Alan Turing




I have just plowed through Andrew Hodgesdefinitive biography of Alan Turing, the British mathematician who devised the computer, the first application of which was to break the German Enigma codes.

I recommend it, despite its drawbacks.  Hodges writes from a position that is so deeply inside of British culture and assumptions as to be difficult to understand even for an English-speaking outsider. He is a mathematician himself, teaches at a university, and is capable of explaining the science and maths which formed the core of Turing’s concerns. As his website makes clear, he is (or was) an advocate for the  liberation of homosexuality from its ongoing social and former legal prisons.

It is scarcely credible that until the 1970s homosexual acts in Britain were illegal, as they were nearly everywhere else, that is to say, they would get you punished by law for engaging in. Turing himself was prosecuted two years before his suicide in 1954, although it should be clear that his death came a year after his probation period was over.

Two enormous transformations have occurred since the time of Alan Turing. One has been the penetration of computers in every corner of our lives, and the second has been the two sexual revolutions. The use of the plural is deliberate. One was the (hetero)sexual revolution, the other was the homosexual revolution, which in my view came about a decade later. We tend to forget that our mothers and  older sisters were  subject to strict sexual oversight and segregation before the widespread use of the birth control pill. Girls were allowed to attend university, all right, but they tended to be locked away at night in guarded dormitories. The age-old social restrictions on females  vanished like snow in spring once it became possible for them to control their fertility. We take too easily for granted the scale of the transformation since the 1950s.

I think the two revolutions are deeply related events, in that the hetero majority was hardly able to condemn recreational sex for those inclined to same-sex activity when it was beginning to enjoy widespread reproductive, and therefore sexual, liberation for itself.

As for the computer revolution, if you wish to see its effects, look around you. Its transformative  importance does not need to be argued.

Alan Turing was a supreme individualist. He never wanted to join a group, upset society, start a revolution, be important, or be in the public eye. All he wanted was to pursue his intellectual and sexual interests. Turing’s moral compass was very sure, and in the end, he was, by about the age of forty, unable and unwilling to dissimulate further. I am reminded of Solzhenitsyn’s comment that “communism would not last a day if every soviet citizen merely spoke the truth”. You can replace the word “communism” with almost any label you like, and the one I would insert there is “the tyranny of sexual hypocrisy”. Alan Turing’s life  reminds us that we are our own kind of KGB, and I do not see any end of its reach or duration, because we embrace and enforce sexual hypocrisy ourselves.