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.