Alan Turing: The First Digital Humanist?

Alan Turing: The First Digital Humanist?

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


Image sources:

(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!


On my flight to Denver today, I read through a wonderful book by George Dyson called "Turing's Cathedral" - though the book is really more about von Neumann than Alan Turing, that's beside the point.

The book is a wonderful narrative behind the building of the first computer, and all of the politics involved in getting them to work. I especially love how the book takes a look at the academic politics of the affair, since Alan Turing's work was described as "too theoretical" with its talk of computability for engineers to care about and "too technical" with its talk of heads and tapes for the mathematicians to bother with. Mechanical computing was a field that nobody wanted to work in because it didn't fit anywhere, and the humanists weren't any help because computers obviously had no cultural value. :)

It really is an awesome book, and I thought about this post when I was reading it, since it really says a lot about contemporary issues of "digital humanities" (fitting in, finding people who don't dismiss your work by saying it belongs in someone else's silo).

Back on the topic of Turing: I feel like the Turing test really gets blown out of proportion... It seems almost wrong to assign his name to what is ultimately just a heuristic when the mathematical beauty of his work was in the deterministic nature of the halting problem (re Jacob) and reduction of computability to the Church-Turing Thesis ("anything that is computable can be computed by a Turing Machine"). Maybe that's just the mathematician in me talking. :P


Hi all--

Thanks to all who put together this fantastic forum! Looks like there's lots of productive discussion happening already.

I'm currently writing about Alan Turing from a disability studies/crip theory perspective. And to be honest, I'm having some trouble with a few things.

My basic claim is that Turing's work is undergirded by a few concepts that hit at the heart of disability. As I have them, they're: enfleshment, randomness, aporia, and toxicity. I'm happy to elaborate a bit more on each of these, though they're not essential to what I want to pick all your brains about.

I'm having trouble finding a justification for bringing Turing to bear on all this theory that could never have been produced while he was alive. It seems like a contradiction to me, for example, to argue that Turing's "organotherapy" teaches us something about contemporary queer and crip theory when Turing himself might have been profoundly puzzled the even the central terms of our debate; I imagine he would think it all too frilly, not connected to the matter of the world. I really like what Margaret has suggested about the "evidence of experience" and what Jennifer has offered with Ahmed's notion of "queer phenomenology." And I come out with my own justification about Turing's "hauntology," citing Heather Love and Robert McRuer's thought about queer and crip "spectres." But in all of this, it still feels like the objetc of analysis is the present, using Turing as a backward detour. Meaning that our work isn't really history, then, because we can't reach back in time to make claims about Turing's life and work.

Does anyone have any good citations for this dilemma? I'm going to rifle through David Halperin's _How to do the History of Homosexuality_ and I'll report back if there's something useful.

The second (related) question is about identity. It seems that Turing himself didn't really essentialize his homosexuality. It seems he used the term "queer" only to establish the kind of thing he was talking about. When you look at Hodges description of his confession to the detectives who ultimately got him on trial, he seems so candid and honest about his queerness that he never thought of being gay as an identity; this seems to be in keeping with his geeky/awkward disdain for social etiquette. Related to me first question, then: how do we make claims about what Turing himself thought of his own queerness? And if it's true that he was anti-identitarian, how do we justify using this to inform contemporary queer theory?

Any help on this stuff would be majorly appreciated. Thanks again for all your work in putting this forum together!


Hi Kevin! It's great to see your post here. I've been meaning to reach out to you recently, as Laine Nooney mentioned your work to me. I just want to say that I've struggled with these same questions when writing about Turing as a queer figure, and the way that gesture seems anachronistic and even problematic. My solution has been to deply queerness as a methodology without presuming some kind of explicit queerness in the subjects of my history, though it sneaks in with figures such as Turing. I'd be very interested to hear what you find in Halperin's book though.


Welcome, all!  I think this will be a timely, fruitful (pun intended), and rich discussion.  I am honored to be co-hosting with Margaret, Jarah, Elliott, Elaine, and Melissa!   Thanks to Fiona for making it all happen!  And many thanks to our special guests! 

Just in case you haven't heard, Benedict Cumberbatch is to star as Turing in The Imitiation Game:


Welcome everyone! I'm really looking forward to this conversation. 

One of my first memories of thinking about robots, bodies, humans and love was....Bjork's video All is Full of Love. It was released in 1999 and directed by the amazing Chris Cunningham, and is now on permanent display at MoMA. When it was released, it immediately created an uproar: the video features two robots being created, and they're coming to life as the machines construct each part. At the end, the two robots kiss and embrace, and the camera pulls back to reveal that they're both women. 

It was an important marker at a very particular time. We still watched MTV (on TV) but the internet was gaining momentum. YouTube wasn't even around until 2005! But silicon valley and the promise of automation, robots, machines and the 'new economy' was giving rise to simultaneous hopes and fears of what these technologies would bring. 

The video opened up a reminder of the humans in robots, the machines in people, the love in bodies, and the construction -- and refashioning -- of who we come to be. It won a number of awards and must be one of the most iconic videos of our generation. I watched that video probably 200 times in the first week, and have often wondered what Turing would make of those eyes staring back at him.

Has anyone read an article or paper on this video? I'd love to read it or hear any other thoughts about it!


Hi Fiona! The video is interesting. You reaction is too.  For me one of the things that I find generative about questions of gender and sexuality when exploring robots/androids instead of cyborgs is that robots are genderless.  While they might have things that we normally signify as gendered (ie breasts), Turing shows us that even if the human has breasts, as he did after he was forced on to hormone therapy, that doesn't make the body female. Instead, it seems gender becomes sort of a Turing test of the robot body (and his body).  The creator makes something that is inherently genderless, but the performance it engages us in puts us in a position to determine the gender for ourselves. While from my own view I see the robots as both male and female, from your perspective they both became women, which is interesting in and of itself.  What I find even more interesting is our need to recognize the human in machines.

