The Biohackers: Are You Ready for a Cyborg Culture?

Editors Note: This article appeared in Salvo 40, Spring 2017 edition and is used by permission.

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“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, but by “a man with metal horns protruding from his forehead and split tongue.”[1] Jennifer was investigating “Grinders,” people who tinker with their bodies, inserting devices such as silicon chips under their skin that link with other devices. Her modified fingertip enables her to detect waves emitted by motors and electrical equipment.

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, it is a kind of experience-based learning, figuring out how DNA functions and how other biological processes work by building them, and seeing what happens. They are motivated by curiosity and a passion for hands-on experimentation. Most biohackers tinker 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, aiming to create “an optimal human being.”[2]

This melding of body and machine creates “cyborgs,” a shortened version of “cybernetic organisms.” In the language of Grinders, it is the joining of hardware (artificial life) with wetware (organic life), most colorfully reflected in Grindhouse Wetware, the name of one of the primary implant studios. More commonly, “cyborg” refers to a bionic human being, which in contrast to many sci-fi depictions can be as simple as someone who has a mechanical or electrical device implanted to aid or extend physiological function. Think of cyborgs as a machine-animal hybrid. Ethical questions are triggered when that device augments or improves function beyond normal human capacity, such as a contact lens that improves vision to three times better than 20/20, or if it were to give the individual the ability to “see” beyond the spectrum of visible light (such as infrared).

Implants for medical purposes. Technology 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 in 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 disorder. Also on the drawing board is nanoparticle “tattoos” for diabetics that can continuously detect blood glucose levels.

Not all of these technologies pan out as hoped. News of the tattoo in 2010 has been edged out by an announcement earlier this year 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 of patients receiving a heart glove, the world’s smallest pacemaker, smaller than a pinky finger and with no wires or leads attached, was just implanted in an 87-year-old man.[4]

Cyborg implants. The cyborg culture has different purposes. They are not interested in health per se, but in extending the natural abilities of the human body, as an aesthetic choice (to perfect the body), a political act (to protest artificial boundaries between humans and animals, and between organisms and machines), or perhaps for personal or professional reasons, such as performance artist Professor Stelarc who is growing a human ear on his arm, or pop start 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 ethics or institutional approval, he found a doctor willing to anonymously do the surgery. On the less practical side, Harbisson’s partner wears an implant that allows her to feel vibrations from earthquakes. Or, North Sense is 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 temporality, in a constant ferment of creativity and body manipulation. When a device loses its charm, slice it out and insert a newer one with different or better powers. The problems it addresses are functional, such as eliminating reliance on house keys and credit cards. The powers it offers 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 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 the Grinders implant, and the makeshift mini-surgeries to 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 some thing to be cut open for personal experimentation? 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 the human cyborg’s death relate to the identity of the computer that was receiving information from and transmitting 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 sidestepping traditional protection of human subjects. Looking beyond the individual, society has interests in the unintended consequences of the melding of body + machine, and the social impact of an increasingly wide chasm between the few, privileged enhanced and the majority who lack 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 size and cost, thereby expanding acceptance and use. Once a technology is mainstreamed, particularly if it gives users convenience or a performance edge, its effects—and desirability—are essentially irreversible. (Who among us would trade Lasik eyes for thick eyeglasses?) Engineering widespread social change should not be left in the hands of a daring few willing to reconfigure their bodies and brains. Nor should body modification be the price of getting a really good story.

 

Reference


[1] Jennifer Booton, “How I Became a Cyborg and Joined an Underground Medical Movement,” MarketWatch, November 30, 2016. http://www.marketwatch.com/story/i-joined-an-underground-medical-movement-but-had-to-become-a-cyborg-to-do-it-2016-11-15

[3] Institute for Basic Science, “Wearable Graphene-Based Biomedical Device to Monitor, Combat Diabetes,” Science Daily, March 21, 2016. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160321123702.htm

[4] Dana Chiklas, “Man, 87, is first in West Michigan to receive world’s smallest pacemaker.” Fox17 News, Nov. 28, 2016. http://fox17online.com/2016/11/18/man-87-is-first-in-west-michigan-to-receive-worlds-smallest-pacemaker/. See also Press Release. “University of Michigan introduces the world’s smallest pacemaker.” University of Michigan Health System, June 28, 2016. http://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201606/university-michigan-introduces-world%E2%80%99s-smallest-pacemaker.

 

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