Friday, September 11, 2009

British PM Apologizes to Alan Turing

As has been widely reported, the British government today issued a state apology to Alan Turing, prosecuted (and ultimately driven to suicide) for his homosexuality.

Turing, of course, is a transformational figure not only in technology circles but Western intellectual history. In addition to his wartime role as a code-breaker, he made fundamental contributions to both computer science and artificial intelligence. In Mechanisms, I evoke Turing's uncanny ability to "read" the dance of lights in a cathode ray tube, then being used primarily as a storage rather than a display device. To quote Turing's biographer Alan Hodges, "He insisted that what one saw as spots on the tube had to correspond digit by digit to the program that had been written out" (399). Here's what I go on to say:
The popular dramatization of forensics as criminalistics . . . is, I would argue, a mere caricature of the forensic imagination, which is finally—and profoundly—humanistic and generative. In a famous analysis, Carlo Ginzburg links the art historian Giovanni Morelli, who focused on the seemingly incidental details of portraiture (ear lobes and such) to ascertain whether the hand of the master was present, to Sherlock Holmes and Freud (who had himself read Morelli) and finds shared among them, “an attitude oriented towards the analysis of specific cases which could be reconstructed only through traces, symptoms, and clues” (104). Ginzburg then adds a fourth and more primal figure to the tableau, a hunter kneeling on the trail to study the scat or track of his prey. This, according to Ginzburg, is our first reader of signs. Superimposed on the posture of that hunter I also see Alan Turing, leaning, straining, to “peep” the glowing spots and dashes in the Williams tube, marks inscrutable to most but as revealing to Turing as day-old prints on the forest floor. And superimposed over Turing, I would argue, is the familiar posture of today’s computer user—shoulders hunched, head thrust forward, peering into the depths of the screen . . . (256-7)