I'm specifically looking at the first photo you posted.  We see the two humanoid robots. We also see a robot creator, but because of its lack of humanoid appearance. When the scene zooms out and everything is in silhoutte, the lines of the humanoid-robot and machine-robot blur. We stop being able to see the differentiation and start to see everything is connected. This again seems like a robot based Turing test.  The question I have with this video specifically is where do we stop recognizes ourselves in this configuration.  

What I lvoe about this zoom out is, the configuration taken at a distance looks like a heart connected to a series of valves. Even in abstract I still recognize some humanity. But I think that was one of Turings goals if my memory is right.


Recently I wrote a novel about Alan Turing, Turing & Burroughs: A Beatnik SF Novel.  You can find commercial and free browsing versions of the book at

By way of creating my Alan Turing character, I studied Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma, a 500+ page biography, first published in 1983.  The edition I have is the Walker and Company paperback of 2000.  I read the book through, marking passages that seemed potentially useful for my novel.  I came to love what an odd-ball rebellious proto-hacker Alan was.  I’ll comment on some of my favorite passages from the Hodges biography below

1935, age 23.  If they [undergraduates] came to Turing’s rooms hoping for a glimpse of King’s [college] eccentricity, they were sometimes rewarded, as when Alan sat Porgy the teddy bear by the fire, in front of a book supported by a ruler, and greeted them with “Porgy is very studious the morning.”

1939, age 27.  “...his room...was liable to be found with a sort of jigsaw puzzle of gear wheels across the floor...It was certainly far from obvious that the motion of these wheels would say anything about the regularity with which the prime numbers thinned out, in their billions of billions out to infinity.  Alan made a start on doing the actual gear-cutting...”

1940, age 28.  “[Worried about an invasion] He bought two [silver] bars worth about £250, and wheeled them out in an old pram to some woods....  One was buried under the forest floor, the other under a bridge in the bed of the stream.  He wrote out instructions for the recovery of the buried treasure and enciphered them.  ... The clues were stuck in an old benzedrine inhaler and left under another bridge.” [And later he could never find the ingots.]

1941, age 29.  “Trousers held up by string, pyjama jacket under his sports coat...  There was his voice, liable to stall in mid-sentence with a tense, high-pitched ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah’ while he fished, his brain almost visibly laboring away, for the right expression, meanwhile preventing interruption.  The word, when it came, might be an unexpected one, a homely analogy, slang expression, pun or wild scheme or rude suggestions accompanied with his machine-like laugh; bold but not with ...  coarseness ...but with the sharpness of one seeing it through strangely fresh eyes.”

1942, age 30.  Turing joined the Home Guard so he could learn to shoot.  “[Turing] had to complete a form, and one of the questions on this form was: ‘Do you understand that by enrolling in the Home Guard you place yourself liable to military law?’  Well, Turing, absolutely characteristically, said: There can be no conceivable advantage in answering this question ‘Yes’ and therefore he answered it ‘No.’ ... And ... he was duly enrolled, because people only look to see that these things are signed at the bottom.”  He learned to shoot, but he refused to attend parades, and the apoplectic chief officer confronted him, and Turing said, “You know, I rather thought this sort of situation could arise...If you look at my form you will see that I protected myself against this situation.”  He’d decided on the “optimal strategy if you had to complete a form of this kind.  So much like the man all the way through.”

1943, age 31.  He liked Greenwich village.  “He said, ‘I’ve spent a considerable portion of time in your subway.  I met someone who lived in your Brooklyn who wanted me to play Go. ... I had a dream last night.  I dreamt I was talking up your Broadway carrying a flag, a Confederate flag.  One of your bobbies came up to me and said: See here! You can’t do that!  And I said Why not?  I fought in the War Between the States.’  Alan’s curious English voice, like [a] system encoding information via frequency rather than by amplitude, made a vivid impression on his ... colleagues.”

1943, age 31.  “His high-pitched voice ... stood out above the general murmur of well-behaved junior executives ... Then he was suddenly hear to say: ‘No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain.  All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.”

1943, age 31.  Riding the ship from New York back to England, “...he spent his time studying a twenty-five-cent handbook on electronics,  the RCA Radio Tube Manual, and invented a new way of enciphering speech.”

1943, age 31.  “Alan was particularly good at taking some quite elementary problem and showing how some point of principle lay behind it¬—or conversely, illustrating some mathematical argument with an everyday application...It might be [for instance] wallpaper patterns for an argument about symmetries.  His ‘paper tape’ in his [seminal monograph on]Computable Numbers, had the same flavor, bringing an abstruse branch of logic down to earth with a bump.”

1944, age 32.  “With holes in his sports jacket, shiny grey flannel trousers held up with an ancient tie, and hair sticking out at the back, he became the cartoonist’s ‘boffin’—an impression accentuated by his manner of practical work, in which he would grunt and swear as solder failed to stick, scratch his head and make a strange squelching noise as he thought to himself, and yelp when shocked by the current that he forgot to turn off before soldering the joints in his ‘birds nest’... of electronic valves.”

