The spectrum of nobility

September 12, 2009

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has released a formal apology on behalf of the British government for its treatment of Alan Turing.

Ian Bogost notes that though the apology is earnest, nowhere, even in passing, does it mention Turing’s role as the father of modern computer science. Instead, it praises his successful efforts to break the Enigma machine and his contributions to the Allied victory in World War II. In a post entitled “In the War on Ideas, War Always Wins,” Bogost writes:

One can’t help but wonder why the memory of destruction, even if a necessary one, so overshadows a memory of creation. What could Brown’s omission possibly mean? Is his office simply unaware of Turing’s role in the history of computing? Is the fact that Turing’s contribution to that field remains too abstract and historically distant to make his engineering accomplishments familiar? Is being a war hero simply more noble than being a pioneer of ideas? Is this an omission of ignorance, or of harry, or of editing?

The answer probably has something to do with the apology’s release on the eve of September 11. Certainly, Brown is obligated to reference “the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour” and “murderous prejudices” in order to resonate with the largest demographic possible.

But I do wonder about the spectrum of nobility: war hero, computing pioneer, cancer researcher, politician for peace, discoverer of new galaxies, novelist who speaks to the human condition. How would one rank these? Based on their potential for paradigm shift? After examining the ratio of personal dignity to scale of achievement?

Or, as Bogost says, is it simply more glorious to bring about the fall of your enemy than to effect new advances among your peers?



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