Biohackers and Grinders

By Kyle Munkittrick | January 5, 2011 2:14 pm

When I think about transhumanism, I think about genetic engineering, cognitive enhancing drugs, and osso-neuro-integrated prosthetics. When Wired interviewee Lepht Anonym thinks about transhumanism, she thinks about kitchen sink surgery, using hot glue as a bioproofer and vodka as a sterilizer. Anonym is a biohacker or “grinder” depending on your preferred nomenclature. Grinding is a counter-culture mindset that has origins in cyberpunk and post-modern disenchantment with progress. Biohackers take body-modification, at-home surgery, and add a twist of the electromagnetic spectrum. Anonym seems to be somewhere between the two:

An American body-modification artist of a similar mindset [to Anonym] has created small metal discs of neodymium metal, coated in gold and silicon, which give off mild electric current when in a electromagnetic field. When inserted under the fingertips, this current stimulates the fingers’ nerve endings, allowing the bearer to literally feel the shape and strength of electromagnetic fields around power cords or electronic devices.

Anonym had several of these implanted professionally, choking at the cost, and then learned it was possible to buy the metal herself in bulk, far more cheaply.

So she began experimenting with homebrewed sensors. The metal itself is extremely toxic, so she needed a coating to bioproof it, finding a solution ultimately in a silicon putty-like substance called Sugru. But hot-gun glue works fine too, she says. (“I have lots of things in me coated in hot-gun glue,” she says.)

Anonym describes academic transhumanists (aka moi) as “lame.” My initial thought was “this is not a transhumanist, this is a crazy person!” Whenever I get freaked out by someone’s behavior, I feel old and conservative. To cure this feeling I go see what old, conservative people think. Charles T. Rubin of the Futurisms blog at The New Atlantis was happy to oblige me. Rubin worries that biohackers like Anonym represent some sort of glorification of “self-mutilation” and our society’s inability to see her behavior as the cry for help it really is. Rubin’s hand-wringing post over Anonym’s “self-mutiliation” made me realize what bothered me about Anonym wasn’t her attitude or her aesthetic. Besides the ill-advized techniques (vodka for sterilizer? Rubbing alcohol is cheaper and, uh, actually sterile!), the general ethos of biohackers and grinding is one I’m all about.

Instead, I realized I had no idea why Anonym was making the modifications she was making. RFID chips are sort of useful, but the neodymium discs seem like a lot of work for a minimal payoff. So you can feel electric current. Neat, I guess? Since neither is illegal, the self-surgery comes off as a “look at how hardcore I am” attitude rather than a genuine act of rebellion. Until the mods give a person a useful ability beyond that of a normal individual, folks like Anonym are just body-modifiers who’ve found a new way to get their jollies. Cool, yes, but no more transhuman than a piercing or tattoo.

Original images via anicole and quapan at Flickr Creative Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Transhumanism

Comments (7)

  1. Kevin Bridges

    As an aside, it should be possible to create gloves based around this principle. Feeling an electrical field could have been very handy in some of the home-improvement work I’ve done, and would be more intuitive than devices now on the market.

    Direct sensory augmentation has historically been confined to night-vision goggles, but, now that I think of it, there’s a lot of potential there.

  2. Eliz

    How is feeling electric current not useful? I practically died when i read what she did – how cool! (yeah scary but how many appearance-obsessed girls are out there putting silicone and fat in their butts, lips, face, boobs, etc.). This is really cool.

  3. I agree with Eliz, I can imagine loads of applications where feeling an electric current would be a good thing! For one, it’s a warning (like our perception of heat) when putting our hands into a potentially dangerous area. It could give us a much greater awareness in general of our energy use; ‘feeling’ the amount of power a kettle or toaster draws would tap us in to what is normally completely hidden.

    That said, a lot of it comes down to whether such an implant is actually used for such purposes. If not, then I agree, it’s pretty much hardcore posturing.