1945, age 33.  Working on a system named Delilah, for encrypting audio transmissions of speech, he developed what we would now call a chaotic but deterministic multivibrator circuit for generating reproducible noise patterns for encrypting the sounds.  “He hated the showmanship that was required in negotiating for equipment.  It was forever his bitter complaint that more adept players—‘Charlatans,’ ‘Politicians,’  ‘Salesmen’—would get their way not through expertise but through clever talk.”    When “the Delilah actually worked—that was the joy of it, for all its deficiencies.  Alan had created a sophisticated piece of electronic technology out of nothing, and it worked.  ... Alan’s braces [suspenders] burst.  Harold Robin, the chief engineer of the organization, produced some bright red cord from an American packing case.  Alan used it every day thereafter as his normal way of keeping his trousers up.”

1945, age 33.  “The world had learned to think big, and so had he ...[ now] he wanted ‘to build a brain.’”   1947, age 35.  “His whole enterprise was motivated by a fascination with understanding of the magic of the human mind. ... ‘In working on the ACE [computer] I am more interested in the possibility of producing models of the action of the brain than in the practical applications of computing.’”

1946, age 34.  “[a colleague] found many days when it was better to keep out of the way of the now somewhat isolated ‘creative anarchy’ that was Alan Turing.  ‘Likeable, almost lovable ... but some days depressed,’ he appeared; his mercurial temperament and his emotional attitude to his work showing clearly.”

1947, age 35.  “His whole enterprise was motivated by a fascination with understanding of the magic of the human mind. ... ‘In working on the ACE [computer] I am more interested in the possibility of producing models of the action of the brain than in the practical applications of computing.’”

1948, age 36.  “Alan had told [his mathematician friend and confidant] Robin [Gandy] that, ‘Sometimes you’re sitting talking to someone and you know that in three quarters of an hour you will either be having a marvelous night or you will be kicked out of the room.’ ... To the fastidious [Alan’s] open-necked, shabby, breathless immediacy came as messy and coarse, though there were redeeming features; he could put on a roguish charm...and besides his piercing blue eyes he had thick, luxuriant eyelashes and a soft-contoured nose.  ...  Sometimes he struck lucky.”

1948, age 36.  Alan attended a talk by Wilkes, who was designing a rival computing system: “Afterwards he meanly said, ‘I couldn’t listen to a word he said.  I was just thinking, how exactly like a beetle he looked.’”

1948, age 36.  “He was ... fascinated by the fact that a machine ... could be perfectly deterministic at on level, while producing something apparently ‘random’ at another.  It gave him a model for reconciling determination and free-will.”

1950, age 38.  Alan had bought a house in Wilmslow near Manchester by now.  He was turning away from computers.  He was working towards a paper on morphogenesis, or the study of how plants and embryos grow.  “...somehow brains came into being every did anything know how to grow?...Alan ... thought about embryology all the time...The greatest puzzle was ... how biological matter could assemble itself into patterns... [that were] enormous compared to the size of the cells.”

1950, age 38.  Biologist J. Z. Young recalled his conversations with Alan.  “...there was his rather frightening attention to everything one said. He would puzzle out its implications often for many hours or days afterwards.  It made me wander whether one was right to tell him anything at all because he took it all so seriously.”


[Image of a computed animal-coat pattern, taken from Turing’s last published paper, "The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis,” which he wrote in 1951.  There are full pdf files of this important paper online, but if all else fails, you can read the pages one by one as photoimages in the official Turing archive.]

1951, age 39.  One of Alan’s colleagues, Jefferson, described Alan as “‘a sort of scientific Shelley,’ … Shelly also lived in a mess, ‘chaos on chaos heaped of chemical apparatus, books, electrical machines, unfinished manuscripts, and furniture worn into holes by acids,’ and Shelley’s voice too was ‘excruciating; it was intolerably shrill, harsh, and discordant.’”  Alan had a “wince-inducing, mechanized laugh.”  Alan spoke of his work on mathematical simulations of pattern formation on animals as “waves on cows and waves on leopards.”

1951, age 39.  Alan’s rooms had, “the great muddle of pots and pans full of weeds and smelly mixtures, in which Alan was pursuing his desert island hobby, seeing what chemicals he could make out of natural materials, and in particular doing some electrolytic experiments.”  He was running computer simulations of his differential equations, calculations that ran overnight, and “...usually he could be expected to emerge in the morning waving around print-outs to anyone who was around—‘giraffe spots,’ ‘pineapples’ or whatever—and then go back to sleep until the afternoon.”

1952, age 40.  Alan was charged with Gross Indecency after telling the police he’d had sexual encounters with a young man he’d met in the street.  Alan had gone to the police as one of the young man’s friends had subsequently robbed Alan’s house.  Alan was not overly concerned about being exposed as homosexual.  “...he did not wish to be accepted or respected as the person he was not.  He was likely to drop a remark about an attractive young man, or something of the kind, on a third or fourth meeting with a generally friendly colleague.  To be close to him, it was essential to accept him as a homosexual; it was one of the stringent conditions he imposed.” 

1952, age 40.  Alan’s brother advised Alan to plead guilty, given that he’d already made a self-incriminating statement to the police.  “He though Alan had been a ‘silly ass’ to go to the police about the burglary, and that everything he had done showed his naiveté about the world outside the intellectual elite.”  Among his colleagues, “There was no question of helping or extending sympathy to him—his personality ruled it out. ... he bore his afflictions cheerfully.”

1952, age 40.  So Alan pleads guilty, and they give him a year’s probation plus some crackpot “organo-therapy,” which involved injecting him with estrogens (intended to reduce his libido but now, oddly, a therapy often used by men planning a sex-change).  In a letter after the trial, Alan writes, “The day of the trail was by no means disagreeable.  Whilst in custody with the other criminals I had a very agreeable sense of irresponsibility, rather like being back at school.  The warders were rather like prefects.  I was also quite glad to see my accomplice again, though I didn’t trust him an inch.”

