Have you seen the new movie, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch? In it, the story of brilliant mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turing’s career and troubled personal life is portrayed, including his triumph over the Enigma machine during World War II, and his secret life as a gay man.
In this sneak-peek into a forthcoming book, Virtual Memory: Time-Based Art and the Dream of Digitality, author Homay King explores the relationship that existed in Turing’s life between mathematics and human emotion:
“One of Alan Turing’s final projects was a computer-based, automated love-letter generator, which some have identified as the first known work of new media art.[i] It was programmed by Christopher Strachey in 1952 for the Manchester Mark I computer. Turing maintained this machine, which was fondly known as M.U.C, as a professor at the University of Manchester, and the love letter generator was but one among its many applications. It operated with a template similar to the game of Mad Libs, into which the computer would insert nouns and adjectives of endearment randomly selected from its database. By this means, it wrote letters like one that Strachey published in the literary journal Encounter:
You are my avid fellow feeling. My affection curiously clings to your passionate wish. My liking yearns for your heart. You are my wistful sympathy: my tender liking.
As Noah Wardrip-Fruin has suggested, it is interesting that Turing and Strachey were both gay men, and that their first literary collaboration for the computer imagined it as the author of a one-sided epistolary romance. The tangled mash-up of sentimentality bespeaks a twinge of longing beyond the one that already accompanies the genre: one can almost sense M.U.C.’s thirst, as if the computer were struggling to speak from the heart but discovered that its vocabulary had been arbitrarily limited to the language of clichés. Like the wooden puppet in search of the Blue Fairy, the computer longs to be human; like Snow White fleeing into the forest, it longs to be admitted into the company of those who are capable of care and affection.”
Homay King’s book will be available from Duke University Press in October 2015.
[i] See Noah Wardrip-Fruin, “Digital Media Archaeologies: Interpreting Computational Processes,” Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, eds. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011): 302-322.
[ii] Christopher Strachey, “The Thinking Machine,” Encounter (October 1954): 25-31, quotation on p. 26.