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
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.