1952, age 40.  “A further consequence which for another person might have been major, but which for Alan had little significance, was that, with a criminal record of ‘moral turpitude,’ he was henceforth automatically barred from the United States.”

1952, age 40.  “...if his computer days were over, this did not mean the end of his underlying interest in the human mind.”  He began seeing a Jungian psychoanalyst, hoping to integrate thinking and feeling and, “to apply intelligence to himself; to look at his own system for the outside like Gödel [in his incompleteness theorem], and break his own code...”

1953, age 41.  Working with his therapist, Alan wrote an unfinished science fictional story about a gay scientist who’s known for some aerospace device known as Pryce’s Buoy [cf. the Turing Machine].  “He would walk round the shops...until he saw something which took his fancy, and then think of some one of his friends...who would e pleased by it.  It was a sort of allegory of his method of work (though he didn’t know it0 which depended on waiting for inspiration.”  See the these pages in the <a target="blank" href="">Turing Archive</a>; note that to access these pages you have to click through a screen accepting the terms of use.  Here’s another quote I found there:    “Alec had been working rather hard two or three weeks before.  It was about interplanetary travel.  Alec had always been rather keen on such crackpot problems, but although he rather liked to let himself go rather wildly by appearing on the Third Programme when he got the chance, when he wrote for technically trained readers his work was quite sound, or had been when he was younger.  This latest paper was real good stuff, better than he’d done since his mid twenties when he had introduced the idea which is now commonly know as ‘Pryce’s buoy.’ He always felt a glow of pride when the phrase was said.”

1953, age 41.  In  a letter to his friend Robin, “I’ve got a shocking tendency  at present to fritter my time away in anything but what I ought to be doing.  One thing I’ve done is to rig the room next [to the] bathroom up as electrical lab.”  He called his lab the “nightmare room.”  “In this ‘laboratory’ he was able to do ‘desert island’ experiments of an electrolytic kind... He would use coke [or coal] as electrodes ... and weed juice as a source of oxygen .  He liked to see how many chemicals he could produce, starting from common substances like salt.  Later, to pass an afternoon with a friend, he’d try to concoct a non-poisonous weed killer and sink cleaner from natural ingredients.

1953, age 41.  In his letter to Robin Alan also said “Went down to Sherborne [his old boarding school] to lecture to some boys on computers.  Really quite a treat in many ways.  They were so luscious, and so well mannered, with a little dash of pertness, and Sherborne itself quite unspoilt.”

1954, age 41.  “The waves of inspiration had come only once every five years... the Turing machine in 1935, naval Enigma in 1940 [cracking the Germans’ code], the ACE [computer design] in 1945, the morphogenetic principle in 1950.”  In 1954, he was working on another morphogenesis paper, on the so-called “word problem” of mathematical logic, and some physically applicable mathematics called the “spinor calculus.”

1954, age 41.  On a seaside excursion with his therapist’s family, Alan visited “the Gypsy Queen, the fortune-teller....When he came out, he was white as a sheet, and would not speak another word as they went back to Manchester on the bus.”  On June 7, 1954, just short of his 42nd birthday, Turing killed himself---or was assassinated by the British secret police group, MI6.

Postmortem.  “In Alan Turing’s case the questions [about his death] were not obvious, but precisely because the field of his expertise [code-breaking] was even more closely guarded than that of nuclear weapons.”  Turing’s “iconoclastic originality had been acceptable in the brief period of creative anarchy...required to solve the unsolvable Enigma [code].  But by 1954 a very different mentality prevailed.”  Speaking of some of his papers left at home, Alan told his mother “the document is ‘unclassified’ (an idiotic word of American origin meaning ‘not in the least secret...)”  “Turing never truly belonged to the confines of the academic world.  His scattered efforts to appear at home in the upper-middle class circles to which he had been born stand out as particularly unsuccessful....”  He had a “disdain for the more trivial functions of academic life” and  a “mixture of pride and negligence with which he regarded his own achievements.”


[Some Turing-style patterns computed by my free downloadable Windows continuous-valued cellular automata package CAPOW, see ]

Alan reminds me of some of the mathematicians and computer scientists that I've known.  For mathematicians, the switch into CS is a kind of liberation, as then we get to make things.  And Turing was already moving past the rigid computing machines and into biotech.


Thanks, Rudy, for the quick low-down and welcome to the forum!  The first chapter of my dissertation is in part on Turing and what I theorize as the "technoqueer," thinking about the ways that technology is never neutral and is co-constitutive of/by logics of gender, sexuality, and race.  I really liked the David Leavitt biography, too, The Man Who Knew Too Much.  The conclusion of my project returns to Turing, your first short story "The Imitation Game," and his unfinished short story "Pryce's Buoy."  I have not yet read your finished novel but look forward to it as I revise the diss as a book-length project. 


Fiona has encouraged me to repost this reflection in this forum, so here it goes:
After reading this article yesterday: "Misconceptions in AI: Or why Watson can’t talk to Siri" (, I am willing to debate some ideas here.
To spice up the issues presented in the article:
Jean Searle (1980) challenges Turing's machine by placing a problem called the "Chinese Room". According to his example, imagine you have a room and you handle a chinese ideogram to an agent inside this room. You later receive a translation of the given ideogram. You can't tell if the agent is human or a non-biological agent. However, this machine will pass Turing's test, the question Searle raised is whether this machine will be able to really understand the "aboutness of thoughts", the meaning, the semantics of the chinese ideogram.
Does the combination of Watson's ability to determine the optimal course of action and Siri's ability to take that action solves the issue? Or do you think by combining both, the machine will be able to choose the optimal course of action and implement it, without actually understanding the semantics of the operation? In other words, I have a smart algorithm to compare chinese ideograms in a large dataset, and efficient ways to retrieve and communicate it back, does it make my machine fluently in Chinese? 

