Thursday, July 28, 2011

Text and video of my OSCON 2011 Keynote presentation

I was unable to attend OSCON 2011 to give my keynote because of travel problems. The folks at O'Reilly were kind enough to let me have a five minute slot in which I presented via video. Here's the video and the script I was working from.


Alan Turing

A name we should all be familiar with.

Next year, Alan Turing would have been 100 years old, but he died woefully early aged 41. He is the father of computer science having described the Turing Machine: the fundamental computer that underlies the machines we use today. He is known for the Turing Test used to determine whether a machine can think. And his work during the Second World War breaking Nazi codes is celebrated at Bletchley Park.

His life tells a story of a brilliant man. But his death tells the story of how prejudice snuffs out potential. How discrimination hurts us all. His story is relevant today and relevant at this conference.

Alan Turing was gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the UK. He was prosecuted and given the choice of prison or estrogen injections. He chose the female hormones and grew breasts. Two years later, in 1954, he took his own life. What a loss. Just imagine all that this brilliant man could have done with a few more years of life, he had done so much in just 20 years.

In 2009, I petitioned the UK to government to apologize for the treatment of Alan Turing. To my surprise over 32,000 people in the UK signed the petition and on September 10 of that year then Prime Minister Gordon Brown called me at home to tell me that the apology text was being issued that night.

I harnessed this great crowd of ordinary people and celebrities by myself. Using a mixture of Twitter and Facebook and old fashioned press and television the word spread quickly. I have written about how I achieved this on O'Reilly Radar. The campaign grew slowly at first as only a small number of people in the computer world, who already knew about the Turing story, signed. But a big break came when The Independent newspaper wrote about the campaign and shortly after Richard Dawkins lent his name. As Twitter amplified stories in the press more and more people signed until the BBC decided to cover the story first on its web site and then on television.

With the weighty BBC story to tweet the petition quickly grew and got the attention of Downing Street. The petition itself was all managed electronically through open source software created by the British non-profit My Society. With an open source petition platform the British government has enabled direct, electronic democracy.

I originally planned to talk in detail about the apology campaign, but in recent days O'Reilly made an announcement that made me rethink this talk.

Last Sunday, Tim O'Reilly announced that a code of conduct for all O'Reilly's conferences would be introduced covering sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior. That's wonderful, but as a community built on the ideas of openness, sharing and freedom we can do much more.

The prejudice that harmed Alan Turing may seem far from off color comments, offensive slideware or unwanted advances, but all these things end up with the same result: valuable people are discouraged from being part of the open source world. Open source has changed the world, let's continue "being the change we want to see in the world" (as Gandhi put it), by including everyone who wants to join us regardless of who they are.

Alan Turing and the other great minds at Bletchley Park were brought together because Winston Churchill ordered that no stone be left unturned in the search for the right talent. Whether Turing was gay, or another great mind was a woman, or of a particular religion, was irrelevant. What mattered was ability. From this great diversity came great strength and great progress.

Let's honor Alan Turing not just with a code of conduct, but with our code (for he would surely be happy to see so much software) and with our conduct.

Thank you.

And have a great conference.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

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