• Pangaro Incorporated

    Pask as Dramaturg

    This paper was originally publised in Systems Research, Volume 10 Number 3 1993, edited by Ranulph Glanville. The text below is the source for that publication. Footnotes have been raised to be in-line with the text and are shown in [square brackets] with online references added where possible.


    "Drama" derives its meaning from the Greek "dran" [delta-roe-alpha-nu], "to act, to do" and, in so many ways, Pask has always been about acting and the "dramatic." [I owe the suggestion of writing about Pask in relation to Drama to the Editor.]

    When I say acting I do not want only to refer to Pask's performances -- lecturer, researcher, client-dazzler, theatrical impresario or human being, all of which are intertwined and usually indistinguishable. When I say dramatic I do not want only to suggest an effective and memorable personality -- no one forgets Pask, though most profess (often disingenuously) that they "didn't understand him." To remember him is to understand him, in so many important ways.

    No, standing before you I could convince you that the very core of his approach to human learning and performance is that of Dramaturg, the Maker of Drama. Here, in prose, I can only outline what in life is the indescribable experience of The Pask's work.

    KEY WORDS: Conversation Theory, Circular Causality, Cybernetics, Drama


    The focus of this paper is Pask's work, not his presentation in the world; but to ignore the latter is to lose much of the spirit, as well as the meaning, in the former. In the context of this paper, these cannot be separated.

    The distinctiveness of Pask's presence is usually described in terms of his costume: double-breasted jacket, "proper" tied bow tie. In short, the outfit of the Edwardian dandy, though with his own (inevitable) personal variations, e.g.., jacket pockets jammed with papers, multiple wallets, pharamaceuticals and pipe paraphenalia, once weighed out at an actual 2 kilos. But his real character is best expressed as the difference between magical creature and mere human being. [note to editor: a picture of him here, say from 1961, would be great! My copies are in storage for the moment.] When animated, as he always is (or agitated, which sometimes happens too) his mental and spiritual energy is infectious. Spouting his latest formulation, or announcing the next event exactly like a music hall barker, Pask is irrepressibly himself, and nothing if not dramatic.

    All that being said I can move to the substance of the paper: how his work, in distinction to his being, relates to Drama.


    For students of cybernetics (and hence, perforce, also of Pask) it is no surprise to hear a declamation of Pask as Dramaturg. Action (process undertaken by an actor) is at the foundation of cybernetics. In its "second-order" formulation, the discipline is a grandchild of Wiener and Rosenblueth [N. Wiener, Cybernetics, MIT Press (1948)] and nearer-offspring of von Foerster [H. von Foerster, Understanding Understanding, Springer Verlag (2003)]. It situates human learning in the field of an observer: all knowing flows from acts of observing, which are characterized as relationships that arise between observer and observed—"In the beginning, was the inter-action", as it were.

    In addition to the distinction of observer and observed, processes of knowing require a perceived distinction in the observer's field. Without that, the observer can distinguish nothing ("no thing") from the void. Knowing therefore comes from a further interaction across some further (observer-made) distinction: figure versus ground, system versus environment, speaker A versus speaker B, self-as-observing versus self-as-observed.

    This epistemological stance of second-order cybernetics, and the action-basis of knowing, is central to Pask's work. If you need evidence of that beyond the contents of his theory (about which more shortly) consider his modus operandi: make an invention, observe it in interaction with human subjects, generate a hypothesis, make another invention (often fashioned from bits of the first one), and so on. As is consistent with all second-order activities, his inventions embody conscious intentions, and one constant intention is to place the human in a closed loop. The loop might be through an apparatus, to the human, and back through the apparatus; or from human, to apparatus, to another human, through the apparatus, etc. But always the loop -- why? Again because of the connection to cybernetics, a.k.a. "circular causal and feedback mechanisms in biological and social systems" [H. von Foerster (ed.), Proceedings of the Macy Meetings in Cybernetics (1945 - 1955)]. The hidden motivations in human behavior and mentation could not be caught in a mere A-causes-B, tit-for-tat type of experimental situation (or conventional psychological description, for that matter). To exteriorize otherwise-internal mental events requires considerable care not to abrade the self-consistency of the constructions made by the internal workings of the system in action. Organisms engage in a process of "through-looping" with their environment; they do not "capture and represent" their environment by internally-held one-to-one representations of that environment [A. Pedretti (ed.), conversations in cybernetics, conference book, princelet editions, London (1986); P. Pangaro, "New Order from Old: The Rise of Second Order Cybernetics and Implications for Machine Intelligence"].