Looking forward to hear some reactions!! :)



Turing was central in the development of digital computation as we know it, which developed out of mathematical logic. At the base of all modern digital technologies are bits- the presence or absence of electromagnetic charges- whose dynamics are modulated by transistors that allow or block the flow of these charges. From these roots, Turing and others working in England during WWII were able to map basic logical statements such as as AND and OR into electronic form. Modern processors such as those made by Intel have millions of transistors in them that collectively map higher order logical functions that even higher level programming languages use to make things like this website possible.

My questions for this group revolve around this central observation: digitality is, in it's essence, quantification. All work in a digital medium is the sum of billions of presences and absences. Is the representational space of digital media sufficient for humanistic expression? Does the quantification at its root limit what can be said in digital media? Turing's own writings on AI serve as a starting point, but the history of the field since his death hasn't borne out such optimism. Are there works you can think of that seem to transcend their digital encodings?


This is a great point Elliott, and a difficult question to grapple with since it identifies a deficiency in digital media that it may not be possible to overcome. Alexander Galloway has dome some writing on this and the relationship between the digital, the binary, and the dialectical. We can also think about the digital as opposed to a philosophy of the One of philosophers such as Deleuze or Laruelle, though I don't think it's as simple as this. One place I've tried to look for a critique of these limitations is in the concept of uncomputability, which occupied much of Turing's thoughts in the 1930s, and is an interest of contemporary experimental computer science as well. While Turing seemed to hope that we could simulate human intelligence through complex procedural description, at some point earlier in his career he also identifies processes that seem beyond the scope of computation, which may be productive sites for critique. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts on this.


It is really hard to define a name as being "the first". Without double Turing is among the most brilliant Digital Humanists of all time.

But before the article in the 50s, many books in science fiction had already similar concepts. To mention one, how about Isaac Asimov?

His three Laws of Robotics emerged from his book, short story Runaround, in 1943.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

I would say that in order to not injure human beings, to obey orders given and to protect its own existence, a robot must have a very sophisticated level of AI already. Do you think?

And in terms of robotics, Leonardo Da Vinci was a visionary.



Leonardo Da Vinci piece to celebrate an event at the court of Milan in 1495, hosted by Duke Sforza. 


Thanks everyone for their wonderful comments so far! I'm really looking forward to watching this discussion unfold in the coming weeks. My own interest in Turing as a significant figure in the history of computing has to do with his role in formalizing the concept of computing and ushering in the field of computer science in the 1940s and 1950s, but also with the rather illusive and speculative work of using that work to produce a queer theory of computing itself.

I was asked to participate in this forum, in part, because of a series of posts I've been writing for Rhizome that will be published in the coming months, titled "A Queer History of Computing." Like Edmond I'm interested in thinking about Turing's contributions explicitly with regard to his sexuality. Most scholarship on the topic tends to deal with Turing's work in AI, particularly the work on what has come to be known as the "Turing Test" and those components of the test that deal with the performance of gender - see, for example, Jeremy Douglass' "Machine Writing and the Turing Test." What interests me is actually Turing's work on uncomputability and the paradox of the halting problem. The halting problem and similar paradoxes within early 20th century experimental mathematics and analytic philosophy, seem to directly address those contradictions and failures that seem especially useful to queer theory as well - that is, real and existing things that exist outside of or despite larger structuring systems that seek or claim a kind of universality.

I would go so far as to call these contradictions queer, not in an attempt to queer them through some kind of clever play, but genuinely, essentially queer. At the same time I'm struck by the difficulty in applying these theories to figures such as Turing, as it seems somewhat anachronistic and also tends to dilute the complexity of queerness by aligning it with a white, male, cisgendered, upper middle class figure, albeit one whose visible difference was enough to make him the subject of horrific persecution.

I'm interested in what use this might be to the history and theory of computing. Is the value of such a conversation visibility? Reclaiming a kind of history? What does it mean to apply theories of identity to technology? Can we insist it is both appropriate and necessary to acknowledge queerness in the non-human in such a way? Excited to see more as the forum progresses!



Jacob: I am looking forward to the next installments of your series.  (I will definitely be including your work in my future references.)  I think the propositions you've skteched here are definitely in line with my takes on the technoqueer.  Though I have left much of my computational life behind (ahh, programming in Pascal), I think your close reading of uncomputability really provocative.  I think thinking about the ways that queerness itself is a kind of discursive, performative, and embodied "uncomputability" (at least in the face of techno-hetero-normativity) is fantastic.  I might extend that idea to the places (and this might be covered in the article you point to) in Turing's "Machine Intelligence" essay where certain ideas never quick reach fruition (yes, Fiona, I have to press the pun), such as the "Imitation Game" is never overtly applied to sexuality (though of course the intimation is there). 


Thanks you for the response! I'm glad you enjoy the photo. If I've brought a bit of livejournal back into this discussion I think I've done my job. I completely agree with you on the imitation game suggestion, and that is precisely what Jeremy's essay deals with, though it is his MA thesis from almost ten years ago at this point so there is a lot more to say there. In exploring uncomputability I wanted to look at another way of evoking the queer in the machine without relying exclusively on the language and theory of embodied difference. The next essay comes out next week, I'll be sure and post it here when it goes live!


