Alan Turing's Enduring Gift
There’s a portrait of Alan Turing taken in 1928 when he was a student at the Sherborne School. Even at the age of 16, his genius is evident. He was still thirteen years from inventing the modern computer, a feat that many believe shortened the Second World War by as many as four years. But, already, he was clearly serious and diligent.
For most of his life, Turing lived in the world of academia, the workshop, and the home. Gay and deeply closeted in a time of stifling social expectation and criminalized homosexuality, Turing focused his considerable talents on his work. Great Britain was at war and starving. The German naval stranglehold needed breaking, and the British needed to break German codes to break the blockade. Turing did it with a machine. We could say the rest is history, except that history is still being made.
In the 1970s, computers broke out of the university basement. The ‘80s put very expensive PCs in middle-class homes. But by the 1990s, queer kids like Turing could talk to each other across vast distances, sharing stories and reminding one another that they weren’t strange, or a mistake, or alone, and that it does get better. By the time those children of AOL reached their twenties, Facebook was helping LGBT swim teams, book clubs, running teams, gay and lesbian choruses, and PRIDE committees stay in touch.
The rise of the computer and the internet ensured that no community, however marginalized, could be silenced. The advent of social media has helped foster a rich tapestry of connections between queer people, between the LGBT community and the straight world, and to shine a spotlight on persistent bigotry and discrimination. What’s more, the dynamic companies born out of the computer are, today, some of the strongest advocates for LGBT equality and social change in the world.
But this PRIDE month, when everything seems to be speeding in reverse, it’s especially tough to write about social progress. The unimaginable massacre of forty-nine, mostly gay, people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, coupled with the senseless murder of British MP Jo Cox, a leading advocate for refugees, reminds us that our work is not done.
But following the massacre in Orlando and the murder in Birstall, millions of good people took to social media to express their sorrow, find some sense of these tragedies, and connect with their community. As we looked at social conversation around these tragic events, one thing was immediately clear: social isn’t just a place to share news; it also offers the global family an instant opportunity to spread love and support during times of sadness and loss. Social media is built on communities, and this is seen very clearly in times when a strong community is needed the most.
I hope that Alan Turing would be proud that his great invention, born out of war, is now being used to connect and improve humanity. It’s his enduring gift to us.