Abusing Alan Turing

The centennial of Alan Turing’s birth brings us the news that Alan Turing probably did not commit suicide by eating a poisoned apple, was not depressed at the time of his death, and that the hormone treatments intended to suppress his homosexual urges had been discontinued a year before he died. I am not in the least surprised by any of this; in fact I have been half-expecting such inversions ever since I began noticing, twenty years or so ago, the increasing mythologization of Turing’s life.

This centennial seems a good time to consider how we re-invent – and sometimes abuse – the great figures of our past to suit the needs of the present. When biography turns into a packaged morality play, it is always wise to suspect that the actual facts and complexities of the subject’s life are being lost. When that morality play satisfies obvious propaganda needs for political or cultural factions in the present, we should be even more suspicious. And when certain recurring mythological themes – such as holy martyrdom – develop increasing prominence in interpretation of the subject’s life over time, it’s a red flag signalling that contact with the facts and the subject is probably being lost.

Over the last couple of decades I have watched this process take hold of and transform our cultural memory of what Turing’s life was about. I titled this essay “Abusing Alan Turing” because I think the process has twisted that narrative into a shape Turing himself would have found belittling and barely recognizable. I do not think the man who wrote “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” would have wanted to be remembered as a holy victim, with the defining event of his life being a suicide invented by future partisans. It is worth examining how we came to this pass.

I see several reasons for the mythologization of Alan Turing. The most benign one – of which Turing might have approved – is that computer science has been scrambling to achieve the kind of respectability and professional status long afforded to fields like medicine and the law. One of the characteristics of such professions is that they have hero-myths about great figures in their past who can be seen as foundational or exemplary. Doctors have Hippocrates; lawyers have Thomas More. Each profession seems to need to develop its own exemplars, and the young field of computer science has sought its own.

If this were all that was going on around Turing, though, it wouldn’t be necessary to distort his life. Turing’s intellectual work really did make him a worthy exemplar of the field by about any standard one could conceive. It is instructive to compare him with Ada Lovelace, whose reputation as “the first programmer” is undeserved, resting on a common but severe misrepresentation of the facts.

Ada Lovelace has been falsely mythologized as the first programmer because she was a woman. In a present struggling with issues of sexual equality, her femaleness has served propaganda purposes too obvious to need rehearsing. Turing’s homosexuality, too, has become a sort of marker or talking point in today’s culture wars. The difference is Ada Lovelace was a figure of little consequence in her own time who would probably enjoy her enhanced modern reputation if she could experience it. Turing, on the other hand, is increasingly diminished by the uses we now put him to.

It is not just that the common account of Turing’s death is probably false, it’s that even if it were true it would risk submerging the man’s staggering accomplishments in political correctness and tawdry cliche. Yes, yes, repression, anti-gay prejudice, I know all right-thinking people are supposed to be horrified by such things – but the man who (more than any other single person) cracked the Enigma code and unified computer programming with mathematical logic deserves to to be remembered for those things, not for the accident of his sexual preferences or a myth of final martyrdom later forcibly grafted onto his life.

But the queasiest thing about the myths of Turing-the-exemplar and Turing-the-victim is how they’ve become intertwined. It says no good thing about the year 2012 that Turing’s supposed marginalization by the society of his time has become in many popular accounts a perverse credential for his greatness. In fact he was not marginalized at all – he was a prominent Cambridge don and a hero of his country.who had been awarded the Order of the British Empire. Rather than confront Turing’s homosexuality, the British authorities from the arresting constable on up tried to look the other way and gave every easy out they could; Turing, through some combination of carelessness and self-destructiveness, took none of them.

More: behind much of today’s hagiography there seems to lurk a sort of perverse insistence that if Turing hadn’t been gay and a suicide he would be less apt for veneration, as a founder of computer science or anything else. In what is now made of Turing’s life we see an implicit claim that virtue can only be found in the outsider, the failure, the martyr, the victim of oppression. That is perhaps the most important reason (beyond respect for the man himself) to remember that Alan Turing was none of these things.