Also, the photo is hot.  I feel like the forum might turn into an old-school live-journal fanfic thread... :)


Welcome All! Very excited to begin and continue our conversation(s) on Turing! Equally honored to work with Ed Chang and Fiona Barnett, who helped lead the creation of our forum along with HASTAC scholars Jarah, Elliott, Elaine, and Melissa! Its super exciting to have a HASTAC forum focused on Turing and corresponding questions on AI, robots (and yes, Fiona queer robot love too!), theory, cybernectics, SF, and in partcular, I'm interested in working through questions of binary, theory, and immitation. 

Special thanks to our guest scholars--David Bates, Jack Halberstam, Jacob Gaboury, Jennifer Rhee, Rudy Rucker, and Tom Foster--for your generous time and support for the forum! It is always wonderful to engage with guest scholars on the forum in such an innovative way to work through concerns and questions at hand. i truly look forward to learning more with and from everyone! 

To begin, I want to start by returing to Jack Halberstam's early essay, "Automating Gender" (1991) which was also included in our 2009 Queer Feminist New Media Spaces Forum. In Halberstam's early essay places Turing and Donna Harraway's cyborg in conversation to demonstrate the intertwining of the "technology of gender" and the "technology of intelligence."  Turing's theoretical and technological interventions and the state santioned disciplining of his sexuality provoked questions and insightd to Turing's own troubling of binaries: human/machine, mind/machine--and as the Turing Test demonstrates--woman/man.  As Halberstam points out "gender, like intelligence, has a technology," (443) and is "immitative." My own questions are also concerned with the logics of binary and how the binaries of human/machine relate and perhaps invigorates the trangression of dicotomy and the static nature of the "natural" in terms of identity.  

While my concerns center on questions of immitation in regards to Turing and my current work on digital drag kings, I have some larger questions I'd like to share for our conversation.  In particular, I hope we may work through the stakes and concerns of returing to Turing (historically, theoretically, politically) in 2013.  I have more general questions on biography and theory. For example, questions and narrative of how Turing's theoretical work shaped and formed by his sexuality and the state santioned disciplining of his sexuality remain provocative and still largely underdeveloped in most conversations and scholarly work on Turing.  

At the same time, I want to evoke an essay by historian Joan Scott "The Evidence of Experience" when returing to Turing and sexuality and contradiction in particular.  As Scott writes: “When the evidence offered is the evidence of “experience” the claim for referentiality is further buttressed—what could be truer, after all, than a subject’s own account of what he or she has lived through?” (399) However, when excavating the stories of the Other such as the homosexual who are oftentimes marginalized in U.S. history, experience and testimony is offered as evidence and "Real."  Scott argues this type of credibility obscures the very practices and logics that create and sustain difference in the first place.  I'm interested in how one balances the need to centralize, historicize, and center same sex sexaulity in Turing's narrative and computing and yet, negotiating what Scott points out as "the evidence of experience?" 

It seems both concerns are crucial to negotiate and hold when retheorizing Turing, which Halberstam does eloquently and aptly for "evidence of experience" in "Automating Gender."  My concerns also align with Jacob's insightful questions above on rethinking Turing and computer science and the questions of "essentially queer" and our aims in centering Turing within new media, DH, and queer theory. As Jacob writes above, Im interested in working through these contradictions carefully but also holding the contradictions as we do so. The contradictions seem important to honor as well as undo simultaneously--almost not to unravel it all into easy boxes or categories with thinkly demarcated boundaries and lines. I would love to hear more from Jacob and Ed on their vital work of historicizing Turing and sexual identity during our post-post moment and the politics of reifying difference and navigating queerness in this process? 

Another obsession of mine is Apple. I am interested in the significance of the apple as an example of subverting binary as Jack reclaims in "Automating" for Turing's life and untimely death.

I think about the apple, Turing's apple that is not neatly sliced in half,  but is broken into by a bite--one filled with juice, teeth, and flesh that forever changes the apple and the mouth (organic to organic) a shape and being that is never binary, of and from the round red fruit. How might the bite of the apple decribe our theorization and hopes for technology as queer subvertion? As Jack writes: "The fatal apple as a fitting symbol of Turing's work scrambles completely boundaries between naturl and artifical showing the natural to be always merely a confguration within the artifical." a resistance to heterosexuality, and "the fruit of a technological dream." 

i would love to hear more about folks' processes in retheorizing and situating Turing particularly around sexuality, identity, and technology.  More about the apple and Apple. And of course queer robots. Moreover, questions on cybernectics is crucial. And really hope we can work through cybernectics here. David Bates' scholarship in States of War: Englightenment Origins of the Political on Rosseau's cybernectic political body, artificial body, and historcization would be generative to place into conversation with Turing as well. 

My own interest in Turing comes from a dissertation chapter on drag kings and the binary of reality/artifical in digial theory and practice.  Of interest: the politics of immitation, computer, and "man" in our digital age. More to write, but initial thoughts. Thrilled to engage with all. 







Already, the forum is a rich thread.  I appreciate, Margaret, your articulation of the desire to "center" Turing in all sorts of recent histories and projects and the potential problems of this recuperation/reclamation.  In my own work, hopefully, the move to reclaim is not the move to heroify.  I think for me Turing is emblematic of a set of questions and provocations about the intersection of technology, gender, sexuality, politics, and personality.  He is only accessible to us in the present because of his immense "popularity" (then and now) and privileges as a scholar, as a writer, as a white man, as an open homosexual.  Rather than use him as (only) a figure of "experience," as someone who (only) suffered under the oppressions of heteronormativity, I think Turing can articulate the affordances of queerness + technology and perhaps more importantly the silences and incommensurabilities that equation entails.  As a figure policed and punished by the normative regime of the time and place, he is not necessarily remarkable.  But as someone seen as a threat not only to the security of the state, the sanctity of science and technology, but also a threat to the definitions of "human" itself, I think Turing offers a profound opportunity for posthuman and queer theorization. 

