Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Monday, January 12, 2015

Turing Detest

A discussion at The Conversation about the historicity of The Imitation Game.
Unfortunately, the article attacks the wrong inaccuracies.
(spoilers spoilers)
Alexander and Dennison are caricatured as vain and clueless when they weren't, but then everybody else is shown as useless too.  The distortions are all in the service of showing Turing as a superman, a saviour who has to do it all by himself with no help at all from any mere mortals.
For example, at the end the film talks of how a handful of codebreakers defeated the Germans and shortened the war, when
1) Bletchley was about 7,000 strong by the end,
2) Breaking code never defeated anybody (the Poles had done it, after all; didn't help them much)
3) The war would have ended roughly on the day it did whatever had happened before that, only it would have ended with an A-Bomb on Berlin rather than one on Hiroshima.
The most irritating thing, for me, because of its implausibility within the movie, was the business with Turing getting 100,000 quid from Churchill to build a computer.  Utterly impossible.  Once they had cracked the code and built a computer - collectively, not as a magic wand trick by Turing - Turing wrote to Churchill to get more funding for Bletchley, and was successful; but that was after it had been shown that the thing worked. The movie - and how well I know this mindset - demanded that there be a pivotal scene - one scene, not two or three - where
1) the machine worked,
2) the code was cracked, and
3) everyone admits Turing was right -
and that's impossible; until the code was cracked, you couldn't justify a machine.
Again, in the film the machine's breakthrough comes when a girl in the pub tells Turing that the Germans are sometimes less than rigorous in their procedures; when in fact that was exactly how the Poles broke it, and how the early codebreakers broke it, and how (see above) the codebreakers justified their call for a machine to speed it up.
Other than pedantry, why does this matter? Because it fuels the Great Man/superhero delusion, where one person can make a critical difference and you don't need millions of soldiers to fight and die. When, in fact, you often do.

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