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A COMMENT

The Cybernetic Psychology of Pleasure

by Dr. Gordon Pask

'Man is always aiming to achieve some goal
and he is always looking for new goals.' (Pask)

The unaltered introduction to Gordon Pask's
'A comment, a case history and a plan'
written prior to the Cybernetic Serendipity exhibition (ICA 1968).
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A comment on the cybernetic psychology of pleasure

       Man is prone to seek novelty in his environment and, having found a novel situation, to learn how to control it. Let us develop and qualify this cybernetic statement. In the symbolic domain which constitutes the most important aspect of the human environment, 'novelty' inheres in events or configurations that appear ambiguous to a given individual, that engender uncertainty with regard to his present state of knowing and pose problems. 'Control', in this symbolic domain, is broadly equivalent to 'problem solving' but may also be read as 'coming to terms with' or 'explaining' or 'relating to an existing body of experience'. Further, when learning to control or solve problems man necessarily conceptualizes and abstracts. Because of this, the human environment is interpreted in various levels in an hierarchy of abstraction (on the same page we see letters, words, grammatical sentences, meaningful statements and beautiful prose). These propensities (see note) are at the root of curiosity and the assimilation of knowledge. They impel man to explore, discover and explain his inanimate surroundings. Addressed to the social environment of other men, they lead him into social communication, conversation and modes of partially co-operative interaction.

       To summarize the issue in slightly different words, man is always trying to achieve some goal and he is always looking for new goals. Commonly, he deals with goals at several levels of an hierarchical structure in which some members are freshly formulated and some are in the process of formulation. My contention is that man enjoys performing these jointly innovative and cohesive operations. Together, they represent an essentially human and an inherently pleasurably mode of activity.

       This dogmatic statement of the human condition does not apply in all circumstances. On occasion, perhaps, men are vacuous. On occasion, they merely respond to stimuli or act as passive receptors. But the characterization is accurate enough whenever a man is involved in aesthetic activities, which include:

  1. Organizing a bit of symbolic environment by constructing a tangible work of art (e.g. painting a picture).

  2. Writing a prescription which is interpretable as a work of art (e.g. composing music and writing the score).

  3. 'Performing a work of art' or, strictly, 'interpreting a work of art prescription, such as a piece of music'.

  4. Appreciating or enjoying some work of art.

       It does not seem useful to make a rigid distinction between the types of mental process that go on when a man occupies these different roles: 1, 2, 3 and 4. The composer is, in some sense, mentally akin to the performer and listener; the man who views the picture is mentally akin to the artist who painted it.

       With all this in view, it is worth considering the properties of aesthetically potent environments, that is, of environments designed to encourage or foster the type of interaction which is (by hypothesis) pleasurable. It is clear that an aesthetically potent environment should have the following attributes:

  1. It must have sufficient variety to provide the potentially controllable novelty required by a man (however, it not swamp him with variety - if it did, the environment would merely be unintelligible).

  2. It must contain forms that a man can interpret or learn to interpret at various levels of abstraction.

  3. It must provide cues or tacitly stated instructions to guide the learning and abstractive process.

  4. It may, in addition, respond to a man, engage him in conversation and adapt its characteristics to the prevailing mode of discourse.

       The aesthetically potent environments discussed in this paper are reactive and adaptive. They go some way towards explicitly satisfying the requirements of d. However, any competent work of art is an aesthetically potent environment. Moles has pointed out that its information structure is tailored to suit a, b and c (among other things, this is why a play or symphony bears repetition). Condition d is satisfied implicitly and often in a complex fashion that depends upon the sense modality used in the work. Thus, a painting does not move. But our interaction with it is dynamic for we scan it with our eyes, we attend to it selectively and our perceptual processes build up images of parts of it. Further, consciously or not, the artist anticipated this dynamic interaction (if only because he looks at the picture himself). Of course, a painting does not respond to us either. So, once again, it seems deficient with respect to d. But our internal representation of the picture, our active perception of it, does respond and does engage in an internal 'conversation' with the part of our mind responsible for immediate awareness (this is probably the most important consequence of Moles' insistence upon perceptual 'quantization', though he does not make the point in this way).

       With suitable qualifications, precisely the same comments apply to works of art (like plays and musical pieces) that are presented in a sequential or partially sequential fashion. In each case, the external aesthetically potent environment gives rise, bit by bit, to an internal representation and the reciprocal representation of d is internalized as a discourse between the internal representation and and our immediate selves. In contrast, a reactive and adaptive environment is intended to externalize this discourse.

       A couple of questions arise. First, is there any special advantage to external (rather than 'internal') discourse or, by the same token, to reactive and adaptive environments? Next, suppose there is, can it be done?

       The latter question can be answered in the affirmative. The former, cannot, so far as I know, be answered at the moment. The chief merit of externalization (apart from the scientifically interesting fact that externalized discourse can be observed, whereas internal discourse is unobservable) seems to me that external discourse correlates with an ambiguity of role. If I look at a picture, I am biased to be a viewer, though in a sense I can and do repaint my internal representation. If I play with a reactive and adaptive environment, I can alternate the roles of painter and viewer at will. Whether there is virtue in this, I do not know. But there might be.

       Rather than indulge in a theoretical discussion of reactive and adaptive aesthetically potent environments, I shall present the case history of one and the plan for another. The case history refers to a system called Musicolour which, though workable, suffered from a number of defects. It is closely related to Professor Lerner's well conceived system Colour Music (presented at the Soviet Exhibition in London, 1961), to the fascinating work of Nicolas Schoffer and to various artifacts shown in the USA. Previous accounts of the Musicolour system have concentrated upon its technical aspect. In the present paper, I shall try to give a glimpse of the historical circumstances, since these are relevant to the development of any cybernetic system. The plan refers to a project (called a 'colloquy of mobiles') which is a design for an aesthetically potent environment of a sociological type. Although it is a new departure, it relies heavily upon lessons learned in connexion with Musicolour.

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Note on propensities

       My 'propensities' have been adumbrated under various titles. Bartlett speaks of a 'search for meaning', Desmond Morris of a 'Neophyllic tendency', Berlyn of a 'curiosity drive' and Bruner of a 'will to learn'. My own writing credits man with a 'need to learn'. Social psychologists, such as Argyll, have essentially the same concept. So do the psychiatrists. Here, the point is most plainly stated by Bateson, and by Laing, Phillipson and Lee.

Return back to 'propensities' in this Article or to the Title page.


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