(Wired) 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.