The hardware under the skin. In rural small towns in the United States, hackers are working on merging man and machine. Hannes Wiedemann reports on the DIY cyborgs.
Anyone researching technology and the question of how it will impact the course of mankind in the future, would do well to have a look around Silicon Valley.
Here, the naive play of nerds and geeks intersects with the most extreme form of neoliberal ideology, a mix that has resulted in many inventions in recent years. Now, everyone is talking about the advent of cyborgs. But from the west coast, you’ll have to drive five hours inland, deep into the Californian outback, to come face to face with a certain small community: the grinders.
The term ‘grinder’ comes from the graphic novel ‘Doktor Sleepless’ by Warren Ellis: in the bowels of his fictitious city, a subculture emerges whose members slice open their own bodies with relish, implanting fantastically named machines and pushing their personal limits with every imaginable drug. It’s hard to believe that the fringes of Ellis’ dystopia would one day lend its name to a real phenomenon, and to participants with no less lofty a goal than the improvement of humankind.
In the autumn of 2015, in a garage on the edge of the Mojave Desert, members of this scene congregate. From all corners of the United States, people have gathered here who only previously knew each other by pseudonyms on the board, the somewhat outdated online forum which archives commonly produced knowledge in efficient disarray. The primary purpose of this meeting, too, is knowledge transfer. Many participants contribute professional expertise from software and hardware development, biology, chemistry, or medicine. Depending on their preferences, they call themselves grinders, bodyhackers, biopunks, or just cyborgs. While the term transhumanism, often used in this context, denotes a set of theories promoting the ‘evolution’ of human beings through radical technological intervention, this is it in practice. All attendants agree that they seek to directly challenge the limits of the human form, using their own bodies as guinea pigs.
In recent years, this community has produced a range of inventions. Tiny, but extremely strong magnets are sealed to be biocompatible and implanted in the fingertips. After a brief acclimation period, this lets the user sense strong magnetic fields like those we encounter near certain stoplights, electric motors, or laptops. In 2013, the hobby inventor Rich Lee came up with the idea of implanting these magnets near his ear canal and putting copper coil around his neck, thereby moving his earbuds into his body, in a sense. Shortly thereafter, Tim Cannon underwent one of the most spectacular of these self-modifications: He had a smartphone-sized device of his own invention called Circadia implanted in his forearm that recorded his body temperature, transmitting it to a smartphone in real time via Bluetooth. After a few weeks, the device’s battery became depleted and the device had to be removed. The pain was extreme and the practical benefit was no more than that of a thermometer. For testing purposes, moreover, circuit boards were implanted into the backs of peoples’ hands, their output displayed by blinking LEDs. This begs the question: What is the point of such risky experiments? These developers claim that in the long run, they will serve to simplify our lives. At present, however, we are looking at prototypes in the development phase that still need to be improved. For years, this technical development has centered on two critical points: supplying these devices with electricity, and reliably coating them for implantation.
Many people view these often painful practices with a mixture of fascination and disgust reminiscent of the early days of piercing culture. While doctors largely discourage non-essential surgical procedures as a matter of professional ethics, the range of reactions in academia is broader. Disputes over scientific standards are frequent. But there is a specific reason certain researchers are drawn to the grinder scene: here, human experimentation that would never (or only with extreme difficulty) be deemed ethically admissible are carried out willingly, enthusiastically, and on the experimenters’ own bodies.
Where does this deep-seated urge to surpass the bounds of the human body come from? Asking this question elicits many different answers which range from a personal sense of playful curiosity to a sincere vision of an ethical transhuman lifeform made possible only by the massive implementation of technology. As far as the grinder community is concerned, however, one specific set of beliefs seems to predominate: First, most of mankind’s problems can be solved using technology; and second, grinding is a subversive act of hacking. It’s about overcoming not merely the limits of the human body, but biology as a whole and the academic production of knowledge. These two ideas merge into a strong faith in technology’s emancipatory potential. Criticism is often dismissed as reactionary and averse to innovation.
But critics pose a valid question: What will happen when this self-installable technology is commercialized? According to the company Dangerous Things, thousands of the aforementioned mini-magnets have already been sold. Other successful products (more than 10,000 units sold) by the company are RFID and NFC chips the size of grains of rice. In a simple procedure, these are injected into the hand between the thumb and forefinger, and can be used to unlock a cellphone or start a car by touch. In Sweden, former consultant Hannes Sjöblad uses this technology to provide companies with whole solutions: Employees are implanted with the chips while locks are reconfigured to support them.
Here, like everywhere else in the IT sector, hacker ethos is combined with neoliberal logic. Fundamentally anarchist strategies used to mess with the establishment quickly morph into business ideas. Today, California and Silicon Valley are symbols of the dissolution of subversion by means of appropriation into the neoliberal logic of success. The playful dislodging of power structures is reduced to mere technological problem-solving. Grinders are still nerds; their technology is simple, cheap, and largely easy to obtain. They work in the California garage, the Seattle studio, or the rudely equipped basement laboratory outside Pittsburgh. But their vision of human enhancement comes incredibly close to the radical and liberal conceptual world of the tech industry. As the human form is intrinsically bound by the confines of contemporary society, perhaps we are well advised to compliment the hacking of these limits with a critical outward gaze, a critique of the forms that bind us all.