## Monday, November 21, 2011

### Beware the Alan Turing fetish

Tonight Channel 4 screens a wonderful new docudrama called Britain's Greatest Codebreaker about the life, work and death of Alan Turing. I was privileged to be invited to see it at a private screening at the BAFTA and was particularly moved and astonished by the scenes between Turing and psychiatrist Franz Greenbaum.

Leading up to tonight's screening a number of press articles have appeared about Turing, including a long one entitled Outcast who gave us the modern world in The Sunday Times. The article reflects a worrying trend in talking about Turing: a sort of Turing fetish.

Of course, I'm partly responsible for all this. Having campaigned for the public apology for the treatment of Turing which resulted in the 2009 government apology. What I wanted from that campaign was national (and, perhaps, international recognition) for Turing. That part worked, but we need to be mindful not to go too far.

The Sunday Times article says:
Had he lived, he might have been able to jump-start a new industrial revolution 20 years early — and in his homeland rather than 5,000 miles away in Silicon Valley.
[...]
It is fascinating to ponder what might have happened had he lived. Turing spent a couple of years in America in the late 1930s and showed no sign of wanting to stay. It is unlikely that he would have succumbed to the brain drain.
[...]
This brilliant, charming, odd, driven workaholic could have turned the old industrial heartlands of Lancashire into a British Silicon Valley and perhaps America’s brightest and best would have flooded east across the Atlantic.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it overlooks the realities of the size of the computer market in the UK and US, the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs, the incredible power of the military-industrial complex and it denigrates those who did work in early computing in the UK. It also overlooks the fact that post-World War II Britain was in serious dire straits: heavily indebted to the US and Canada (a debt Britain didn't finish repaying until 2006) and with its economy tattered.

Sure, Turing was damned important (I wouldn't have campaigned for recognition if I didn't think so), and his contributions to computer science, AI, code-breaking and morphogenesis were massive. But to think his death is somehow why Silicon Valley isn't in Britain is a mistake.