Monday, June 18, 2012

Inventing Turing

Last night I attended Reflections on Alan Turing's Life (1912-1954), which included "a personal reflection on being a gay logician by Bob Lubarsky" and the showing of the film Codebreaker. The lecture by Dr. Lubarsky was frankly a disappointment, as it centered the life of Turing on his homosexuality. The man himself thought nothing unusual about liking men and did not see any reason to change his orientation, even if he could. He did not belong to any sort of gay clique, but merely went about his life loving men. This status as a man who chose love over what could be described as common sense, due to the illegality of being gay at the time and the problems it could cause, makes Turing an aesthetist in the humanist sense of the term.
"This notion of aesthetics is more closely linked to its early eighteenth century etymology: aisthesis - sense experience, experiences that are both cognitive and evaluative and bodily, sensual, somatic; 'That territory is nothing less than the whole of our sensate life together - the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensate surfaces of that which takes root in the gaze and guts and all that arises from our most banal, biological insertion into the world' (Eagleton 13)" Quoted in Kennedy and Giddings, New Media: A Critical Introduction p13 (2003)
CODEBREAKER tells the story of one of the most important scientists who ever lived. Alan Turing set in motion the computer age and his World War II codebreaking helped save two million lives. Instead of accolades and praise, Turing faced public disgrace because he was gay. This drama documentary broadcast in the United Kingdom in late 2011. Now distribution plans are being developed to bring this unique film to a worldwide audience.
The film Codebreaker is a moving tribute to Turing who really was very ahead of his time and a brilliant thinker. Turing also came across as an original, humorous and kind man, if not somewhat naive. One of the thoughts I took away from the lecture and film was that Turing was precariously balanced between so many separate forms of knowledge, social circles, professional affiliations, classes, and institutions of power during the final decades of his life. I believe this, along with the barbarism of the enforced hormone treatment he underwent following his conviction for 'gross indecency', led Turning to commit suicide at the age of 42 after years of legal, social and professional harassment arising from his homosexuality. But what of Turing's inbetweenness? His role in history sits with his pattern-reading mathematical work. But in thinking further about what he did, I see Turing as an interdisciplinary humanist in the body of a mathematical scientist. The genius of Turing was his ability to use a ordered system for a creative ends. His work challenges C. P. Snpw's 'two cultures' idea.
[Snow] diagnosed the loss of a common culture and the emergence of two distinct cultures: those represented by scientists on the one hand and those Snow termed 'literary intellectuals' on the other. If the former are in favour of social reform and progress through science, technology and industry, then intellectuals are what Snow terms 'natural Luddites' in their understanding of and sympathy for advanced industrial society. In Mill's terms, the division is between Benthamites and Coleridgeans. —Simon Critchley
Turing was not a 'natural Luddite', but at the same time he was a visionary scientist. His vision was within a common culture of innovative science that resulted in a new and creative symbolic order.
"Turing was hooked on this idea of heuristic problem solving, and that he speculated on building sophisticated machines by “making use of guided search.” Well before the breakout of war, Turing had conceived of a general computing machine that stored programs in memory. The world’s first large-scale, electronic computer, Colossus was used at Bletchley to break other Nazi codes, and Turing found additional inspiration for pursuing ideas of machine intelligence. “Nowadays when nearly everyone owns the physical realization of a universal Turing machine, Turing’s idea of a one-stop shop computing machine is apt to seem as obvious as the wheel,” says B. Jack Copeland"
And what about those today who persist in the idea of the 'two cultures'? How does the work of Alan Turing and its obvious legacy (i.e. "nearly everyone owns the physical realization of a universal Turing machine")? The Sokal Affair is one example of the two cultures paradigm still defining the boundaries of interdisciplinary research.
The Sokal affair, also known as the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the publication's intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether such a journal would "publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions.
The Sokal Affair is primarily an example of bad scholarship, but the idea that a scientific fact can be applied to social reality is a total reversal of the vision Alan Turing seem to have in his work. The division between the technology and its meaningful application is not present in a binary system where computation is the underlying code of practice. By practice I mean that the technology in Turing's Automatic Computing Engine was a system of systems, a principle rather than an object. the technology Turing envisioned ordered the understanding that was necessary to operate the technology. This Saturday 23 June 2012 is the 100 anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing.

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