On Stephen Hawking, Vader and Being More Machine Than Human
- 9:30 AM
Click-click-click: This is what you hear when having a conversation with Stephen Hawking. No voice, no other sounds, no facial expressions. For those who know him, Hawking may be able to communicate through his eyes; but for the rest of us, his sole means of communicating is through infrared connection to his computer.
Today, January 8, is Hawking’s birthday, yet on this day it’s worth examining just who and what we are really celebrating: the man, the mind or … the machines?
Hawking has become a kind of a “brain in a vat.” Since being afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease) almost 50 years ago, his muscles have stopped working, though his mind and senses remain unaffected. In some ways Hawking is, to borrow from Obi-Wan referring to Darth Vader, “more machine now than man.”
In one version of Hawking’s eulogistic story, we praise the smartest person in the world, the brilliant physicist, one of the greatest cosmologists of our time. He fits perfectly well with our conception of how science and its heroes work: To be a genius all one needs is a powerful – a “beautiful” – mind. And indeed, because of his disability, Hawking embodies the mythical figure capable of grasping the ultimate laws of the universe with nothing but the sheer strength of his reasoning: He can’t move his body, so everything must be in his mind. What else would a theoretical physicist need?
But in another version of Hawking’s story, we notice that he is more “incorporated” than any other scientist, let alone human being. He is delegated across numerous other bodies: technicians, students, assistants, and of course, machines. Hawking’s “genius,” far from being the product of his mind alone, is in fact profoundly located, material, and collective in nature.
As an anthropologist interested in science, technology, and its heroes, I conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of Hawking: He essentially became my “tribe.” For years, I followed him as he worked, resolved problems, produced theories, gave talks and participated in interviews and documentaries. I interviewed all the people around him: his nurses, personal assistants, students, colleagues and even the journalists. I lived and breathed the Hawking tribe.
What I discovered was that to understand Hawking, you had to understand the people and the machines without whom he would be unable to act and think; you had to understand the ways in which these entities augmented and amplified Hawking’s competencies. For example: The specialties of his students, which are spread across very different research fields, enable him to integrate diverse information and the different facets of a problem in a way that others cannot. His secretary provides him with a mental assistant many of us would never have, by sorting and arranging his data according to his interests and what he is able to process.
This is not just like exchanging ideas with colleagues or having someone sort our mail: This is multiplying the ideas and sorting the cues that drive our interactions with the world. It is in some ways about a race not against, but with machines. It is in more ways the ultimate realization of Doug Engelbart’s early vision of augmenting human intellect through technology. But it is mostly about living our lives – and creating the heroes in them – through machines.
We Are All More Machines
Hawking’s condition makes necessary the mechanization (the hierarchization, standardization, and routinization) of his human-machine based environment. This extended body network – composed of machines and human beings – allows a simple yes or a no to become operational.
But there’s a complexity behind this simplicity, much like the way simple user interfaces we use everyday obscure the complex processes behind their use. Only in this case we’re talking about a human being — not a smartphone or computer screen.
A “yes” answer to the question “Do you want to go to this conference?” will allow Hawking to travel from one end of the earth to the other – without having done anything more than twitch an eyebrow. His artificial voice offers another instrument of thought: What is well conceived is well said, and this is more true in Hawking’s case. Since he doesn’t speak, his disability forces him to be even more clear in his mind and less worried about all the work those utterances entail.
At the same time, this voice effaces – and makes us forget – the role of the machine insofar as it speaks for, comes from, and marks the presence of a public persona. This is despite the fact that every utterance is written in advance, either by Hawking or someone in his embodied network. In the same way his students perform the calculations upon which his speeches (and articles) will be based.
How is this different than other stars – or even the president – surrounded by an entourage responsible for meeting their needs and marketing their image?
Both Hawking and celebrities hold authority from their positions at the top of the hierarchy, while the bottom of that hierarchy makes it possible for these stars to enact and maintain their positions at the top. But in Hawking’s case, the network is much more – almost completely – distributed and intimately embodied. Hawking isn’t just issuing remote commands and expressed desires, his entire body and even his entire identity have become the property of a collective human-machine network. He is what I call a distributed centered-subject: a brain in a vat, living through the world outside the vat.
Traditionally, assistants execute what the head directs or has thought of beforehand. But Hawking’s assistants – human and machine – complete his thoughts through their work; they classify, attribute meaning, translate, perform. Hawking’s example thus helps us rethink the dichotomy between humans and machines.
It also helps us rethink the dichotomy between those who are in charge, and those who execute. While far less embodied, just think about Obama’s brain trust on the night of the election: Were they not part of Obama’s brain? They helped make his success happen; they were as, if not more, invested in the outcomes; and they looked just as exhausted as Obama’s mind probably felt.
Someone who is powerful is a collective, and the more collective s/he becomes, the more singular they seem.
Hawking’s persona, his disability, and his embodied network thus becomes a window on our machines, the nature of work, and even our representation of scientific heroes. Popular media shows us that Hawking is a pure, isolated, once-in-a-lifetime genius; ethnographic analysis shows us that Hawking is not that different from other scientists even though he has a disability. In fact, it’s precisely because of his disability that we get to see how all scientists work … and how the entire world will work one day.
Because, surrounded as we are by our world of technology and digital information, aren’t we all disabled? We, like Hawking, like Obama and his brain trust, are unable to think and complete the results of our thoughts without being attached to a network of people, instruments, machines – and the living laboratories through which it is all distributed.