Gordon Pask

Dandy of Cybernetics

Gordon Pask, who has died aged 67, spent his life developing an elegant theory of learning that stands without peer. His achievement was to establish a unifying framework that subsumes the subjectivity of human experience and the objectivity of scientific tradition. Sponsored by governments and industries on both sides of the Atlantic, his life-long research spanned biological computing, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, logic, linguistics, psychology, and artificial life. His was an original approach to age-old questions of how the human organism learns from its environment and relates to others through language.

Andrew Gordon Speedie-Pask was born in Derby in 1928, son of a partner in Pask, Cornish and Smart, a wholesale fruit business in Covent Garden. The biographies from Pask's six book jackets mention Liverpool Technical College, Cambridge University, University of London, the Open University; but one has the feeling that these were simply locations, and his many advanced degrees simply souvenirs, of work that was entirely of his own control and creation.

He placed himself squarely in the tradition of cybernetics, while at the same time charging ahead in a direction that was wholly new. Cybernetics was named in the 1940s as the discipline concerned with information, feedback, identity and purpose. These concerns were independent of whether the system in question was an animal or machine, individual or population. This domain suited Pask, not the least because it was not mainstream. Standing out was what he wanted.

When I first saw him, at one of the many academic research labs around the world where he played the role of consultant-as-catalyst, surely he stood out. He was dressed as always, an Edwardian dandy in double-breasted jacket and bow-tie and cape. He was slight of build, but the power of his mind made him huge. His courtly manner softened the intimidation of his probing questions and his fierce interest in precision and speed.

When Pask built his machines and his theory, his philosophical view was at odds with artificial intelligence, which arose from the seeds of cybernetics but presumes that knowledge is a commodity to pluck from the environment and stick in a cubbyhole. Pask's learning environments, whether for entertainment or touch-typing or statistics, viewed the human as part of a resonance that looped from the human, through the environment or apparatus, back through the human and around again. For Pask, that is the interaction by which we understand each other when we speak or dance together. He specified how this works in detail in his many publications on Conversation Theory.

Pask's criticisms of artificial intelligence were publicly polite but probing. His private view was that it was impoverished and could not achieve its goal of reproducing intelligence. He had himself reproduced intelligent behaviour with electro-mechanical machines soldered by his own hand in the 1950s. By realising that intelligence resides in interaction, not inside a head or box, his path was clear. To those who didn't understand his philosophical stance, the value of his work was invisible.

In his lifetime he received substantial recognition. Among cyberneticians he is acknowledged as one of the all-time greats. Conversation Theory has provided cybernetics its prescriptive power for modelling learning and agreement. Outside the field, Pask was known for the intensity and scope of his lectures; audience comprehension was more elusive. I often heard listeners say that 10% of his talk was understandable and, if the other 90% was as good, than this guy was really something.

Even more dense for the uninitiated was his prose, where a passion for completeness and comprehensiveness made entry difficult. This softened in later years, when his presentations were also more accessible, and he acquired a following in the social sciences.

Pask's competitors sometimes resented his habit of incorporating their theories into his own. Though he usually quoted them with full attribution, it was the determination with which he played the "my theory subsumes your theory" game that disturbed them. From those who adopted his ideas, it is hard to know the extent of his influence. The card catalogs of many libraries list his books, which somehow are missing from the shelves.

Pask was capable of great kindness and sometimes utter disregard for the individual. His theory shows how conflict is a source of cognitive energy and thereby a means for moving a system forward more rapidly. He seemed willing to foster conflict around him, even if it drove him and others further than physiology would prefer. His touch-typing tutor pushed the learner harder and harder, to the point where the rate of learning is greatest but also closest to the brink of system collapse. His students and collaborators were vastly changed by knowing him; some needed time to recover.

While living so much in his (and others') heads, Pask had extraordinary sight and hearing and physical coordination. I can still feel the adrenaline as his passenger in an Austin Mini. He followed the car ahead at a constant, harrowingly-close distance that was precisely maintained the entire route from Richmond to London, Pask double-clutching all the way. His one-on-one conversations had a similar focus and commitment.

From the intensity with which he lived, perhaps his own body suffered the most. Waking him for his evening dinner guests, after his long nights of work and short days of sleep, entailed a delicate balance of firmness and compassion. While waiting I could review the fruits of his night's work -- perhaps a new song lyric or research paper. Before the jacket and bow-tie and cape could go on, here was this mad and brilliant creature, all sinew, rising to dazzle and demand of us, and of himself, once more.

He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, daughters Amanda and Hermione, and grandson, Nicholas.

Andrew Gordon Speedie-Pask, cybernetician, producer for the stage and lyricist, born June 28, 1928; died March 29, 1996.

Paul Pangaro

16 April 1996 Guardian Newspapers Limited