    Pask knows all this and also well knows that to garner anything at all about what is "inside" a system requires some interaction across a distinction -- for that is the "minimum observable." The analogies to my focus today should already be clear: in the domain of Drama we have interactions across the actors in the play (corresponding to observing interactions across distinctions in the field of the observer). All this takes place in the context of the fundamental distinction of observer and observed (corresponding to the connections across the footlights).

    Learning what is "inside" a system also requires a process of exteriorization. In the Drama it is "the situated action" which causes the actor's behaviors, whether physical or mental, to be exposed to the audience (as well as, perhaps, but not always, to others in the play, including the actor in question). In a scientific realm (the realm in which Pask very much wishes to be a player), to make useful measures would imply the use of an inter-face, preferably a dispassionate apparatus, to capture the relevant data.


    From these sensibilities, not to mention a strong sense of entertainment (another feature of the Drama, if you will), came Musicolour [G. Pask, "A comment, a case history and a plan". In Cybernetics, Art and Ideas, ed. J. Reichart, Studio Vista, London (1971); see also McKinnon-Wood in this volume]. In addition to charming tales of traveling around England from music hall to music hall with an apparatus bulky enough to require one and one-half small moving vans, Musicolour engendered a number of innovations. First, there was the creation of a loop where the performer made music that was sensed by the apparatus and which resulted in a light show. The performer could then respond to Musicolour's response to the music, closing the loop. Second, interposed in that loop was Pask's invention for amplifying variation in the performance. It amplified the performer's variations; for example, in rhythm, it might add an additional (visual) lag to a performer's slightly-late (aural) beat. Thus the performer was made more aware of each variation, and could decide whether to move to a stricter beat, keep it the same or, indeed, create an even bigger variation by choice.

    Third, Musicolour encouraged innovation by simply becoming "bored" with repetition. For example if the performer persisted in playing at some length in the same frequency range, the lights would no longer respond to that range (while continuing to respond in others, of course -- here was no simple, one-dimensional antagonist). When the lights no longer responded, the performer could only try something else to "get a rise out of" the system. The result (at least when the performer cooperated) was a continuous flow of improvisation; a "conversation" where the performer and apparatus flowed into the other with action and response. This is "inter-action" in an important improvement to the usual meaning of Q-and-A or menu-and-mouse poking of even today's, most modern software interface designs (which do not involve "interacting" very much at all, they are more like command-line instructions dressed up in drag). At another level it is dialogue without a set script; an unfolding of events delimited by the range of the performer.

    Musicolour was developed in the mid-1950s.


    A close extrapolation of Musicolour followed in the form of SAKI, a Self-Adaptive Keyboard Instructor [G. Pask, "25 Years of adaptive training into the microprocessor era", IJMMS (1980)]. Again there was a closed loop, here with performer as typist/learner, and again an apparatus interposed in the loop. And (again) the solder-and-wire bits of the loop detected variations (this time, errors and irregularities of rhythm) and encouraged a maximum learning rate for the typing skill (by always hunting a level that was difficult enough to demand attention and stimulate learning, but not so hard as to be overwhelming). However the loop's rate of learning was not dictated from inside the apparatus, to be so-many-words per minute, or such-and-such an improvement in a predetermined period of learning. No, again the philosophy reigned wherein the loop itself must seek its own level; a learning experience where expectations are set from within that experience.

    In both SAKI and Musicolour, the human was engaged in an action, and in both cases the human had to be committed to the action as a participant. So too in The Drama, where the actions on the stage become compelling as a consequence of participation as much as due to their resonances to human experience outside of the artifice of the Drama itself. Similarly the experiences of SAKI and Musicolour were bounded only by the scope and capabilities of the subjective participant, and not by some external, objective authority.


    But let me be clearer, more specific. I do not invoke Drama as a "mere analogy" for Pask's work -- though, as his work well shows, the power of analogy to model interactions, hold distinctions and bridge coherencies is formidable and can never be "mere".

