Hélène Mialet has held post-docs at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and positions at Cornell, Berkeley, Harvard, Davis, and York University, Toronto. She has worked on a range of topics some of which include Actor Network Theory; scientific and technological practice; situated and distributed cognition; human-machine interaction and post-humanism. She has written several books, most notably Hawking Incorporated: Stephen Hawking and The Anthropology of the Knowing Subject (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
BI: Let’s start with a very simple question: who was Stephen Hawking?
HM: In the popular imagination, Hawking is a genius. Hawking more than anyone else, perhaps, because of his disability, incarnates, our common conception of how science functions, the idea, that to do science or to be a scientist, you just have to have a beautiful mind and a big brain and you don’t need anything else. For me, Hawking is a beautiful example that helps us rethink this common conception, but also what it means to be a genius, and to be a scientist. I have produced a very different conception of who Hawking was. In a way, I am saying the opposite of the popular conception. Everything was not only in his mind, but actually was externally distributed around him.
BI: Can you explain what you mean by “distributed around him”?
HM: Before I met Hawking in person, I thought I knew who he was. I had read a lot about him in the press, as we all do, and the press has a tendency to recycle over and over again the same stories about him which gave me a sense of who he was as a person, endowed with very stable qualities. My first interview with him was very destabilizing, however. Everything was mediated through the computer he was using at the time to communicate. So I had to read simultaneously the discourse that was slowly being written in front of him, I had no access to any form of body language that is so useful to understand a conversation. In part, because it was imperceptible, and in part because I didn’t know how to read it. His assistants were coming in to take care of him, disturbing the interaction. The computer broke down. All that created a very strange feeling. I didn’t know where ‘he’ was anymore. This is how I realized that there was a complex collective around him – his assistants, the machines, of course, and later on, his students, his colleagues etc. He was delegating a lot of competencies to this collective because he was unable to do a lot of things by himself. And thus, he was making visible what we normally don’t see, these different collectives that we all need, to a certain extent, to work and think and act, what I call his “extended bodies”.
BI: When did it first occur to you that a study of Hawking would perhaps allow you to question the popular conception of scientists as beautiful minds?
HM: I wrote a book called L’Entreprise Créatricewhich is an ethnographic study of innovation and creativity in a large organization. It is largely an ethnographic study of one individual who was extremely creative. After I finished this book, I decided to pursue the themes of genius and creativity and to do a comparison. I received a postdoc at Cambridge in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Hawking was very close by and I thought he would be a fabulous case to study. Unlike my first study, where I was embedded in a lab, I was not with Hawking all the time, I met him at different periods of my study, I spent time with him and was able to see him at work and at social gatherings. I had the possibility to spend some time with him in Potsdam, he invited me to High Table in Cambridge, I even went to dance with him! so I saw him in his circles, which was important as well. I was not just looking at how he was working, but following him in different avenues. The project began in 1996 and I finished writing my book in 2010; it came out in 2012.
BI: Would it be fair to say that what interested you about Hawking is precisely that he, as an extreme case, allowed you to make visible a more general fact about humans and about science?
HM: This is precisely the point of my book: there is nothing specific about Hawking, there are certain specificities, but nothing specific in terms of being a scientist. Most of the time scientists are surrounded by students who do the calculations, who do the work, especially when you are at his level. So, we need a collective to be situated and to be able to function. I think it’s really a collective model that I am trying to apply in different settings. It could be applied in politics, art, industry. Again, if you start thinking of the individual as a collective it opens a lot of doors and ways of thinking about different domains.
BI: Some of the commentators on your work think that by questioning the individual –– or by challenging the popular conception of Hawking as a beautiful mind –– you want to critique science or that you are even anti-science, but that’s not at all your point, right?
HM: Absolutely not. My point is to understand science in action. I’m interested in looking at how scientists work. So, what kind of devices do they use, in what situation are they performing their work and so on. That’s what I’ve done with Hawking. I’ve really tried to understand how he was able to produce theory or abstraction. It’s absolutely not anti-science, it’s not anti-Hawking, or anti-genius. It’s trying to recuperate the role of the individual, the person, and of the self, but to rethink it differently as well.
BI: Could this distributive concept we find in your work be applied to how we look at Artificial Intelligence?
HM: I think we are still stuck with this dichotomy between machines and human beings. But, if we start thinking about intelligence as a distributive process and interactions between machines and human beings, what does it do to our conception of AI? In the case of Hawking, I show a system that produces intelligence. This opens doors to new ways of thinking.
BI: Tell us about your current work on diabetes and how it to relates to this notion of “distributed person”.
HM: I am working now on Diabetes Type 1. In my own vocabulary, what I try to describe is this notion of a distributed subject. What does it mean for an individual to delegate all his or her competencies to machines and human beings? And so I am interested in Diabetes Type 1 because to be able to manage your disease you have to trust and rely on a lot of collectives composed of parents, machines, animals, etc. So, again, I’m pursuing this notion of distributed person or distributed agency.