Yesterday, Mr. Geeky and I spontaneously decided to go see The Imitation Game, a movie about Alan Turing. If you’re a CS person, it’s a must see. If you want to understand something about the power of computation and what that power enabled, and to some extent, the fear it engendered, it is a must see. It is also a good movie for making crystal clear the damage done by the British government’s treatment of Turing as a criminal for his homosexuality. Not only did the chemical castration probably damage Turing’s mind, but it likely lead to his suicide a few years later, leaving all of us without his future contributions.
I remember first hearing about Turing’s life and my first thought was what a shame it was we lost him, and how much of a loss to the development of computation it was. It a frustrating thought, and could be said about any number of people, especially from that violent period. Mr. Geeky said afterwards that he thought the movie was actually about bullying, and the damage it does to people. It’s true there are many forms of bullying in the movie. There’s what Turing was subjected to as a child, and there was the bullying that Turing meted out to his colleagues. And they, in turn, dish some out to him. It is overcoming that bullying stance and coming together, that leads to the success of their code-breaking project. So the movie is also a nod to the need for teamwork.
There are two movies that this film brings to mind: Social Network, and A Beautiful Mind. We, as a country, have an obsession with looking into the lives of our eccentric geniuses. John Nash, of course, was subjected to terrible psychological treatment in a similar vein to Alan Turing (with less tragic effects). Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, enjoys the fruits of his labors and the respect of society more generally. Much has changed in 50 years.
Another movie about the war effort and computing’s contribution to it is Top Secret Rosies. Watching both movies together would be an interesting conversation starter. Both “computers” in the movies serve specific purposes rather than the general purposes that Turing proposed and that we ultimately ended up with in our modern day computers. It is also compelling to consider how these technological advancements came about out of a need to win the war. Would we have gotten them without the war? Would they have come later? Both movies also depict the significance the programmers/de-coders feel about the impact they’re having on people’s lives, both good and bad.
Like any fictionalized version of someone’s life, the movie takes some liberties, some of which work better than others. Even with those, it’s a movie worth seeing. The acting is superb and the story is compelling.