    I say Drama holds as its purpose the distillation of experience; and so too is the purpose of Pask's work. And there, with its clarity and power of embodiment, is the success of his work. I can support this claim in many ways. As I offer such an outline below, culled from his work in learning alone, I am compelled to declare how daunting the specificity of his theory is.

    I invite the reader to make a constant comparison to that which is in common with Drama:

    Engagement: In extending the work of SAKI from hand/eye skills to those requiring expression in English text (on subjects such as history, maths, anthropology), Pask did his work knowing the importance of the "contract to learn" on the part of the learner [G. Pask, Conversation, Cognition and Learning, Elsevier North Holland, Amsterdam and New York (1975)]: no contract to focus on the subject matter, then no learning of that subject matter.

    Requirements for exposition: The so-called teacher must present a basis for conversation with the so-called learner. But there must be some common ground before something is comprehensible across the learning conversation [P. Pangaro, "Entailment Meshes as Representations of Knowledge and Learning", Conference on Computers in Education, Cardiff, Wales (1980)].

    Transcendence: Dubiousness ("willing suspension of disbelief") yields to immersion and flow in the subject domain ("being lost in the moment") [B. N. Lewis & G. Pask, "The theory and practice of adaptive teaching systems" , Teaching Machines and Programmed Learning, Vol. 11, "Data and Directions", R. Glaser (ed.), pp 213-266, National Educational Association, Washington (1965)].

    The emergence of conflict: Without conflict there is no learning. In fact, conflict is the basis for Pask's notion of the mental organization "calling for" additional information in order to resolve detected contradiction or ambiguity that has arisen in the mental repertoire [G. Pask, "An Essay on the Kinetics of Language, Behavior and Thought", Ars Semiotica, pp 93-127, John Benjamins, Amsterdam (1980)].

    Epiphany: This occurrence can be modeled in Pask's formulation as a relatively large-scale re-organization of a mental repertoire, involving a collapse of many distinctions into a synthesis that is comprised of new mental structures [G. Pask, "Developments in Conversation Theory". In IJMMS, Volume 13.].

    Resolution: Through conflict and epiphany comes agreement over an understanding, although sometimes it takes the form of an agreement to disagree. Resolution may also involve the collapse of distinctions across individuals previously distinct or in conflict [P Pangaro, "An examination and Confirmation of a Macro Theory of Conversations through A Realization of the Protologic Lp By Microscopic Simulation", PhD Thesis, Brunel University (1987)].

    Drama can be viewed as a selection process on the part of the author, who selects the pieces of human experience to be played out, as well as the means of expressing that experience at any moment of the play. As Dramaturg of cybernetics, Pask has been constantly selecting the manner and means to embody his theory. In addition to the various apparati (not to mention song lyrics, and his own very personal manner of living), his formulations have taken many forms:

    • mathematics of self-organising systems (in the earliest days) [G. Pask and H. von Foerster, "A predictive model for self-organising systems", Cybernetica 4, pp 258-300 (1960)];
    • generic but equation-like formalisms on the productive nature of intertwined but distinct topics in a mental repertoire, including the role of analogy as engine of synthesis and the complexities of agreement [G. Pask, "Consciousness", Proceedings, 4th European Meeting on Cybernetics and Systems Research, Linz, Austria (1978)];
    • bubble diagrams as topological distillations of the above [G. Pask, "The Limits of Togetherness", Proceedings, IFIPS 80 (1980)];
    • 3-D diagrams of interpenetrating toroidal surfaces, again representing the interactions and evolution within concept repertoires;
    • a proto-logic or proto-language, the ultimate expression of these models, called Lp [G. Pask, "The protologic Lp", Technical Memorandum, System Research Limited, Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey UK (1978)].

    In all cases his exposition displays the same form as his own conceptual style, namely that of "irredundant holist", to whit, we are begun at the "top", at the general, and descend into the details; and all things are stated once and only once.


