In a basement in Pittsburgh, a piercing artist and an Air Force veteran are implanting pieces of metal into their fingertips in order to become cyborgs, and they want you to join them.
Ben Popper, a journalist with The Verge, didn’t just visit these Biohakers, he became one of them. Popper watched as they implanted little metals discs into their fingers to give them a magnetic touch.
Cannon led me down into the basement, which he and Sarver have converted into a laboratory. A long work space was covered with Arduino motherboards, soldering irons, and electrodes. Cannon had recently captured a garter snake, which eyed us from inside a plastic jar. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been telling people that I want to be a robot,” said Cannon. “These days, that doesn’t seem so impossible anymore.” The pair call themselves grinders — homebrew biohackers obsessed with the idea of human enhancement — who are looking for new ways to put machines into their bodies. They are joined by hundreds of aspiring biohackers who populate the movement’s online forums and a growing number, now several dozen, who have gotten the magnetic implants in real life.
The magnetic implant gives its owner the ability to feel electromagnetic fields, like microwaves and subways passing below the ground. But beyond that, there’s little benefit to having this little metal disk. The point, the biohackers say, is that it’s a start. Tim Cannon told The Verge: “It can be done cheaply, with minimally invasive surgery. You get used to the idea of having something alien in your body, and kinda begin to see how much more the human body could do with a little help. Sure, feeling other magnets around you is cool, but the real key is, you’re giving the human body a simple, digital input.”
These are, of course, not the first people to attempt the cyborg leap. Earlier transhumanists like Lepht Anonym and Kevin Warwick have been doing it for years. The two are quite different. Anonym is a hacker without training, anesthesia or medical tools. Warwick is an academic from the University of Reading. In a profile of Anonym, Wired wrote:
She wants other people to share her DIY vision. It’s not the full transhumanist idea, it’s not immortality or superpowers — but even living without the gentle sensation of feeling the invisible is a difficult thing to imagine, she says. One of the implants stopped functioning once, and she describes it as like going blind.
A commenter on that profile added his two cents about grinding:
Grinding is simply a ragged edge of the area of frisson where the ethos of Transhumanism intersects with the realities of human life. We testbed ideas in our own bodies – always very, very aware of the risks of failure and completely willing to accept it. Why? We’re willing to take those risks in order to touch the world in ways the people before us couldn’t. To see the world in new ways, to find new tools out on the edge and bring them back and say “hey, a finer/different/wilder world is possible – and I can show you how to get there.” Why are we willing to take these risks? Because that’s how important we think this work is. What would you risk to touch the invisible, to know your limits, to have a better-fitting body, to do the improbable, to help devise new desperately-needed ways of relating to our technologies and tools?
Warwick, on the other hand, has studied these implants in a lab. For a long time, it was hard to convince other academics that his work wasn’t crazy. But things have changed, he told Verge.
“A decade ago, if you talked about human enhancement, you upset quite a lot of people. Unless the end goal was helping the disabled, people really were not open to it.” With the advent of smartphones, says Prof. Warwick, all that has changed. “Normal folks really see the value of ubiquitous technology. In fact the social element has almost created the reverse. Now, you must be connected all the time.”
Back in Pittsburgh, Popper saw all sorts of things the finger implanting duo was working on. From a smart phone controlled implant to a machine that electrically zaps your brain. For them, the human body simply isn’t enough. One man told Popper, “I’ve been in the special forces. I know what the limits of the human body are like. Once you’ve seen the capabilities of a 5000psi hydraulic system, it’s no comparison.”
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