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Further Reading

Column: Biohazards

The Biohackers

Are You Ready for a Cyborg Culture?

by Paige Comstock Cunningham

"How I became a cyborg and joined an underground medical movement." Jennifer Booton's attention-grabbing headline introduces her story of having a magnet inserted in her fingertip. Her finger was not sliced by a doctor, as you would expect, but by "a man with metal horns protruding from his forehead and a split tongue."1 Booton, a reporter for Market Watch, got the implant in the course of investigating "grinders," people who tinker with their bodies by having tech devices, such as silicon chips, inserted under their skin. Booton's own modified fingertip enables her to detect waves emitted by motors and electrical equipment.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 40

Grinders are part of a larger community of self-identified "biohackers." Biohacking is linked with the "citizen science" movement, an alternative to professional, institutional, and corporate research and experimentation. More simply, citizen science is a kind of do-it-yourself, experience-based learning. Some biohackers, for instance, will study how DNA functions and how other biological processes work by manipulating genetic material and seeing what happens. They are motivated by curiosity and a passion for hands-on experimentation.

Most biohackers tinker only with plants and animals, but a few venture further, modifying their own bodies. At the most extreme end, some biohackers are the practical leading edge of transhumanism, which aims to create "an optimal human being."2

This melding of body and machine creates "cyborgs," a shorthand form of the term "cybernetic organisms." In the language of grinders, cyborgs are produced by joining hardware (technological devices) with wetware (organic life), most colorfully reflected in the name of one of the primary implant studios, Grindhouse Wetware. In the world of sci-fi, cyborgs are usually depicted as machine-animal hybrids, but strictly speaking, the term can be applied to any human being who has had a mechanical or electrical device implanted to aid or extend physiological function, such as a person with a pacemaker or a prosthetic arm.

Ethical questions are triggered when the implanted device is intended to augment or improve function beyond normal human capacity, such as a contact lens that improves vision to three times better than 20/20, or that gives the individual the ability to "see" beyond the spectrum of visible light (such as infrared).

Implants for Medical Purposes

Technological implants in the human body most often serve a therapeutic purpose, to restore function or ameliorate the effects of disease. Familiar examples include insulin pumps, pacemakers, artificial hips, and prosthetics. Less familiar might be Deep Brain Stimulation, where a neurotransmitter (a "brain pacemaker") is inserted into a specific region of the brain. It has been used to treat Parkinson's disease, Tourette syndrome, chronic pain, and even depression.

Meanwhile, an "electronic glove" for the heart is being developed that could replace bulky pacemakers. A flexible brain implant that hugs the surface of the folds of the brain (which can move and change shape) may one day be used to treat epilepsy, spinal cord injuries, and other neurological disorders. Nanoparticle "tattoos" for diabetics, which have the ability to continuously detect blood glucose levels, have also been proposed.

Not all of these technologies pan out as hoped, of course, and some get superseded by other inventions. The tattoo prototype for diabetics, for example, which first made news in 2010, has since been edged out by the announcement in early 2016 of a wearable patch that not only monitors blood glucose, but can also administer micro-doses of insulin as needed.3 And while there are no reports yet of a patient actually receiving a heart glove, the world's smallest pacemaker, a device about the size of a bullet, with no wires or leads attached, was implanted in an 87-year-old man last year.4

Cyborg Implants

The cyborg culture has different purposes. These individuals are not interested in health per se, but in extending the natural abilities of the human body, either for aesthetic reasons (to perfect the body), for political reasons (to protest the boundaries between humans and animals, or between organisms and machines), or for personal or professional reasons (exemplified by performance artist Professor Stelarc, who is growing a human ear on his arm, and pop star Viktoria Modesta, who flaunts a stiletto-shaped prosthetic leg).

Cyborg devotees reflect an anti-authoritarian attitude, regarding government as too intrusive and industry as too slow. Neil Harbisson, for instance, has a brain implant and antenna that compensates for his color blindness by translating colors into sounds. Frustrated at his inability to get formal ethical or institutional approval for the implant, he sought out and found a doctor willing to do the surgery anonymously. On the less practical side, Harbisson's partner wears an implant that allows her to feel vibrations from earthquakes. There is also North Sense, a one-inch-square device that vibrates when the wearer is facing true north, something that could help the directionally challenged.

Cyborg culture, a close cousin to the transhumanist movement, is marked by a commitment to the malleability of the human body and to temporality; it is in a constant ferment of creativity and body manipulation. When a device loses its charm, it is sliced out and a newer one with different or better powers is inserted. The "problems" addressed by the devices are often merely matters of convenience, such as being able to eliminate reliance on house keys and credit cards. The powers they confer are akin to creating a "sixth sense," such as the ability to detect an electromagnetic field.

Not the Same

Unlike grinders, patients who have received pacemakers, artificial hips, or brain implants do not generally identify themselves as cyborgs. Nor do they seek the services of unregulated tattoo artists or facilities such as Grindhouse Wetware. Medical implants are heavily regulated at every stage. The "homebrew" devices that grinders implant, and the makeshift mini-surgeries by which they insert them, reside in the underground network of the cyborg culture.

The Ethical Equation

Cyborg culture pits a posture of radical, libertarian autonomy against other societal values, such as parental duty, health, control, and privacy. It does not provide a satisfactory answer to two fundamental ethical questions: (1) Is it right to treat one's body as something to be cut open for personal experimentation? and (2) Are there societal interests in limiting the extent of artificial enhancement or augmentation of the human body?

The body is traditionally understood as the boundary of the self. Treating it as a malleable object, to be carved at the "owner's" discretion, signals a radical shift in our understanding of personal identity. How does a human cyborg's death relate to the "identity" of the computer that was receiving information from and transmitting it to that person?

Grinders' practices also raise a more traditional set of ethical concerns, such as safety issues (e.g., risk of infection, manufacturing quality) and the results of sidestepping traditional norms for the protection of human subjects. Looking beyond the individual, society has interests in the unintended consequences of the melding of body and machine, and in the social impact of an increasingly wide chasm between the privileged few who can afford to be "enhanced" and the majority, who can't afford or reject augmentation technologies.

This question of justice and fairness also raises concerns about pressures to conform. Technological innovation has a pattern of scaling down with respect to both size and cost, thereby expanding its acceptance and use. Once a technology is mainstreamed, particularly if it gives users convenience or a performance edge, its effects—and assumed desirability—are essentially irreversible. (Who among us would trade in Lasik-corrected eyes for thick eyeglasses?) Engineering widespread social change should not be left in the hands of a daring few who are willing to reconfigure their bodies and brains. Nor should body modification be the price of getting a really good story. •


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