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Book Review: Hawking Incorporated — Stephen Hawking and the Anthropology of the Knowing Subject


Hawking Incorporated: Stephen Hawking and the Anthropology of the Knowing Subject by Hélène Mialet is a book that deserves a spot on every Transhumanist’s virtual bookshelf. Hélène Mialet has held positions at Cornell, Harvard, and Oxford Universities, and currently lives and teaches in Berkeley, California. She is also the author of L’Entreprise Créatrice, an ethnographic study of practices and processes of invention in an applied research laboratory in a multinational oil company.

The abstract introducing the book  states, “These days, the idea of the cyborg is less the stuff of science fiction and more a reality, as we are all, in one way or another, constantly connected, extended, wired, and dispersed in and through technology. One wonders where the individual, the person, the human, and the body are—or, alternatively, where they stop. ”

Mialet uses a series of interviews with Hawking, his assistants and colleagues, including physicists, engineers, writers, journalists, archivists, and artists,  with the objective of uncovering and documenting the human and machine-based networks that enable Hawking to live and work. These interviews show that Hawking who “is often portrayed as the most singular, individual, rational, and bodiless of all”  only exists as the result of the work of a complex organization of machines and human beings working together. Mialet shows how the person we all think we know as Stephen Hawking could not really exist without this supporting set of systems and people; Stephen Hawking is really in this sense an avatar similar to those used in Second Life.

Hawking’s unique relationship with augmentation technologies is described in detail in the book and is particularly notable. For example, there is a discussion of Hawking’s identification of himself with the technology he uses. He rejects changes and improvements to his robotic voice as well as the software he uses to control it. Through the process of use Hawking’s technical extensions have come to be closely tied with his cognition in such a way that changing things is disturbing or unsettling. These extensions have become literally a part of the person Stephen Hawking.

A related effect, Hawking has trouble upgrading his outdated technologies. He doesn’t want to give them up because he sees them as part of himself, but finding people that can fix or enhance his old technology has become a problem. In fact Hawking is really only able to do this today because of his personal fame. In this area Hawking is ahead of the curve, experiencing something that most of us have not yet had to deal with. But increasingly as we enhance ourselves with technology, and especially electronic and digital technologies, we will find that these enhancements rapidly become obsolete. We will all face Hawking’s dilemma soon and it is unlikely most people will have the choice to maintain expensive antique technologies as Hawking does. The effects on personal identity might be far reaching and hard to predict.

This book is a must read and it is available on Kindle as well.  Special Hat Tip to Karen Marcelo of Survival research Labs and Dorkbot SF for the book recommendation.

1 Comment

  1. Sounds like a similar argument to the ones Andy Clarke makes in books like Natural Born Cyborgs and Supersizing The Mind. Clarke talks about ‘human thought and reason.. born out of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies and complex cultural and technological environments..’natural-born cyborgs ever-eager to dovetail their activity to the complex technological envelopes in which they develop, mature and operate’.