Alan Turing, an unsung hero, mathematician, code breaker, and first generation computer scientist. Turing is most known for his work helping to break the German Enigma codes during World War I and his provocative 1950 essay “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” where he posits artificial intelligence, the universal machine digital computer, and the now oft-cited “imitation game” or “Turing Test.” Unfortunately, all of Turing’s brilliance, achievements, and technohistorical importance are overshadowed by another thing for which he is known: his homosexuality. In 1952, Turing was convicted of committing acts of “gross indecency” with a man and sentenced to chemical castration rather than imprisonment. Two years later, in 1954, Turing committed suicide leaving behind a legacy of questions, titillations, frustrations, and theorizations about technology, cybernetics, identity and embodiment, and posthumanism.
How might we read, configure, and imagine Turing as one of the first posthumanists, one of the first digital humanists? How might Turing be emblematic of the interventions, explorations, and interrogations raised by posthumanism, code studies, queer theory, cultural studies, and the digital humanities? And how might Turing’s own fraught personal and political life limn the boundaries, limitations, silences, excesses, and exclusions of these flights of inquiry? Turing hoped at the end of “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” that “at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted. I believe further that no useful purpose is served by concealing these beliefs” (442). Now that the end of his century and the beginning of our new century has come to pass, finally, how might Turing provide new directions and open new possibilities for our disciplines, departments, and individual work?
On September 10, 2009, then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology on behalf of the British government for the conviction and “horrifying” and “inhumane” treatment of Turing. The battle over Alan Turing’s official pardon continues, including an online petition signed by more than 37,000 people and official endorsements by Stephen Hawking and other top scientists. In a deep sense, the campaign for and desire to recognize and recover Turing’s life and work is as much about undoing a historical “gross indecency” as it is about coming to terms with the intersections of gender and sexuality, politics, power, science and technology. J. Halberstam in “Automating Gender” argues, “Two important points can be made in relation to the brush between science and desire. First, Turing's experience of gender instability suggests that the body may in fact be, both materially and libidinally, a product of technology...second, desire provides the random element necessary to a technology's definition as intelligent. In other words...desire remains as interference running across a binary technologic” (443-444).
With all of the above in mind, we offer the following starting points:
- Is technology queer? Is information queer? How might both be queered and to what end?
- What does the sick body (or the queer crip body) either the one reliant on technology for life, or the one not reliant, do to the idea of the posthuman? In considering the idea of the posthuman as queer, can we understand disability and /or illness to always already be posthuman? To never be posthuman? something else? What is the role of the state in creating/cripping the posthuman through technologies such as Turing’s chemical castration?
- What does it mean to include Turing as a digital humanist?
- Why has Turing been a particularly important icon when thinking about the history of computing? In which histories is he highlighted or ignored?
- The history of cybernetics is full of other interesting thinkers and makers, and many have gone unsung. We'd love to hear about the people, inventions or movements that you can add to this history.
- What are your most interesting questions about cybernetics, posthumanism or Turing?
We'd like to welcome our special guests:
David Bates, Professor of Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley
Jack Halberstam, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies and Comparative Literature, University of Southern California
Jacob Gaboury, Ph.D. candidate, Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University
Jennifer Rhee, Assistant Professor of English, Virginia Commonwealth University
Rudy Rucker, Computer Scientist, Science Fiction author, and a founder of the cyberpunk literary movement
Tom Foster, Professor of English, University of Washington
Forum Hosted by HASTAC Scholars:
Edmond Y. Chang, Ph.D., English, University of Washington
Margaret Rhee, Ethnic Studies and New Media Studies, UC Berkeley
Jarah Moesch, American Studies, University of Maryland
Elliott Hauser, Information Science, UNC-Chapel Hill
Elaine Gan, Film and Digital Media, UC Santa Cruz
Melissa Chalmers, School of Information, University of Michigan
(1) Alan Turing, by Mr Ush
(2) MIT Museum: Kismet the AI robot smiles at you by Chris Devers
(3) Courtesy of Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener, co-creators of Atomic Robo
Everyone is welcome to join the conversation. You do not need to be a Scholar to jump in!