I had fun doing an interview for the great sci-fi blog io9 recently about “future mods” and “bio hacking”. The interview turned out great but I was a little dismayed that it got cut more than I’d have liked — I guess for a mix of space and to not get too technical because I included perhaps more “how to” information than they were ultimately comfortable with. Here’s the link to the interview:
As I always do with interviews, I’m going to post the raw text of my interview here so if you’re interested in seeing the long form and learn a little more, keep reading. As you know if you’ve read any of the interviews I’ve done (as the questioner) I always prefer long interviews to short ones myself, but these days the Internet seems to prefer small servings rather than stuff that requires some dedication to read.
Anyway, click above for the published interview or keep reading after the break for the unedited version that is longer but probably full of typos.
What connection or aesthetic appreciation does the body modification community have with the nascent sub-culture of biohackers? In what ways are they different?
Bio-hackers aren’t different from body modifiers at all — they are a type of body modifier (that’s a bit awkward — I recently heard the term “moddite”, which I quite like, but I digress). Body modification is the catch-all term, and inside that are many smaller and often overlapping subcultures. Tattooing is of course the largest and best known subcommunity inside body modification, and historically has made the biggest impact to date on the human experience. But the biohacker subculture is just as valid, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we look again in a thousand years, we could be saying that biohackers are who set in motion the evolutionary step that made us more than homo sapiens.
That said, I will say that one of the things that makes biohackers unique from other body modification communities is that they are often more concerned with function than with form. I want to be clear that I am over-simplifying to an almost offensive degree, but tattooing for example, is all form. With the exception of shamanic tattooing that has a spiritual basis, tattooing is an aesthetic practice. Biohacking on the other hand is more concerned with the functional change or improvement the modification will give — they are the transhumanists of the body modification world. They seek to make themselves more than what they were. Not just prettier. But something new or expanded.
I should add that when I speak of inclusion, I’m saying that from the point of view of someone who has had their feet in all these worlds practically since childhood, and has worked hard to encourage camaraderie between different body modification subcultures. People who are only interested in what one of the subcultures has to offer may not always feel that way — for example, there has always been a division between tattooing and the rest of the body modification world in many tattooists’ eyes, and from watching video presentations and reading blog posts from biohackers, I get the impression that many of them are not deeply integrated with the body modification world, if at all — or that they have such a strong DIY ethic that they want to do everything on their own. I think this is extremely dangerous and short-sighted. Even if some of the motivtions are different, the body modification world has spent fifteen years working out and perfecting many of the procedures and technical issues extremely relevant to biohacking. We’ve already figured out how to safely implant almost anything in the body for example — and this isn’t easy — so there’s no reason to re-invent the wheel, and there’s no excuse for making mistakes on these steps which are already well understood.
Tell us about some of your own body modifications.
Over the last twenty years I’ve had a very wide set of piercings, scars, tattoos, implants, and surgical modifications, and in many cases I’ve also taken part in designing the jewelry or equipment involved as well as the procedures themselves. In the 1990s more so than now I was in an experimental phase — it was a very exciting time because body modification was not as well defined as it is now and everything was “new” — and we had a lot of fun trying all sorts of procedures with me as one of the main guinea pigs. While I enjoyed each of these procedures a great deal, each in their own way, those hundreds of body modifications these days have been whittled down to extensive tattooing including my face and even my eyeball — one of my proudest and most notorious achievements is inventing the ink-injection procedure for eyeball tattooing (although it has since been refined and perfected by others, Howie/Lunacobra who did mine most notably) — as well as large stretched earlobes, a split tongue, three 5/16″ pockets in my right ankle, and a stack of magnets implanted in my fingertips which allow me to “see” into the electromagnetic spectrum.
Do you know of any mods that would be of interest to the biohacker community, or technophiles in general?
The modification that I think is probably of most interest — and is also widely available — to the biohacker community is the magnetic implant. In this procedure a tiny neodymium magnet, coated in silicone or a similar material in order to make it biocompatible, is implanted in the fingertip. There were some early implants including two of my own as well as Quinn Norton’s (she gave an excellent talk on it which should still be available online) where the silicone was damaged and had to be removed, but these manufacturing issues have been largely addressed for some time and the current generation of implants are being sold commercially and appear to be a robust product. Magnetic implants have actually become quite common, are available from a number of vendors, and I would make a very rough guess that at least a thousand of them have been implanted. For those that are unaware of them, they work by creating a haptic interface. The magnet moves or vibrates when it is exposed to magnetic or electromagnetic fields. This can be felt by the same nerves that are used for touch, nerves that are extremely dense and sensitive in the fingertips. I should mention that the implants are generally placed slightly to the side of the fingertip rather than centrally in the finger pad so that they don’t affect function, and they’re quite tiny, having a volume comparable to a grain of uncooked rice.
