Stephen Hawking and Becoming More Than a Machine

In a recent Wired column, writer Helene Miamat asked a simple question: Is Stephen Hawking most celebrated as a man, a mind, or the machines?  Hawking, the brilliant theoretical physicist of the 20th/21st century, was immobilized early in his career via motor neuron disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — a condition that has progressed over the years. This disease continues to incapacitate Hawking, and he employs digital and physical technology that has caused his very public persona to take on a unique trait, that of being technologically enhanced. His own voice is not a voice of humanity, but that of a machine.

Then you have the dozens of individuals who are necessary for Hawking’s well-being, from technicians to doctors. Together, all of these people and machines build up to make up the persona of Stephen Hawking, from his brilliance and technology to his life of suffering.

But which of these define him the most? We know him by his books and we hear him by “his” voice, but who is he?

According to Mialet, he is us:

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.

This idea is interesting: Stephen Hawking is simply the most representative man of who we are. We rely heavily on technology, and on others to exist. As John Donne once stated, “No man is an island”. We rely on so much for our quality of life. We must never forget who we are and why we are who we are.

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  • S. L. Whitesell

    Donne is surely right that man is a social creature. Dependency is in our nature, part of our design. But we should also recognize that Hawking experiences less than a full life – that he cannot fully participate in the created order because he is afflicted with this disease.

    But your point still holds. Who among us is whole? Which of us is free from disease? We are limited beings, but we are also corrupted beings. Hawking’s “unnatural” dependence is just more visible than most of ours. He is us in the sense that none of us can be whole without others; he is also us in the sense that we are somehow distorted images of what should be and what shall be. We must be on our guard in distinguishing these two categories, lest we lose the words to defend against transhumanist terrors.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking column!