Gordon Pask

Gordon Pask was a rare man. He was an original; an eccentric in the best sense; gifted as a scientist, artist, lyricist. His peers in academic life have regularly acknowledged his genius. He had an exceptionally productive career (several books, over two hundred published papers). His many contributions are still being assimilated in psychology, educational technology, cybernetics and systems science. Gordon was rare in other ways: he was a very kind, polite, gentle, compassionate and generous human being.

Gordon will perhaps be best remembered for his role as one of the "founding fathers" of cybernetics, the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary intellectual movement that sprang up in the post war years. Norbert Wiener, an American mathematician, coined the name for the new discipline in the 1940's. Amongst many other achievements, Wiener had helped develop the world's first computers. He took the name, cybernetics, from the Greek word kubernetes, the "art of steersmanship". It is the same root word that gives us governor and government. Wiener's original definition was, "cybernetics is the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine". Gordon's early book, An Approach to Cybernetics (London: Hutchinson, 1961), is still one of the most accessible introductions to the subject.

The founders of cybernetics included biologists and neurologists, mathematicians and engineers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and economists. Many were world leaders in their fields. They recognised that many problems can only be solved by interdisciplinary working. They 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. Shortly after its inception, there was a conservative backlash against cybernetics. Many thought its claims to bring unity were too grandiose and did not share the vision of the need for a new synthesis. Many 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 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. Throughout his career, he continued to regard cybernetics, alongside relativity theory and quantum theory, as one of the truly profound intellectual developments of the twentieth century.

As well as making many original contributions, Gordon 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, Gordon helped develop and foster 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. Gordon 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' (a Pask term for the processes of learning and discovery).

Gordon's major work was the development of Conversation Theory, with applications in education (Conversation, Cognition and Learning, Amsterdam:: Elsevier, 1975; Conversation Theory: Applications in Education and Epistemology , Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1976).This grew out of his work with teaching machines. Gordon 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, Gordon 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.

Gordon was also very much concerned with the role that 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. It is becoming increasingly acknowledged that his ideas and vision were well ahead of their time. His book Microman gives an accessible account of many of them (London: Century, 1982, co-author, Susan Curran). Gordon 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. He referred to such support systems as "vehicles for driving through knowledge". He talked generally of an era of "man-machine symbiosis". He speculated about new forms of immortality, in which not only cultural artefacts are preserved but also, in some way, individual minds and personalities.

In his youth Gordon was a geologist and a theatrical producer . He painted; he designed stage sets. He built special purpose, electro-mechanical, chemical and biological computers. An early system (1953), "Musicolour", 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. Gordon's chemical computers (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 than SAKI 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" (1970) 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, Gordon founded System Research Ltd, a non-profit research organisation. For thirty years, he was the company's director of research. Gordon was successful in attracting funding from a wide range of agencies (including the United States Air Force, Ministry of Defence, Department of Employment and the Social Science Research Council). His research teams carried out research 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 (see also -Gordon Pask, The Cybernetics of Human Learning and Performance, London: Hutchinson, 1975).

By the 1960's Gordon'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, Gordon became Professor in the Department of Cybernetics, Brunel University, remaining so until his death. He attracted postgraduate students from many different parts of the world. Gordon involved himself wholeheartedly in their supervision. He was a gifted and inspiring teacher.

From 1974 to 1979, Gordon 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: University of Illinois; University of Mexico; Georgia Institute of Technology; University of Amsterdam; Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia; Concordia University, Montreal; Architectural Association (UK).

In some ways, Gordon's manner and dress were from another era, when "ladies were ladies and gentlemen were gentlemen". He treated all whom he met, whatever their place in life, with warmth, politeness and respect. He always wore a bow tie with his double-breasted suits. When out and about, Gordon would wear one of his many capes with a frog at the throat.

Gordon loved London and was 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. It is a fable in which past, present and future become intermingled. In an earlier lyric, Gordon had written of life as a song that always returns, that has no beginning or end. Gordon had the wit and imagination to know heaven on earth.

Having experienced the second world war and having seen an older brother, Gar, a Professor of Anaesthetics, give his life as part of the war effort, Gordon loved his country as a true patriot. He saw his life in science as a life of service.

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

Gordon's 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. He was an inspiration for all fortunate enough to spend time with him. Gordon's power to inspire was evident throughout his working life. He leaves behind him family, friends, colleagues and students, all of whom have been deeply affected by his presence in their lives.

Bernard Scott

Gordon Pask, cybernetician, born Derby, 28 June 1928; educated at Rydal School and Downing College Cambridge; MA(Cantab) 1954; PhD (Lond) 1964; DSc (OU) 1974; ScD (Cantab) 1995; FRSS, FBPsS, FBCS, FNYAcS; Past President (1974) of the Society for General Systems Research; married Elizabeth Poole 1956 (two daughters, Amanda and Hermione, one grandson, Nicholas); died London Clinic 28 March 1996.

1996 Independent Newspapers Limited