Anyway, when the magnets move, you are aware of it, and it doesn’t take long before this becomes a distinct sensation from touch. It doesn’t just feel like having a tiny vibrator inside your finger, even though that’s exactly what it is. It’s more natural than that. For example, if you are feeling the electromagnetic bubble that comes off of a power transformer, like what your laptop might use, it feels like you’re reaching out and touching an invisible bubble. That bubble has form (you can move your hand around to get an idea of the shape) and it has strength (the amount of power dictates how far the magnet is being moved inside your finger) and it even has “colour” (the frequency of the electromagnetic field alters how quickly the magnet vibrates). All of this is processed on a subconscious level, and it really is like having a sixth sense. It’s hard to describe just how wonderful this is — our world is so rich with electromagnetism. It’s such an important part of the modern world, yet most people are blind to it. Sure, you know intellectually that it’s there, and you can even detect it with various tools, but it’s not the same as actually sensing it. Nor are the tools as fast or convenient. Because I can feel the power running through cables (at household voltages anyway), and transformers are easy to detect, there are many times where I’ve used it to quickly diagnose hardware issues without having to pull out a multimeter. The sensitivity is high enough to detect a spinning harddrive engine through the keyboard of a laptop, or to feel a distributor firing in a car being repaired. Of all the body modifications I’ve had, my magnets may be at the top of my favorites list. They’re certainly the most profound in terms of expanding my world. I’ve had them for a bit over seven years as I write this email, and I feel like if I were to lose them I would feel blind.
Some people have considered using magnetic implants in other ways, for example as a mounting point for external hardware such as attaching a wristwatch with subdermal magnets rather than a normal band. Unfortunately this generally doesn’t work very well, because it doesn’t take long for the skin trapped between the two magnets to be injured and die — I’m sure you’ve heard horror stories of children who swallow a couple magnets and have their intestines clamped off. Yikes. That said, there are a few other uses for magnetic implants. For example, a magician with magnets implanted in their hands or other areas could use them in various tricks, for moving things around, palming objects is ways that would be impossible otherwise, and so on. For all I know some clever close-up magician has already done this, as the use of non-implanted magnets in tricks is common. There might also be the possibility of using magnets to make the body easier to precisely locate, or otherwise to improve the interface between human and machine. That said, in my opinion, the “sixth sense” motivation is by far the best reason to get this type of body modification.
Another related modification that seems to catch the attention of the biohacker and maker communities is RFID implants. These are the tiny RFID chips encased in a tiny glass sheath that do nothing more than bounce back an ID number — the same thing that a vet might implant in your dog in case they get lost. A small handful of people have built clever systems that use these implanted RFID chips to do things like create keyless access systems to their car, house, or computers. However, from my point of view this falls into the “stupid human trick” category — a lot of fun, but not really that useful. Ignoring security debates about RFIDs — both how easy they are to hack and clone, and the fact that this turns you into a trackable individual — this type of thing is much better accomplished by fingerprint scanners and other biometric tools that don’t require surgery.
For me where things get much more exciting is when people start implanting live electronics into their bodies. The medical community has of course been implanting electronics into people for a long time, pacemakers and cochlear implants being some of the most well-known examples, but the body modification and biohacker community is just now starting to play catch-up. There are a tiny number of early adopters though, and the first that comes to mind is an eccentric friend aptly known as “Mr. Lumpy”, who has been at this for a good fifteen years. NSFW from here on. In addition to the over seven hundred small metal beads he has implanted in his penis, he also has a vibrator implanted — and flashing lights and a music box!!! He was quite a character. He’s since removed them, growing tired of the fact that subsequent surgery was required to change the batteries. However, these days inductive charging is much more accessible, so I both hope and predict that we are about to see the return of implanted electronics very soon.
Have there been any important innovations or trends amongst body modders in the past ten years?
Are there any technologies or techniques that are on the current body modder wish list?
(I’m going to combine these two)
These days a growing number of people in the body modification community have extensive experience with complex implant manufacturing, and that the number of people interested in implants has grown large enough to include a great many people who have the technical skills required to design and build the electronics required. All the pieces are in place to do some really fun things. For example, I’ve always wanted to have an implanted wristwatch. Long ago I was a huge fan of LED and other futuristic watches, collecting the sort of stuff made by TokyoFlash. However, once I got tattooed on my arms and hands, I almost completely stopped wearing watches because they aesthetically clashed with my body art. I miss them a lot though, and from a “what time is it?” point of view, it’s true that I can always check my cell-phone that’s almost always in my pocket, but I’d much prefer it if my skin would just light up with the time whenever I wanted — to say nothing of how incredibly cool that would be to a guy like me that grew up on science fiction.
