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Ada Lovelace and Alan Turing: the denial of gender and the escape into the rational mind

Ada King, countess of Lovelace (1815–52), was a brilliant English mathematician. She is often called the first programmer in history. She wrote programs for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, even foreseeing the scope of algorithms to process data beyond numerical calculations, which no one had yet begun to conceive. A programming language named Ada has been developed in her honor.

Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the romantic poet Lord Byron. He and his social entourage were disappointed with her gender and he soon separated from both her mother and England. Byron died when Ada was nine.

Ada’s mother arranged the girl’s life to avoid any contact with either her father or his attitude toward life. She considered Lord Byron insane and, worrying her daughter might share it, educated Ada in mathematics from a very early age, even through prolonged health problems constrained the girl to bedrest. Ada Lovelace died at 36 from uterine cancer and requested to burial next to Lord Byron, finally joining the father she never knew.

Alan Turing (1912–54), English mathematician and cryptoanalyst, had enormous influence on computer science. His Turing machine incorporated important advances in the formalization of algorithms and computability. Turing conceived the Turing Test which defined a “thinking machine” as one that fooled a person into believing s/he was having a conversation through a keyboard with a human being in a remote location. During the Second World War his cryptoanalysis was fundamental in breaking the German ciphers, contributing to the defeat of Nazism.

In his era, homosexuality in England was subject to criminal prosecution. In 1952, after admitting to having sex with a young man, Turing was given the choice between incarceration or a treatment with female hormones (“to reduce the libido”). How absurd that after helping save his country from Nazism, it treated him as a criminal. In 1954, Turing died of poisoning. In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized on behalf of the British government for the way he was treated.

Jaron Lanier, in “One Half a Manifesto,” commented on the tragic death of Turing in these terms:

Turing died in an apparent suicide brought on by his having developed breasts as a result of enduring a hormonal regimen intended to reverse his homosexuality. It was during this tragic final period of his life that he argued passionately for machine sentience, and I have wondered whether he was engaging in a highly original new form of psychological escape and denial; running away from sexuality and mortality by becoming a computer.

I think the denial is deeper than the sexuality issue: It has to do with the denial of anything but the “pure” Cartesian mind, including the body and sensuousness. With both pillars of contemporary IT we see how a denial of sexual identity, the sensuous and non-rational world shaped their lives. Lovelace’s gender was rejected by her father, while her mother pushed her toward a purely rational life. The law repressed Alan Turing’s homosexuality, as he likely did himself.

The mind is regarded as the most important human feature and the identification with it is so deep that we want to reproduce it on machines, becoming creators in our turn. We even have developed a test to ascertain the “intelligence” of a machine.

Joseph Weizenbaum in 1964 created Eliza, an interactive program that simulated a Rogerian psychotherapist. Weizenbaum himself was surprised and concerned to see that users were taking its words seriously. While the mind can surely be simulated, this tell us nothing about what’s going on inside. However it does underscore how much the mind can be fooled and how we can actually behave mechanistically.

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The Digitally Divided Self

There’s an unusual but apparent alliance between two philosophies which are barely aware of and rarely come into contact each other, which conjure against the physical reality and the body. The first “philosophy” is represented by what have variously been called Cyberspace, Technopoly, Cyburbia and other names.

I prefer to define it as “The Digitalization of Reality,” wherein more and more human activities are being translated into bytes. Work, communication, media, entertainment, friends, dating, sexuality, culture, shopping, politics and causes are among the growing number of human needs that have gone digital.

While the Internet was something which earlier we mostly visited, now we are inhabiting the virtual worlds full-time and engineer them according to our mental projections. The Cartesian dream of a mind without a body has almost been fulfilled (even though in his old age Descartes, in Passions of the Soul, affirmed that “the soul is jointly united to all the parts of the body”).

This separation has a long history of Western thought starting from the Judeo-Christian separation between body and soul up to people like the transhumanist Hans Moravec, the artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky, or the singularity guru Raymond Kurzweil who want to download the biological human mind to a safer mechanical medium in order to achieve nothing less than immortality.

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Technological salsa

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Joseph Weizenbaum, who died recently, had documented in the 1970s in Computer Power and Human Reason (W. H. Freeman and Company, 1976) the natures of compulsive programmers, disinterested in their bodily needs and detached from the world around them.

Such figures are come across in a market economy country where advanced technologies are part of everyday life, and we don’t pay much attention to them.

The famous McLuhan phrase, “The medium is the message,” and before this the Taoist affirmations according to which the use of instruments transforms us into them had never seemed as self-evident to me as in Cuba some years ago.

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Joseph Weizenbaum in Il potere del computer e la ragione umana (Edizioni Gruppo Abele. Torino. 1987), da poco scomparso, aveva documentato già dagli anni ’70 la natura dei “programmatori coatti”, che dedicano la vita alla programmazione, disinteressati dei bisogni del corpo e distaccati dal mondo che li circonda.

Finché si incontrano tali figure in un centro di calcolo di una nazione con economia di mercato dove le tecnologie avanzate sono di casa ci si fa poco caso.

La famose frase “Il medium è il messaggio” di McLuhan e prima di questa, le affermazioni del taoismo secondo cui l’utilizzo degli strumenti ci trasforma negli stessi, non mi sono mai sembrate tanto evidenti quanto a Cuba alcuni anni fa.

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Disembodying at broadband speed

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Overcoming our identification with the body has traditionally been a mystical path, but that took place after having had a fully integrated body-mind-soul connection and having become aware of the full range of emotions and bodily sensations.

The split between body and mind in our society is still present and is further pushed away by long computer use where our bodies are involved in a minimal way, removing the connection in a premature manner.

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Tradizionalmente, il superare l’identificazione col corpo era parte di un percorso mistico, ma questo avveniva dopo aver integrato completamente la connessione tra il corpo, la mente e l’anima e dopo essersi resi consapevoli di tutta le sfera delle emozioni e delle sensazioni corporee.

La scissione tra mente e corpo è tutt’ora presente nella nostra società e viene ulteriormente ampliata da un uso prolungato del computer dove i corpi sono coinvolti in modo minimale, togliendo la connessione in modo prematuro.

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Programming and self de-programming

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Software programming is a meta-activity. It deals with becoming aware of a process in its details, even though it is limited to the area regarding the information flow. Recursive algorithms are a good metaphor for self-reflection.

Once reached a certain level in programming, it is almost inevitable that our attention cannot just focus on the understanding of the computer working mechanisms, but also to the inside of our own mind, investigating the way of thinking itself which allows us to deduce, discriminate, program, and associate things and events.
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La programmazione software è una meta-attività. Si tratta di prendere consapevolezza di un processo nei suoi particolari, seppur limitato al piano inerente il flusso informativo. Gli algoritmi ricorsivi sono una buona metafora per l’autoriflessione.

Arrivati ad un certo livello nella programmazione, è quasi inevitabile che l’attenzione non si rivolga più solamente alla comprensione dei meccanismi di funzionamento del computer, ma anche all’interno della propria mente, indagando le modalità del pensiero stesso che consentono di inferire, discriminare, programmare e associare cose ed eventi.

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