Paskian Environments
with Paul Pangaro

This is an on-going project to rediscover the work of cybernetician Gordon Pask and reconsider Pask's relevance to the construction of "interactive environments" by producing new embodiments that richly explore the human meaning of "interaction" and "conversation" in an actual built space.

We will develop a conceptual framework for building interactive systems that deals with the natural dynamic complexity that "environments" must have without becoming prescriptive, restrictive and autocratic. As such, the work also functions as a critique of conventional ubiquitous computing practices which ignore the poetries of interaction that architecture (in its widest sense) affords.

Following a detailed analysis of the theoretical constructs and interaction environments that Pask left behind, we will extract algorithms and system models from his projects, especially his Musicolour Machine, Colloquy of Mobiles, and Thoughtsticker. Rather than simply reproduce these projects, our aim is to apply Pask's interaction models to environmental constructs in order to build new media environments that enable meaningful conversational and collaborative experiences at an architectural (that is to say, "larger than human") scale.

Gordon Pask and his model of interaction

Gordon Pask was one of the early and most vivacious proponents of cybernetics, the study of control and communication in animal and machine. His particular contribution to the discipline came in his specialisation of what is known as "second-order" cybernetics: frameworks that don't just account for control and feedback toward the achievement of goals, but also account for "observers" and "participants" in such systems. His focus as both a scientist and theatre writer/producer led him to build, in the 1950s, the Musicolour Machine, a device that (unlike today's direct-response music-to-colour interfaces) worked like another jazz musician in a band (see further descriptions below). Still operating in hardcore science, he was one of the exhibitors at the Cybernetic Serendipity show at the ICA, London, in the late 60s, curated by Jasia Reichardt, which went on to be the inspiration for many future interaction designers. He is best known for his "Conversation Theory", which since the 70s and 80s has dominated as the most coherent and potentially productive theory of interaction, encompassing human-to-human, human-to-computer, and computer-to-computer configurations in a common framework. As such he was a frequent collaborator with architects, particularly at the Architecture Association, London and the Architecture Machine Group (now Media Lab), Boston.

Architecture of conversations sketch by Gordon Pask
'Architecture of conversations' sketch by Gordon Pask

In our opinion, things took a turn for the worse in the late 80s, in terms of interactive environment design, following what we call the "one-way, reactive interaction model " (ORIM) -- where the "machine" contains a finite amount of information and the "human" simply navigates through an emerging landscape to uncover it all. The human is at the mercy of the machine and its inherent logical system. This contrasts with the Paskian model of interaction in which "machine" and "human" are peers in a conversation and where information is genuinely created through their interactions. However, ORIM got a firm foothold in the minds of interactive designers (in both art and industry) because it provided short-term results that were easy for people to grasp and use. In other words, because it relies on a causal relationship between "human" and "machine" ("I do X, therefore machine does Y back to me") people are very quickly able to understand the system.

The Paskian model is much more difficult to implement, though far more productive, in particular because it relies on intrinsically more "intelligent"-type interactions, and because it requires a stronger foundational model of what an intelligent interaction is. We analogise it this way: when we meet new people, being intelligent does not necessarily mean we will like them; we tend instinctively to like people if they are amenable and affable rather than if they are intelligent. However, it is conversations with intelligent people (in whatever terms) that in the long term are most productive because they are generative. That is, they lead to new perspectives and actions.

The Paskian model doesn't necessarily rely on complexity of interaction: it relies on the creativity of the person and the machine that are negotiating across a technological interface. It is vital at this stage of development of "interactive" and "time-based" media to reconsider the Paskian model of interaction, particularly because we are no longer naive in dealing with our technological interfaces, and therefore we expect more from them and are more able to comprehend the structures behind them.

Cybernetics "tutorials", provided by Paul Pangaro:


November 2013: Please note that Haque Design + Research is now Umbrellium, where more up-to-date information can be found Umbrellium