Making a wristwatch implant would actually be quite simple. The electronics need to be as small as possible of course. Even though implants can be quite large (a single double-D breast implant has more volume than many laptop computers at this point), if the implant is kept thin it will be inconspicuous, perhaps even undetectable without touching it. So the wristwatch would be built with surface mount components in a tight package. The LEDs would easily be visible through the skin — it’s quite possible that some small backlit panels could be visible through the skin but simple round or bar-shapred LEDs would be my choice for a watch. One could do a numeric display, a geeky binary display, or even just use a single light and flash the time with morsecode. You’re probably not going to leave the light on all the time in order to preserve the battery, but triggering could be accomplished in many way. An accelerometer could be used to trigger it with a specific arm motion, a pressure switch could respond to touch, or in my case, or a magnetic switch could respond to me waving my finger over it — there are many options, but whatever is chosen would have to be versatile enough to also allow the time to be set. Finally — and this is the biggest issue — there’s power. As I mentioned, “Mr. Lumpy” simply had himself cut open and replaced the battery in his toys as needed. But there’s no need for that. Inductive charging is easy to build, and wireless chargers are commonplace these days — personally I would include such a circuit.
Once the electronics are built, they need to be made biocompatible. If you just cut a hole in yourself and stick in a circuitboard, neither your body or your electronics are going to thank you. More importantly, both your body and your electronics will be in serious need of repair if you do this! As with neodymium magnets, which break down when they come in contact with the body, the solution is to not let them come in contact. This is done by coating the magnet or the electronics in a layer of biologically inert silicone. It is of utmost importance that this step be done right, because the smallest point of access between the body and the electronics and the project will fail, possibily with medically disastrous consequences. This step needs to be done by someone with extensive experience with both mold making for implants with encased materials body modification. I can not emphasize enough that this is the most important step. If you screw up building the electronics, you’ve simply wasted your time. But if you screw up the silicone, you’re risking your health. However, there are people very excited to be a part of a project like this — I was actually just talking this morning about this very procedure to a friend that makes a line of silicone implants and does a lot of custom work, Max Yampolskiy (https://www.facebook.com/max.yampolskiy), and he told me he’d be extremely excited to build the silicone portion of such a project. If someone who could build the electronics portion contacted him, I’m sure they could make magic together and that there’d be a long line of people who’d love such an implant in their body. I have no doubt that many other implant manufacturers, for example Steve Haworth (https://www.stevehaworth.com), would love to be involved.
All the pieces are in place for people to start getting some very exciting live electronics implanted. Everything is ready — all it takes is for an electronics maker to team up with an implant maker, and the snowball starts rolling. I have absolutely no doubt that once this starts — and I’m sure it will be within the next year — it will grow very quickly. When it starts to go mainstream, it will truly get exciting. After all, miniaturization has reached a point where we can hold what was once a supercomputer in the palm of our hand, in a package small enough that it could easily be implanted. On a technical level, we are already capable of doing things like the implanted cell phones in the recent “Total Recall” movie. The future is here, just behind the bedroom door, waiting for us. All we have to do is step through, get in bed, and start…
I should of course say that all of this is not without risk — significant risk perhaps. If a battery were to leak — let’s not even think about exploding — and tear through the silicone somehow, noxious chemicals could be released into the body. Even in the best case scenario, the implant will have to eventually be removed, probably because it stopped working — to say nothing of obsolescence. It’s not going to be as fun to upgrade your cellphone every nine months if you have to cut it out of your hand first. In the early days there will be a lot of problems so doing as much testing as possible is important. For example, after the implant is built, letting it sit in warm body temperature salt water for a few weeks to make sure the implant is solid and that the electronics can handle the temperature and environment. But even with the best testing, for the first few years, the guinea pigs need to know that things will go wrong and that they’re treading unknown ground. For me, and I’m sure many other pioneers, this has always been part of the fun. Exploring dangerous new territory s a wonderful adventure, if a foolhardy one that many people don’t understand the joy of and ridicule.
However it ends up happening, I have no doubt that a slow merging of human and machine is in our future. Evolution does not move fast enough for our vision and dreams. Humans have reached a point where we are able to control our biological destiny, making us the masters of not just our health, but our morphology. I believe that body modification both prepares us and is an important first step into the undiscovered country.
In this whole discussion I’ve skipped over what I think are the real holy grail of both biohacking and body modification, and that is of genetically engineering humans and of building new body parts. But I’ve left these out because I don’t see either of them being accessible to the “hobbyist” scene any time soon, although I can imagine at some point in the future they will be. We make massive strides forward in genetics every year, and we’re getting to the point where we can “print out” new organs and body parts on a 3D printer, ready to implant and integrate into the body. These things are incredibly exciting to anyone into body modification — bio-hackers or not — but I think they will still be some time in arriving, and at least at first will come at a huge financial cost to say nothing of the medical risk. Either way, the human body has a very exciting future before it, both in the short term and in the long term.
By the way, I wanted to show you this — it’s a superb thing to include on some level in my opinion: