Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Fall of Civilisation

I intended to write a grand essay for Blogging Against Heteronormativity Day but as I have been rather poorly all week, you’ll have to make do with the little story of one of our heroes, Alan Turing.

The world might be a very different place if it wasn’t for Alan Turing. Most famously of course, the Allied Forces may not have proved victorious in the Second World War if it wasn’t for Turing’s contribution to the cracking of the Enigma Machine. What is certain is that very many more lives would have been lost on both sides and the whole thing may have lasted much longer.

You really ought to read the magnificant Simon Singh’s The Code Book if you are at all interested, as my capacity for maths may fall rather short of even explaining the gist of the problem. Basically you have a machine which creates and translates an alphabetic code. But in a very complicated way – check out the Wikipedia entry if you even begin to understand probability. This machine might be configured in so many different ways that even a modern computer would take literally years to work through all the possibilities. Add to this the fact that the configurations of this machine were changed on a daily basis

Nazi Germany were entirely confident that this was an uncrackable code and used it to communicate all sorts of strategic information – including, for example, the whereabouts of U-Boats in the Atlantic Ocean. With two grandfathers in the navy, the Goldfish’s unborn self was at stake. Maybe you too.

With the help of an older version of the Enigma machine given to us by the Polish (who had been working on this long before us) Turing and his team created a new machine called the Bombe, a computer which… well, look I really can’t do the maths so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was very clever and it did the job. And we won the War.

After the War, all this remained a total secret and Enigma machines were still used for military purposes elsewhere in the world, genuinely believed to be uncrackable. This is one of the reasons that Turing was not hailed as the national and international hero he really was, during his lifetime.

Another profound way in which Alan Turing has effected our lives is his contribution to computer science. Turing invented the Turing Machine, a mathematical thought experiment which could stimulate the logic of any computer which could possibly be constructed. Do you understand what this means? In 1936, this guy laid down the model for at least the next seventy years of computing theory. My computer works according to principles he said were inevitable. So does yours. He is therefore widely considered to be the father of modern computer science.

Turing also made a tremendous philosophical contribution to our age and this is the aspect of the man which has gained hero status in my own esteem. He was one of the first people to seriously discuss the implications of artificial intelligence and perhaps most notably, the questions about the nature of human existence and experience that arise when we are confronted with the idea of intelligent computers (still much more of a fantasy back then).

If I think therefore I am then what it is about the act of thinking which distinguish me from a computer’s computing? What am I, beyond a sophisticated organic computer? What are our thoughts and emotions beyond chemical and electrical events? Is there something more to life? Is there something which makes the thought processes of a human impossible to imitate and if so, what would that be? What are we? Who are you? What? Eh?

The answer to these questions and more will not be coming to a blog near you any time soon. Point is that Turing contributed at least as much to Philosophy of the Mind in the Twentieth Century as Freud. And these are just the highlights. The guy also did all sorts of things I don’t really understand because he was so very much more clever than I am.

So why am I telling you all this for Blogging Against Heteronormativity Day?

Am I telling you all this to demonstrate that gay people are capable of making a contribution too? Uh, no.

Am I telling you all this because of the tragic way our nation chose to treat my hero? Only a few years after he had saved the world, he was arrested and convicted for gross acts of indecency (committed in his own home, behind closed doors, with one other fully consenting adult). He escaped prison on condition he took hormonal therapy, which amounted to a sort of chemical castration. He became impotent, obese and developed breasts. His private life was exposed in the newspapers. Meanwhile, his security clearance was taken away – when our lives depended on it, we trusted this known homosexual with our most precious secrets, but in peacetime he was out on his ear.

Am I telling you all this because even now we are trying to write the guy out of history, with movies like The Enigma which has the problem solved by rosey-cheeked straight boys and girls with no mention of our beloved stuttering homosexual?

Nope. The reason I am telling you this is because Alan Turing was just forty-one when he (rather poetically) ate an apple laced with cyanide. Forty-one. I don’t think that it is fanciful to assume that he wasn’t quite finished at this point; that he perhaps had a great deal more to give. That we effectively killed one of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century, of any century because of our preoccupation with sexual conformity, our obsession that other people’s most private and intimate activities should look and feel exactly the same as everyone else’s.

Leonardo da Vinci was twenty-four when he found himself in prison charged with Sodomy. Fortunately, his Papa got him off. Fortunately for him, fortunately for us, (fortunately for Dan Brown), fortunately for almost everyone who has lived in Europe since.

An important principle in both biological evolution and human history is that progress is only ever made by the mutants; those organisms or individuals who break the rules. Non-conformity is a necessary condition for greatness. It isn’t a sufficient condition; some mutations are harmful, most are neither here nor there. However, attempts to suppress such superficial differences are not only to the detriment of an individual who has a right to these freedoms, but to the detriment of every one of us alive and all those of us yet to come.

This was not at all articulate but given my current state it was either this or writing merely “Heteronormativity is a bad thing. Stop it!”


Anonymous said...

No, sorry, I won't accept the "we". I agree with everything you say, but I wasn't there, I didn't do it, nor were you. And as to our grandparents, who might have been there, well people saw things differently in those days. The authorities probably genuinely thought they were doing him a favour.

Okay, so we know better now. But...

We (there, I'm doing it now) cannot go on beating our breasts and claiming blame for things that happened before we were ever born.

Radio said...

I was subjected to lectures on Turing at uni by an enthusiastic professor who was trying to justify why there was a compulsory computer programming module in the middle of my maths degree. I was highly sceptical as to what AI could have to do with pure mathematics and objected to having to take the course. Within a few weeks i was converted: i wont go off on one about maths now but this was a guy who proved some amazing results, quite apart from all the Enigma business. Its true that you cant judge the past by the standards of the present. But its sobering to think of the advances in computer science and mathematics which the world may have missed out on through driving Turing to an early grave.

Anonymous said...

But we CAN and SHOULD be learning about things like this. Yes, people saw or thought differently back then; that doesn't really make it okay. And the big problem is because of the way people thought that homosexuals were ill, people who made important contributions got erased from history. There are notable exceptions but it still happened far too often. I didn't know about Turing at all. Granted, am not a computer scientist but I did see the movie (ha ha). And I think it's a great use of the blog against heteronormativity day to tell this story.

Anonymous said...

Dear Goldfish,

As ever, reading your blog is an education, and a re-assurance.

I knew nothing about Turing, but then I haven't studied maths or computing but now I see why a disability involving cognitive dysfunction can in simple terms be explained using computer language.

Re-assuring because I have seen the huge change in attitudes that has occured in my life time, towards people of both genders who are not heterosexual.

There is still a long way to go in society's attitude, and I know discrimination is still a danger to many people (see Alan Bennet's Diary). However, both a close friend of my generation, and a distant relative of your generation, are both able to live their lives much freer than Alan Turing, so it seems in my limited experience, that each generation is able to live and be, more openly than the previous one.
I hope it continues, that we may all benefit.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks for your comments. :-)

Charles - I take your point about the use of "we", I didn't mean to breast-beat. Perhaps that was an ill-judged choice of words, but I'll leave it as it is for now.

Turtlebella points out, this is stuff we have to learn from and watch in the future. The past is another country, but there are ideas which wander back over the border every now and again.

And there are some ideas dwelling in the present that we are yet to sucessfully expel.

Attila the Mom said...

Fabulous commentary and analysis!

It's nice to learn something new every day.

Thanks so much for writing this!

midwesterntransport said...

Thanks for this, Goldfish. For some reason it made me a little teary.