  4. Kyle Munkittrick

    @ Dave and Eliz: Granted, these are useful abilities, but for the effort required? Are you willing to bioproof neodymium, slice open your finger tips, shove these disks in, and stitch yourself back up for the ability to feel current? My question is of 1) cost vs benefit and 2) is this something a pair of gloves couldn’t do? If I could get on-a-whim, built-in night vision with some home-brew surgery as opposed to some bulky, battery operated goggles, well then yeah, I’d hack my eyes. I’m not arguing that “feeling current” isn’t useful at all, I’m arguing that it isn’t worth the effort and pain of kitchen sink surgery or the cost of having the pros do it.

  5. Steve

    I would argue that what she does is important in and of itself. Right now its difficult to impossible to find a professional to preform the surgery, and it’s painful and messy to perform surgery yourself, to say the least. The value of what she is doing is that she’s spreading awareness of biohacking.
    A short while ago you could have a doctor carve pieces off of your eye to improve nearsightedness. Radial keratotomy was developed when a boy had to have glass pieces removed from his eye. Some of the cuts made actually improved his vision, and thus it was discovered that manually reshaping an eye was possible. Since then we’ve come a long way, with laser eye surgery, which can regularly bring vision to levels better than 20/20.
    Although sticking magnets coated in hotglue, sterilized in vodka, and shoved into a hand carved hole may sound crude to you, the real importance is that she gets people curious about implants for their practical merits and not just medical, and aesthetic purposes. Perhaps these devices could someday be refined into something that could be used either in everyday life, or by professionals who could find that new 6th sense useful.

  6. Kevin

    I’m a little late to the party, but I’d like to chime in. I read about Anonym a little while back and decided to go ahead with this, myself. Currently, there are neodymium magnets that are already bioproofed (not intended for implantation, but the material, parylene, is widely used for medical implants), and while they are expensive due to having to purchase in bulk from a science tool supply company, group buys do occur online. For me, the cost was barely more than $20, and the pain was well worth it. Of course, sterylization was done far more intelligently – just go to the grocery store and pick up a bottle of povidone-iodine and you’re good to go.

    As to its usefulness, I would say that it is hardly practical at all. I did not think it would be – I mean, really, it’s just fun to be able to feel magnetic/electromagnetic fields. I have, though, encountered a singular instance where it was quite useful. I was helping someone jump their car when it wouldn’t start, but after waiting for his battery to charge to no avail, I noticed that no current was moving through the jumper cables. We could get little surges of electricity to occur when making the initial connection with the batteries, but then nothing. I didn’t know what to make of it (I’m definitely not a mechanic), but I knew right away that it wasn’t charging the battery. I mention this because a magnetic implant could be exceptionally useful to an electrician or an automotive mechanic. I do admit that a tight-fitting glove with magnets sewn in at the fingertips could possibly recreate the effect, but I guarantee you that the time/effort/money involved in making a pair is greater than implanting a magnet.

    Also, I totally disagree with your assessment that it’s a thing for body modifiers. This is the first permanent (or semi-permanent) alteration I have made to my body, and I am 24. No piercings, not tattoos. Just a magnet in my finger.

  7. Ian

    Speaking as a grinder myself (along with other fellow grinders at the development site biohack.me), I should say that, when the article says that L sterilizes things with vodka, that was only a one-time thing. No grinder I know actually does that on a regular basis; there are plenty of cheaper and more effective methods of sterilization.

    As for hot glue, that’s actually not as dangerous as you think. However, we use a mouldable silicone rubber called Sugru nowadays, anyway, and on biohack.me you can participate in group buys, in which you can order magnets that are industrially pre-coated in Parylene C. These are actually very cheap when you buy in bulk like this (about a buck a magnet, plus shipping costs; $30 later, I have all the magnets I’d need to do all ten fingers, plus a bunch of extras to experiment on).

    ~Ian

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