    Complementary to the formulations listed above is the modeling that deals, not with the "content" of the repertoires, but rather with their architectural "form." I think it not insignificant that this would be composed by Pask in response to a request to design an "architecture machine" in the sense of an intelligent and sympathetic partner in the act of design [G. Pask, Introduction to Chapter 2,. In Software Architecture Machines, N. Negroponte (ed.), MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, (1975)]. At an abstract but specific level the outcome of this request was just that, and more: it was a proposal for characterizing any and every interaction; the inter-action in which all observables, of whatever kind, are captured.

    Imagine a framework in which goals and sub-goals, desires, and the actions to bring them about (or not), are all captured. Include transactions internal to the system under scrutiny, and also those between the system and its external: the environment, other interacting systems. Distinguish in the model between actions that are simply "controls" and those that are language-based, command/question, I/you transactions. Capture the multiple levels and overlapping but contradictory processes of cognitive actions in contact with other actions of like and un-like kind.

    It is not surprising that such a generalized and encompassing formulation has found itself of use in the modeling and design of organizations of all kinds, including corporations, software environments, social pathologies [P. Pangaro, "Organizational Modeling", Technical Memorandum, PANGARO Incorporated, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1990); see also "Architecture of Conversations"], to name a very few. Capable of capturing implicit constraints in the particular architectural structure of an interaction, I call this formalism "organizational modeling" (OM), where organization is to be construed in the most general sense, its application in a full range from autopoiesic systems through the evolution of the corporation.

    Of course to fulfill my claim, OM must encompass so-called subjective as well as so-called objective transactions across the distinction of individual, conceptual and/or physical systems. And so it does. The totality of Pasks's work represents a singular proposal for a general theory of human experience that is at once consistent with second-order cybernetics (with which it shares its epistemology) and intuition (partially due to its choice of vocabulary, using terms such as topic, concept, agreement, and conversation while maintaining highly detailed definitions of all these terms). Pask's phrase, "Conversation Theory", captures quite a lot in just the name [G. Pask, Conversation Theory: Applications in Education and Epistemology, Elsevier North Holland, New York and Amsterdam (1976)]. The correspondences with the work of Maturana [H. Maturana, "Biology of Language: The Epistemology of Reality". In Psychology and Biology of Language and Thought, G. Miller and E. Lenneberg (eds.) (1978)] in biological systems is bravura.


    I offer the invitation to apply this framework of subjective interaction to the arts, and to the Drama. (A proposal that has already been made elsewhere, far less immodest than this one, uses Pask's Lp structures as the basis for all user interface design, encompassing all interactions in a language of commands and questions [P. Pangaro, "Beyond Menus: The Ratzastratz or the Bahdeens", Proceedings, Harvard Graphics Conference (1982)].)

    This would not be an idle exercise, merely applying a tool to a job for a work-a-day reason, whether realizing (or not) how the model is not the work, the effect is not in the analysis. Instead it would be a basis for re-casting, for example, the exchanges in dialog in a Drama, as a dance of strategy and structure among competing personae. The conflicts and resolutions expressed in OM would make a pretty picture, an exteriorization of the internal events of characters and actions in the play. Conversely (and ever more tantalizing) would be to use such representations as the basis for an interaction with a dialogic machine, a closed loop where the apparatus stood up for itself: a software program with an attitude. Variation detectors (discrepancies in the protagonists, I/you) and rhythm amplifiers (responding to us in shifting levels, from goal to action and back again) would encourage the dance, in this version of Paskian interaction, at a cognitive and motivational level. With appropriate and updated visual interfaces, each of us could explore our selves in connection with others, as well as our other selves. Proud sequel to Musicolour, perhaps we would call it "Teleovision".


    Paul Pangaro was graduated from MIT with a BSci in Humanities (Drama) and Electrical Engineering. Working in a research lab of Nicholas Negroponte's, he met Pask and pursued working with him, eventually obtaining a PhD in Cybernetics at Brunel University (UK). In 1981 Pangaro founded a commercial company for the pursuit of cybernetic applications to real-world problems. From small research inquiries to large-scale software development projects, his company has been performing contract work for a variety of commercial and government clients, frequently applying Pask's theory and research results. Like Pask, he holds a special passion for musical and stage performance, and he has achieved a modest reputation as a cabaret singer. [This bio is from 1992; see updates here.]


    © Copyright Paul Pangaro 1992. All Rights Reserved.