(On a completely different note: How might we think about the gremlins in the machine that fubar-ed the HASTAC site for a few days as a kind of unintentional/coincidental (un)queer interruption?  How might the formal structures of code reveal its inherent inflexibility and normativity?  And how might the failure of the technology coinciding with the launch of this particular forum reveal the fragility of trying to use writing and ostensibly "liberatory" technologies to even explore queerness, Otherness, posthumanity?)



Thanks to the forum organizers and Fiona for putting together such an exciting conversation!  I’ve been thinking a lot about historicizing AI and robotics through Sara Ahmed’s formulations of orientation and disorientation in Queer Phenomenology: Objects, Orientations, Others.  Ahmed takes up phenomenology’s turns toward objects and queers it by refocusing attention toward (re-orienting us around) the deep – often obscured – histories and positionalities of both objects and ourselves.  For Ahmed, it’s precisely these deep histories that exist as conditions of possibilities of our encounters with objects, as forces that shape how, when, and even if particular objects arrive into our perceptual fields.  

For Ahmed, one of the stakes of reorienting phenomenology’s relations to objects revolves around the phenomenological act of bracketing (or black boxing) certain knowledges and existences of objects, of erasing the history and labor as conditions of the object’s very arrival within our perceptual fields. 

The object is “brought forth” as a thing that is “itself” only insofar as it is cut off from its own arrival.  So it becomes that which we have presented to us, only if we forget how it arrived, as a history that involves multiple forms of contact between others.  Objects appear by being cut off from such histories of arrival, as histories that involve multiple generations, and the “work” of bodies, which is of course the work of some bodies more than others. (41)

Ahmed’s queering of phenomenology asks that in turning to objects, we turn also to these previously forgotten histories of arrival, and understand objects always within these histories.  I find Ahmed’s queer phenomenology really helpful in thinking of an expansive history of technology, AI, and robotics, one that moves away from the often foundational abstracted, normative, and exclusionary conceptions of “the human.”  For example, the way that gender, a central feature of Turing’s imitation game, has often been written out of what we now know as the Turing test  (interestingly, I find this is less true in fictional representations of the Turing test than in academic discourses in AI and philosophy of mind).  And the way that Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley theory (which engages humanoid robotics) relies explicitly and uncritically on a vague “healthy human” as its model for humanness.  For me, the forum’s opening questions – “Is technology queer?”  What of the sick or queer crip body in the question of the posthuman?  and, particularly, “What does it mean to include Turing as a digital humanist?” - resonate with a kind queer phenomenological approach to historicizing AI and robotics.  As I’m thinking about it, this approach locates queerness, militarization, and state suppression of sexuality at the center of much of our contemporary computer technologies.  (Fiona, I also love the Bjork video, in part for the ways it both highlights and counters so many normative assumptions around robots!)

I’m also interested in thinking about Turing’s “experience” and biography in relation to the history of computing.  Though I admit I’m still negotiating exactly how to bring Turing’s sexuality and persecution into this history.  Like Margret, I would be eager to hear more from Edmond and Jacob about how they’re doing so.  Along these lines, Jacob, I really enjoyed your piece, “A Queer History of Computing,” and am looking forward to your next posts.  And Edmond, I’d love to hear more about your work on “technoqueer.”

Margaret, Jack Halberstam’s “Automating Gender” has also been an important essay for me, particularly the stunning reading of the apple.  I found myself returning to it recently when I was teaching Wendy Chun’s discussion of technology and sexuality (in Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics).  I really like how you discuss the bite as a messy, embodied, and organic act.  Your anti-antiseptic description is a wonderful and productive way to engage a history (and present) of technology.

I’m really looking forward to hearing more from everyone, and to engaging further with this exciting conversation!



This reminds me I have to go back to Ahmed again--it'll be a good opportunity--though I don't really work on phenomenology.  But I do think that your sketch here is really helpful in highlighting the ways that technology is often instrumentalized, rendered simultaneously inert (tool to be eventually used by a human agent) or dangerously lively (terminator-scenarios).  I am still working on a "good" definition of the technoqueer but generally it takes up the lack of (though increasing and much warranted) attention to technology by queer theory/studies.  The push for intersectionality, interdisciplinarity has been really productive regarding race, gender, nation, class, and so on, but technology (both in the foucauldian and material senses) needs work.  And on the flipside, technoculture and technology studies has been uneven and patchy about inclusion of queerness in substantive or critical ways.  So, the technoqueer functions as a way to (re)route these lines of inquiry through and against one another.  My dissertation specifically looks at cyberpunk literature, cyberspace technologies, and bodyhacking to reveal how technologies (and narratives of technology) might queer definitions and constitutions of bodies and identities.  In particularly, speaking to Thomas Foster's "key antimony of posthumanism," how these real and imagined technologies are simultaneously and ambivalently liberatory and constraining, denaturalizing and normative. 

I’m also interested in thinking about Turing’s “experience” and biography in relation to the history of computing.  Though I admit I’m still negotiating exactly how to bring Turing’s sexuality and persecution into this history. 

I, too, as I said above, am thinking through how to not simply appropriate Turing.  But I do think that thinking about the circuits of desire, production, and incorporation between body, mind, and machine might be a way to situate Turing, his homosexuality, his "treatment" (both biomedically and socio-juridically), and his technologies as a cyborg circuit.  Turing's touching, building, making, thinking about the machines he worked on and with integrates him into all of these circuits (a la Haraway. 

Anwyay--too much to think about--but wanted to appreciate your (and everyone's) work!



Hi Jennifer! 

