Tuesday, 6 December 2011


Randy Pausch was a decent human being. His early death, due to cancer, was a tragedy for his family, friends and colleagues in the specialist field of computer science known as virtual reality.

An academic in Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, USA (40 degrees North, 79 degrees West), Pausch gave a last lecture on 'Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams'. It is available on websites and in book form. It is hugely popular.

It is an attempt to make general statements about the experience of early death, leaving a legacy to family and friends, the lessons a life delivers and a summation of experience that can be used by other people.

It is sentimental. It presumes a universality that would not have the same status were it to come from a culture other than the Anglo-American culture. And it makes no allowance for that.

Chapter 35 has a commonsensical list of things to do to make good meetings. The presumption that everyone experiences 'meetings' is hard to take. Chapter 11 calls Disneyland the happiest place on earth, which is a grand claim for a commercial theme park. Chapter 10 details Pausch's love of large cuddly toys. 

The impression grows that the core dream is to remain – or become - a child. A particular child: a white middle-class child in America. This is mawkish, presumptuous and narrow.

(As an aside, will lectures and books coming from China in one hundred years time make a similiar presumption?)

Life lessons are gleaned in playing American Football, a regional, minority sport in global terms. The term 'coach', familiar to people who view American sports' films and computer games, is presumed to be universally known. It summarises an endearingly old school portrait that is sentimental. And grim. In  Chapter 7, the coach refuses to give water to young players. Pausch says we were a 'bunch of brats.' The lessons of life are learned in the school of hard knocks. 

The sentimental desire to preserve childhood into adulthood manifests in Pausch's work in preparing the brightest and best educated young computer scientists for a working life in the entertainment industry – theme parks, video and on-line gaming, virtual reality simulations. This is never viewed  ironically. 

How many of these best and brightest end up working, directly or indirectly, on military applications, as the military and entertainment industries increasingly converge?

Clich├ęs masquerading as aphorisms abound. Stretching them to a lecture and a book, where being unique is best expressed by a desire to accumulate large cuddly toys, is sentimental.

Deep human urges at stake. The urge to leave a legacy for your children. The urge for wisdom in a maelstrom of data and knowledge. Pausch's book reveals that an alert intelligence is not sufficient. That context is vital. That a narrow didactic approach, presumed to be universally applicable, does not get to the heart of the matter.  Pain and the fear of death are everywhere and real, not virtual, hurtful tragedies. They are experienced differently by different people in diverse places, in their various circumstances. 

Pausch's book offers no sense of the truth that all across the world there are people coping with untimely death, from cancers, other conditions and circumstances, most of them without the benefit of the expensive medical inputs that facilities like The John Hopkins Hospital can provide.

The urge for eternity impels us all. Telling people you love them is the heart of it. Pausch's pioneering work with the Alice Project, making 3D computer programming tools available to young people and their teachers, is a sterling legacy. 

His Last Lecture is not. 

The Last Lecture; book; Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow; Hodder and Stoughton; 2008

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