Alan Turing Should Be Funny

The Imitation Game spreads a harmful stereotype about people who work with computers: that they are humorless loners who can’t relate to other humans.

I’m prompted by Christian Caryl’s critique of the film’s historical inaccuracy. I don’t necessarily mind when a film takes liberties with history. Take for example, The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend Erica breaks up with him in the first scene, motivating Mark to build a revenge app. Erica was invented out of whole cloth, but her character helped show how Mark’s feelings of rejection compelled him to create Facebook. The Social Network fails as an accurate history of Facebook, but it succeeds as an artistic statement cautioning against the urge to value ambition over friends and lovers.

Similarly, The Imitation Game plays with history to fit its own thesis: society needs outsiders to come up with novel solutions to its ills. Thus, society ought to celebrate its weirdos instead of bullying or castrating them. That’s a lovely thesis. As Caryl observes, Imitation plays up Turing’s awkwardness to accentuate his otherness. Turing seems on the spectrum when he can’t grasp that “We’re getting lunch,” implies that he’s invited to eat with his team. Jack Copeland, one of Turing’s biographers, does describe Turing as reserved. However, Copeland claims that if you ended up chatting with Turing, “you’d probably find him vivid and funny.” That hardly sounds like the on-screen Turing who doesn’t get jokes.

I take issue with the inaccurate portrayal of Turing because it plays into stereotypes about present-day techies. I didn’t take my first programming class until my second year of college because I thought all programmers were antisocial egoists. Moreover, I assumed that programming was a gift that only a select few were born with. Happily, these stereotypes were false. I’ve found a vibrant community of programming students of all backgrounds. I also discovered that programming is a craft that rewards consistent practice over innate talent.

Depicting Turing stereotypically is expedient filmmaking. The viewer can easily draw a line from Turing to the techie stereotype of today and say, “Aha! Tortured loner genius. Got it.” Portraying the fountainhead of computer science this way suggests that one needs these traits to be a great programmer. That keeps groups who would not self-identify as loner genius puzzle solvers (read: women) out of computing.

The biggest betrayal of the historical Turing – and the field he spawned – is Turing’s supposed inability to understand and tell jokes. When Copeland comes up with three words to describe Turing, the first is humor. It is fitting that humor defined Turing, because it also defines hacker culture. Gabriella Coleman is an anthropologist who embedded herself in the Debian open source community. In the product of her field work, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, Coleman relates how humor defines her research subjects:

Humor is not only the most crystalline expression of the pleasures of hacking... It is also a crucial vehicle for expressing hackers’ peculiar definitions of creativity and individuality, rendering partially visible the technocultural mode of life that is computer hacking... In short, they have playfully defiant attitudes, which they apply to almost any system in order to repurpose it.

While I argue that portraying Turing as unable to grasp jokes was a huge mistake, The Imitation Game is still good for the public image of computing. In the public imagination and reality, software development is the province of straight white men. So a popular movie showing a gay man and a woman founding computer science is a big deal. And while some complain that Imitation shyed away from Turing’s queerness, I think any Hollywood movie with a three-dimensional LGBT protagonist is cause to celebrate.

I will recommend The Imitation Game to my family and friends. It’s a well-made movie that will expose millions to an extraordinary episode of history. But I’ll be sure to tell them that the real Turing was a funny guy. And most programmers are too.