Alan Turing and Steve Jobs

Days to Centenary: 259

Earlier this week Steve Jobs died at age 56. Jobs was co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Apple Inc. and one of the most prominent figures in the technology community. His death has been marked by a flood of news items and countless tweets and has inspired some expansive rhetoric about Jobs’ place in the history of technology.

I respect Jobs’ achievements and I was surprisingly moved to hear about his death after so many false alarms in the news regarding his health. I have no desire to undermine his reputation and, unlike some people, I’m not sure that the characterization of him in the many memorials and obitiuaries that have followed his death is overblown or exaggerated.

What I would like to do — since this is an Alan Turing blog, not a Steve Jobs blog — is to use Jobs’ well-deserved reputation as a measure to help understand the scale of Alan Turing’s contributions to the world. For this, I turn to Slashdot.

Slashdot is a is a technology-related news website owned by Geeknet, Inc. The site, which bills itself as “News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters”, features user-submitted and ‑evaluated current affairs news stories about science- and technology-related topics. In 2010 Slashdot consulted with its readers, conducting a poll on their respect for various figures in the history of the development of technology. What did the results look like?

Slashdot poll results on respected historical figures in tehcnology

Slashdot poll results on respected historical figures in tehcnology

It may not be an objective measurement of anything (other than the self-reported state of mind of Slashdot’s readership at a given moment), and it likely has no statistical significance, but the poll neatly sums up at least a general sense of where Alan Turing stands in relation to other innovators in the history of technology.

Since we’re in the midst of a swell of attention to, and emotion about, Steve Jobs, this historical moment gives us a unique chance to assess just what kind of grief ought to have attended Turing’s death, and what honour would immediately have been accorded to his memory, had the world known more about his contributions at the time and cared less about his sexuality, seen for many years through the distorting lens of prejudice and foolishness. Just look around you at the news items about Steve Jobs, at the commotion and emotion, and watch for the many books and other tributes that will follow after the initial aftermath has subsided, and multiply it by a factor of your choosing in order to scale it up to Turing’s level.

We stupidly missed our chance to pay him our respects properly when he died — maybe the Turing Year in 2112, celebrating his centennial, will be a chance for us to make up for that failure.

Now, to close with a Mythbusters moment regarding Turing and Jobs: there’s a persistent myth that the Apple logo — a silhouette of an apple with a bite out of it, strikingly coloured with the rainbow that has become iconic of the GLBT rights movement — is a tribute to Alan Turing, gay computer pioneer dead by poisoned apple. It’s so beautiful that one wishes it were true, but it’s not.

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