There's a great piece over at Wired by anthropologist Hélène Mialet about Stephen Hawking and the various ways he's learned to adapt to — and even transcend — his severe physical limitations. While it would be tempting to merely discuss his infrared activated voice synthesizer and robotic wheelchair, Mialet points out that there's more to Hawking than meets the eye — that he's not so much a person any more as he's the central node of the 'Hawking collective' — a diverse group of individuals who enable him to move beyond his disability in a profound way.
And Mialet would know. As an anthropologist interested in science and technology, she recently conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of Hawking. "He essentially became my 'tribe,'" she writes."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."
And what she discovered was that, to understand Hawking, one has to understand the people and machines that surround him — what amplifies his competencies. She writes:
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.
Be sure to check out Mialet's entire article.
Image: Ted S. Warren/Associated Press.