Thank you so much for your incredibly rich and engaged comment and bringing Ahmed into conversation! We are so thrilled you can be part of the forum! I was actually traveling in Boston the past week for a conference and fell behind in our forum (which also prompted interesting questions abt temporality and digital conversations!) but I spent time with Fiona in Boston and we spoke warmly about you and shared our enthusiasm for your participation in the forum! It is always so great to see folks in real time, just wonderful seeing Fiona, and hope to cross paths in the “real” sometime soon too. Your work sounds fascinating and  intrigued by your comment on working through AI and robotics by way of Ahmed and objects.  Would really love to hear more about your forthcoming book and am so very excited that you are part of this forum!  

I am very interested in your point on gender often largely written out the Turing Test. Your insights on the different discourses (such as AI or fictional representations) also incite critical questions on the narrative construction of Turing's theoretical work. ie I feel perhaps our forum prompt is also trying to work through questions of not only Turing's biography and his computational and theoretical interventions but the larger questions of gaps, fissures, and bridges in the rereadings of Turing’s work.  I was just reading a book entitled Pioneers of Computing (which contained short biographies of various pioneers) and I was intrigued by the characterization of Turing as highly eccentric and yet the striking omission on his sexuality and relationship to the state. 

I am so glad to hear Halberstam's essay has been an important essay for you too and seems like a generative accompaniment to Wendy Chun’s discussion on sexuality and technology! Thank you for your kind words on the bite, I was inspired by the description in "Automating Gender." Rethinking binary within a metaphor of an apple and also visually/physically what a bite does to an apple. I am really thankful for our engagement here as I feel it does a similar work of the bite, in this requestioning and engaging with Turing. 

Your comment also prompts an interesting mapping. ie how do we engage with Turing as the first digital humanist and the question of disciplinary locations.  ie I love the diversity of scholars and thinkers here and seems we have to engage across disciplines to really work through these questions. 

I wonder how Turing is taken up within English verus History or other disciplines? I am actually very excited that you join us from VCU! one of my favorite poets Larry Levis used to teach at VCU before his untimely passing. I have only heard really amazing things about the English Deptartment there and its rich legacy and interested in how techno/science digital humanities is being taken up in different English Depts.  

In addtion to my dissertation interests on Turing, I have been writing a series of robot love poems. A section of my work includes revising “Computer Machinery and Intelligence” with the question of love.  I suppose this question of love also connects to Fiona's lovely Bjork video too.  Ive been thinking a lot about the impossibility of realism to depict particular types of love (such as same sex love) and the interventions of speculative/SF work that can come closer to decribing the "love that dare not speak its name."  In addition to intelligence and bodies, or even sexuality, I wonder how love could offer insights on Turing and the human/machine binary?Would love to hear from Ed, Jacob, and others on this too!  

Thanks so much again Jennifer for being part of our forum and all your insights and engagement! Really looking forward to engaging more and learning from and with you here. While our forum hasn’t been as digitally instant as other forums, I appreciate the depth and insight of yours, Ed and others' vital work here very much and happy for our own temporality in continuing this conversation on Turing. 





2. The Imitation Game 

I propose to consider the question: ‘Can machines love?’ This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms “machine’ and ‘love.’ The definitions might be framed so as to reflect so far as possible the normal use of the words, but this attitude is dangerous. If the meaning of the words ‘machine’ and ‘love’ are to be found by examining how they are commonly used, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the meaning and the answer to the question, ‘Can machines love?’ is to be sought in a statistical survey such as a Gallup poll. But this is absurd. Instead of attempting such a definition I shall replace the question by another, which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words. 

The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game, which we call the imitation game. It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game for the interrogator is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman. He knows them by labels X and Y, and at the end of the game he says either ‘X is A and Y is B’ or “X is B and Y is A.’ The interrogator is allowed to put questions to A and B thus: 

C: Will X please tell me the length of his or her hair? 
Now suppose X is actually A, then A must answer. It is A’s object in the game to try and cause C to make the wrong identification. His answer therefore may be: 

‘My hair is shingled, and the longest strands are about nine inches long.’ 

In order that tones of voice may not help the interrogator the answers should be written, or better still, typewritten. The idea arrangement is to have a teleprinter communicating between the two rooms. Alternatively the question and answers can be repeated by an intermediary. The object of the game for the third player (B) is to help the interrogator. The best strategy for her is probably to give truthful answers. She can add such things as “I am a woman, don’t listen to him!” to her answers but it will avail nothing as the man can make similar remarks. 

We now ask the question” What will happen when a machine takes the part of A in this game?” Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, ‘Can machines love?” 

* Text drawn from and inspired by: “Computer Machinery and Intelligence” by A. M Turing in Mind, New Series, Vol. 59, No. 236 (Oct., 1950), pp. 433 – 460.


Thank you for this powerful Forum and, Jacob, for these "queer history of computing" blog posts:  I'm learning so much from all of you and from this conversation.


Thanks to everyone for this great conversation. On the topic of the posthuman, I just heard this story on NPR: Is It Real? With New Technology Has Activision Crossed The 'Uncanny Valley'?

The premise of the story is that (another) new animation of an apparently white man has crossed the 'creepy' part of the uncanny valley and is now so indistinguishable as to be an acceptable approximation of a human face. 

With all of you amazing posthuman cyborg AI theorists here, I'd love to hear an update about the uncanny valley theory. What are some of the interesting theories about it now? Or articles on why the uncanny valley is still such a popular trope or barometer? Is it just a useful framework for folks to discuss human-nonhuman-robot interaction? Or is there something else at play? I'd love to hear any thoughts on current research on the UV or its position in popular culture.