Neil Harbisson, born colour blind, has a camera implanted in the back of his head,
which he says allows him to listen to colors. Image: QUT Media via Mashable
In case you missed it, this past February the 2016 Bodyhacking Conference met in Austin, Texas. NPR’s report on the conference highlighted some of the exhibits including one where attendees could get an RFID chip inserted into their hands that they can use to unlock their cell phones.
While the thought of having someone slice into your hand at a conference booth may sound a bit unsafe and perhaps unsanitary, this is par for the course for a group of bodyhackers that refer to themselves as Grinders. Grinders are a fringe segment of the transhumanist movement that is gaining more followers.
What is bodyhacking?
NPR defined bodyhackers as people who push the boundaries of implantable technology to improve the human body, but bodyhacking is more than that. Within the bodyhacking community there are the academic eccentrics and the DIY basement experimenters. There is an entire culture built around the philosophy of the DIY bodyhackers. It is an identity and a community. These DIY bodyhackers, or Grinders, are the rebel-punk arm of the transhumanist movement.
The name Grinder comes from video game lingo. In role-playing games a player can engage his character in repetitive, often mundane, tasks to build up his character’s stats. It’s a controversial thing among gamers. Some think it is a hack or a brute-force way to improve your character that circumvents the way the game was meant to be played. Others think it is rightly taking advantage of an element of the game. In this sense, the name is fitting for the fringe group of bodyhackers.
According to Rich Lee, a well-known Grinder who has been interviewed by The Guardian and made headlines after surgically implanting headphones into his ears, bodyhackers are aligned with the philosophy of transhumanism but are less interested in discussions about the singularity, uploading your brain, or building nanobots.
He and his fellow Grinders are interested in what they can do in the here and now. He thinks bodyhacking should not be confined to a laboratory setting where only biologists can experiment with the edges of technological integration with the body. It can be done at the kitchen table in self-experiments with make-shift self-surgery. If you have the stomach for at-home self-surgery, there are several how-to videos online.
Bodyhacking as therapy, enhancement, and integration
Bodyhackers have varying motivations. Some are looking for ways to fix a problem, others seek enhancement, while still others want to integrate themselves with their environment.
Many types of bodyhacking, including those that are therapies approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, are designed to alleviate a disability. Grandma’s pacemaker was inserted to keep her heart pumping. Neil Harbisson had a camera implanted in his head so that he could hear color. He is otherwise color blind. Lee, after becoming legally blind in one eye, tried implanting headphones in his tragus to see if he could use acoustics as a way to “see” where things were. Kevin Warwick famously had an electrode integrated with his nerves in his arm as part of a project to help people with spinal cord injuries. Some Parkinson’s patients have an electrode implanted in their brain to stave off debilitating tremors. These are all therapeutic uses of bodyhacking in which technology is integrated into the body as a way to restore a lost function.
However, yesterday’s therapy is often tomorrow’s enhancement. Some people are interested in bodyhacking as a way to gain additional sensory perceptions. A Grinder who goes by the name Lepht Anonym makes online how-to videos for people interested in learning DIY bodyhacking surgery. She has inserted neodymium magnets under her fingertips that allow her to feel when she is near an electromagnetic field, such as around power cords or electronic devices. For her, the implants have become another sense, and when one of her implants stopped working, she said it felt like going blind. Her next project is to see if she can make a sensitive enough implant so that she can sense magnetic north. She and other Grinders do not just want to fix what is wrong; they want superpowers.
Bodyhackers of both the Grinder variety and the more academic types see themselves as cyborgs. Beyond bodily enhancement, they seek to technologically integrate themselves with their environment. At the recent Conference, Tim Cannon, co-founder of Wetware, inserted a device into his arm that monitors his temperature and blood pressure. The idea was to connect it to his thermostat so that it would adjust based on his personal biometrics. It would also send him a text if he had a fever. Kevin Warwick was the first to implant an RFID chip in his arm which allowed him to open doors and turn on lights.
Bodyhacking: a religion or self-mutilation?
It is hard to miss the religious language built into the transhumanist movement. Grinders, too, have metaphysical reasons for what they do. Theirs is a community of people who are interested in overcoming the limitations of this world.
Lee is forthright in his interview with Zoltan Istvan that he was attracted to transhumanism and biohacking because they filled an existential void left when he became an atheist. He had grown up in a kind of apocalyptic cult where the future was unimportant compared to the imminent rapture. He later realized that people had been predicting the end of the world for years and left his faith. For him, science and technology offered a tangible alternative to all of the things religion had promised.
He became interested in biohacking when he had a similar crisis of faith in regards to science. He realized that, much like the claims of the coming end times, science made grandiose promises that did not always come to fruition. He wanted more than promises. He wanted something practical in the here-and-now. So he became a Grinder.
Trevor Goodman, writing on the Bodyhacker Conference blog, emphasizes the community and self-actualization aspect of bodyhacking:
“All of them are trying to improve themselves, actively pursuing what they believe to be their own, personal, ideal self. The shared experience of BDYHAX could hold the keys to furthering both the bodyhacking movement and many, unique personal journeys.”
While bodyhacking is a metaphysical endeavor for some, others are merely interested in the novelty. For them, it is a way to stand out. Many Grinders already engage in other forms of body modification like tattoos and piercings. Ryan O’Shea was also in attendance at the Bodyhacking Conference in Austin. He and Tim Cannon co-own Grindhouse Wetware, which made headlines for posting an internet video that shows a guy getting LED lights inserted under his skin. The lights glow an eerie red color under the skin. In this sense, bodyhacking is more like another form of body modification than a way to enhance abilities. It is novelty for novelty’s sake.
Carl Elliot, in his book Better than Well, discusses body modification as a way to create identity. It is its own subculture where if someone isn’t born “freaky or strange” body modification is a way to stigmatize oneself. These modifications are done for shock value and as a way to be different or stand out.
Transhumanists dream of “The Singularity”, when artificial intelligence becomes more powerful than human intelligence and humans can become one with the internet. It’s a kind of post-religious salvation, redeeming us from our limitations. But it’s quite speculative. Grinders elevate technology to a similar salvific role but prefer to operate in the here-and-now with technologies that are actually available today. As Rich Lee summed it up:
There exists a small group of passionate grinders and biohackers who, despite having limited resources and few evangelists, tinker, test, and collaborate on a daily basis because they see transhumanism as a noble cause and a method to uplift mankind and that they have ambitious ideas for achieving this using affordable and existing technology they believe may change the world.
Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer with advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics. She writes on the intersection of science, culture, and technology.