "second-order" cybernetics. Here, the observer himself, the one who distinguishes and analyses complex phenomena (cells, brains, societies), becomes the object of study. He was fascinated by the processes that take place amongst communities of observers (scientists, artists and other practitioners) as they establish and maintain shared world-views and shared ways of "coming to know", Pask's phrase for the processes of learning and discovery.

His brother Gar, a professor of anaesthetics, had died in the Second World War, and Pask himself was a true patriot, who loved his country, and in particular London. In some ways, his dress and manner were from another era. He always wore a bow tie with his double-breasted suits. When out and about, he would dress in one of his many capes with a frog at the throat. He was a great admirer of Sherlock Holmes. One of his last works was a novel, Flaxman Lowe. The heroes are "consulting detectives"; some of the main characters are ghosts. In an earlier lyric, he had written of life as a song that always returns, that has no beginning or end.

In his later years, inspired by his wife, Elizabeth, Gordon Pask became a Roman Catholic. This deeply satisfied his need for understandings that address the great mysteries of life that can unite and inspire us.

His death was not unexpected. He had been battling against serious and painful illness for some years. To the end, he continued to be productive, brave and cheerful. His power to inspire was evident throughout his working life. Pask was a very kind, polite, gentle, compassionate and generous human being.

Given his anticipation of the Internet, it is perhaps fitting that some of his friends are creating a Gordon Pask memorial website.

Gordon Pask, cybernetician: born Derby 28 June 1928; Professor of Cybernetics, Brunel University 1969-96; married 1956 Elizabeth Poole (two daughters); died London 29 March 1996.

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