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.]
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.
ACTION & CYBERNETICS
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.
ENTERTAINMENT & CLOSED LOOPS
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.
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.
PASK AS DRAMA
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".
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.
ENCOMPASSING SUBJECTIVE & OBJECTIVE
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.
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
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.