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Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers
Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers
John MacCormick
Princeton University Press, 2012
232 pp., $27.95

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Science in Focus: John Wilson


9 Algorithms That Changed the Future, Part 4

Alan Turing and Jonathan Swift.

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In the first three weeks of this round, we've heard from a computer scientist (Cary Gray), a physicist (Andrew Dawes), and a mathematician (Mitch Keller)—and now, winding up, an editor. Editors come in different flavors, of course, but many of us are unspecialists, magpies. We're said to chatter idly, and no doubt sometimes we do, but if we're any good at our job, we spend more time listening than talking—listening in on all sorts of ongoing conversations.

This past week, for instance, if you had a mind to, you could have spent most of your time taking in tributes to and commentary on the life of Alan Turing, whose centenary was celebrated on June 23. In their responses to John MacCormick's book, Cary, Andrew, and Mitch all mentioned MacCormick's tenth chapter—"What Is Computable?—and talked a little about Turing's pioneering work. A number of books on Turing (already the subject of a vast literature) have been published or are about to appear this year, including a Centenary Edition of Andrew Hodges' biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma, first published in 1983.

My own introduction to Turing came in the fall of 1968. Wendy and I were married in September of that year, after which we set out for Santa Barbara. I had just transferred to Westmont College to begin my junior year as an undergraduate. And that fall, I read Hugh Kenner's The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy, an unclassifiable book with delicious illustrations by Guy Davenport (the front cover showed Gulliver, hat in hand, under the rather suspicious eyes of a pair of Houyhnhnms) and an epigraph from Wyndham Lewis: "Wherever there is objective truth there is satire."

Buster Keaton figured here (I'd seen a couple of his films in a class with Wendy during my freshman year), Andy Warhol, William Butler Yeats, Charles Babbage (completely new to me), and many more, including Turing (the subject of another Davenport drawing), whom I read about for the first time. Above all, Kenner invited the reader to consider "an astonishing half-century, 1690-1740," as in some respects parallel to our own time (his book was published in 1968), where "juxtaposition has wholly given way to counterfeiting, in a world of image-duplicators; parody to quotation, in a world of nonfictional fiction; classicizing to eclectic connoisseurship, in a world that has turned into one huge musee sans murs." Once you've read Kenner's account of "counterfeitable man" in the age of Swift and Pope, you'll never again think of the Turing Test in the same way.

If you are curious—and I hope you will be—The Counterfeiters was reissued recently by the Dalkey Archive Press. Although it was written more than 40 years ago, it is almost uncannily illuminating for this moment, right here, right now. Kenner reminds us to stand back and assay "for traces of the controlling person" in narratives that present themselves to us as "fact," hence inarguable—narratives about what it means to be a human being, about "machine intelligence," and much more.

John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.

See also Part 1 of this round, by Cary Gray; Part 2, by Andrew M. C. Dawes; and Part 3, by Mitchel T. Keller.

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