The Imitation Game (2014)

Director: Morten Tyldum

Alan Turing committed suicide at the age of 42. However, during his short life, he left a big legacy in the form of his contribution in deciphering the German Enigma codes during World War II and laying the foundations of modern computer science. The Imitation Game movie is based on the book Alan Turing – The Enigma by Andrew Hodges.

The history of cryptanalysis contains some of the most thrilling and intellectually stimulating stories of people involved in deciphering messages either long lost by civilization or deliberately used during wartime. Alan Turing’s contribution lies in the fact that he took decryption beyond any individual person’s mental powers by employing machines to perform rapid calculations for decrypting messages.

At the height of the World War II, Hitler’s Nazis started to dominate the war using encrypted communications generated from their innovative machine called Enigma. The machine could accept message in plain German and produce an encrypted output which could be transmitted over open radio signals to the various Naval, Air Force and Army leads in the war. Another Enigma machine which was as small as a typewriter was available with the Generals and they could decrypt the messages and act as per those instructions in a coordinated fashion.

Other countries like England and Poland even though they could easily intercept the German messages found it extremely difficult to decrypt them because the Nazis were changing the settings every day. So England decided to bring in the country’s best brains into Bletchley Park and ask them to try to crack the Enigma codes using an Enigma machine smuggled in by the Polish intelligence. 

Alan Turing, who was a maths professor at Cambridge and who used to advocate universal machines capable of solving any problem was also brought in as part of that elite team. They struggled for 2 years at the problem during which Turing worked on building his universal machine, a sort of a programmable computer, the size of a room. The movie brilliantly captures the mood of the time, the efforts of the team and the frustrations of the Head of the unit who thought Turing was only wasting Govt funds.

Although the movie does not delve deep into the mathematics of the encryption or decryption or the settings of the Enigma machine and what exactly they were trying to solve, there were two scenes which struck me as parallels to the nature of spiritual inquiry and enlightenment.

In one scene, one of the team members of Alan Turing who was feeling depressed by the lack of results said that it seemed as if they were not doing anything while millions were losing their lives out there in the war.  He said his brother was supplying food to soldiers, another cousin was a fighter pilot in the air force and yet other friends were all contributing to the war effort in some way while they were just sitting and building some stupid machine.

So in life, if you are in the spiritual search, a search for meaning or enlightenment, it may seem that all the other people in the world are doing something significant out there – like helping the poor, or leading an organization or teaching part time while you are just sitting and watching your mind and your thoughts, doing nothing. It does seem like wasting your life.

But like in the film, everything is not as it seems. What Alan Turing was doing and what he was able to do, some historians quantify that as shortening the war by 2 years and saving 14 million lives. You may ask what if Alan Turing did not succeed? That’s another thing altogether. He was aiming for the impossible. Is it wrong to aim for what seems to be impossible?

So what if you do not achieve enlightenment? Should you stop the effort? Should you go back to living your regular life and give others the impression you are doing something meaningful while deep down you know the hollowness of it all? Once you are on the spiritual search, there is really no way back. You have to push yourself ahead till you achieve it. And whatever people may say, sitting and doing nothing, watching your mind is the only way it gets done.

The second scene is when Turing actually cracks the Enigma code and is able to deduce the position of the next attack by the Germans, which was targeted on a British passenger ship. The team was ecstatic and was about to call the British intelligence to warn them but Alan Turing stopped them from doing so. They were all angry but gradually the realization sinked in that if they were able to prevent the German attack, it would clearly tell the Germans that their Enigma messages were cracked.

This was a big moral dilemma. If you act on the message, you could save hundreds of innocent lives but if you do that the Germans would shift to another way of encrypting their messages and all the work done by Turning in the last 2 years would be gone down the drain and they would have to start all over again. The Germans should never know that their messages were being read by the Allied forces. But how to use that intelligence if that was not actionable at all? Turing and the British intelligence worked out a camouflage of lies and alternative means which would be presented to the media so Germans would think that their Enigma machines were still safe while the information got leaked through some other sources. The British could not save everyone because doing that would stop the intelligence coming in so they had to choose to allow Germans to win at times and lose at times.

Drawing a parallel with enlightenment, you realize that you did not really attain anything after getting enlightened. During the search, enlightenment meant a lot and you thought you will really find something at the end of it. But when you get it, there is nothing at all. So one Zen master after getting enlightened exclaimed, “The Buddha did not teach anything at all”. And that is a big dilemma for any enlightened person. There is nothing to teach at all and yet when he sees people going about their lives suffering from their petty actions, there is a great urge to teach them about this vast nothingness.

If you really talk too much about emptiness, people think you are crazy and if some people do realize this emptiness, they may think it is too depressing and nihilistic because they do not want to face the truth. So in the end, you cannot help everyone, even your closest family members. You have to allow them to be as they are and experience what life has in store for them. But you can help some at the right time with the right guidance, not less not more.

Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

Alan Turing

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