Cyborg America: inside the strange new world of basement body hackers (The Verve)

The Verve, 8 August 2012

Shawn Sarver took a deep breath and stared at the bottle of Listerine on the counter. “A minty fresh feeling for your mouth… cures bad breath,” he repeated to himself, as the scalpel sliced open his ring finger. His left arm was stretched out on the operating table, his sleeve rolled up past the elbow, revealing his first tattoo, the Air Force insignia he got at age 18, a few weeks after graduating from high school. Sarver was trying a technique he learned in the military to block out the pain, since it was illegal to administer anesthetic for his procedure.

“A minty fresh feeling… cures bad breath,” Sarver muttered through gritted teeth, his eyes staring off into a void.

Tim, the proprietor of Hot Rod Piercing in downtown Pittsburgh, put down the scalpel and picked up an instrument called an elevator, which he used to separate the flesh inside in Sarver’s finger, creating a small empty pocket of space. Then, with practiced hands, he slid a tiny rare earth metal inside the open wound, the width of a pencil eraser and thinner than a dime. When he tried to remove his tool, however, the metal disc stuck to the tweezers. “Let’s try this again,” Tim said. “Almost done.”

The implant stayed put the second time. Tim quickly stitched the cut shut, and cleaned off the blood. “Want to try it out?” he asked Sarver, who nodded with excitement. Tim dangled the needle from a string of suture next to Sarver’s finger, closer and closer, until suddenly, it jumped through the air and stuck to his flesh, attracted by the magnetic pull of the mineral implant.

“I’m a cyborg!” Sarver cried, getting up to join his friends in the waiting room outside. Tim started prepping a new tray of clean surgical tools. Now it was my turn.

PART.01

With the advent of the smartphone, many Americans have grown used to the idea of having a computer on their person at all times. Wearable technologies like Google’s Project Glass are narrowing the boundary between us and our devices even further by attaching a computer to a person’s face and integrating the software directly into a user’s field of vision. The paradigm shift is reflected in the names of our dominant operating systems. Gone are Microsoft’s Windows into the digital world, replaced by a union of man and machine: the iPhone or Android.

For a small, growing community of technologists, none of this goes far enough. I first met Sarver at the home of his best friend, Tim Cannon, in Oakdale, a Pennsylvania suburb about 30 minutes from Pittsburgh where Cannon, a software developer, lives with his longtime girlfriend and their three dogs. The two-story house sits next to a beer dispensary and an abandoned motel, a reminder the city’s best days are far behind it. In the last two decades, Pittsburgh has been gutted of its population, which plummeted from a high of more than 700,000 in the 1980s to less than 350,000 today. For its future, the city has pinned much of its hopes on the biomedical and robotics research being done at local universities like Carnegie Mellon. “The city was dying and so you have this element of anti-authority freaks are welcome,” said Cannon. “When you have technology and biomedical research and a pissed-off angry population that loves tattoos, this is bound to happen. Why Pittsburgh? It’s got the right amount of fuck you.”

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.

GONE ARE MICROSOFT’S WINDOWS INTO THE DIGITALWORLD, REPLACED BY A UNION OF MANAND MACHINE: THE IPHONE ORANDROID

COMPUTERS ARE HARDWARE. APPS ARE SOFTWARE. HUMANS AREWETWARE

“EVER SINCE IWAS A KID, I’VE BEEN TELLING PEOPLE THAT IWANT TO BE A ROBOT.”

Cannon looks and moves a bit like Shaggy from Scooby Doo, a languid rubberband of a man in baggy clothes and a newsboy cap. Sarver, by contrast, stands ramrod-straight, wearing a dapper three-piece suit and waxed mustache, a dandy steampunk with a high-pitched laugh. There is a distinct division of labor between the two: Cannon is the software developer and Sarver, who learned electrical engineering as a mechanic in the Air Force, does the hardware. The moniker for their working unit is Grindhouse Wetwares. Computers are hardware. Apps are software. Humans are wetware.

Cannon, like Sarver, served in the military, but the two didn’t meet until they had both left the service, introduced by a mutual friend in the Pittsburgh area. Politics brought them together. “We were both kind of libertarians, really strong anti-authority people, but we didn’t fit into the two common strains here: idiot anarchist who’s unrealistic or right-wing crazy Christian. Nobody was incorporating technology into it. So there was no political party but just a couple like-minded individuals, who were like… techno-libertarians!”

Cannon got his own neodymium magnetic implant a year before Sarver. Putting these rare earth metals into the body was pioneered by artists on the bleeding edge of piercing culture and transhumanists interested in experimenting with a sixth sense.Steve Haworth, who specializes in the bleeding edge of body modification and considers himself a “human evolution artist,” is considered one of the originators, and helped to inspire a generation of practitioners to perform magnetic implants, including the owner of Hot Rod Piercing in Pittsburgh. (Using surgical tools like a scalpel is a grey area for piercers. Operating with these instruments, or any kind of anesthesia, could be classified as practicing medicine. Without a medical license, a piercer who does this is technically committing assault on the person getting the implant.) On its own, the implant allows a person to feel electromagnetic fields: a microwave oven in their kitchen, a subway passing beneath the ground, or high-tension power lines overhead.

While this added perception is interesting, it has little utility. But the magnet, explains Cannon, is more of a stepping stone toward bigger things. “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 fucking cool, but the real key is, you’re giving the human body a simple, digital input.”

As an example of how that might work, Cannon showed me a small device he and Sarver created called the Bottlenose. It’s a rectangle of black metal about half the size of a pack of cigarettes that slips over your finger. Named after the echolocation used by dolphins, it sends out an electromagnetic pulse and measures the time it takes to bounce back. Cannon slips it over his finger and closes his eyes. “I can kind of sweep the room and get this picture of where things are.” He twirls around the half-empty basement, eyes closed, then stops, pointing directly at my chest. “The magnet in my finger is extremely sensitive to these waves. So the Bottlenose can tell me the shape of things around me and how far away they are.”

The way Cannon sees it, biohacking is all around us. “In a way, eyeglasses are a body hack, a piece of equipment that enhances your sense, and pretty quickly becomes like a part of your body,” says Cannon. He took a pair of electrodes off the workbench and attached them to my temples. “Your brain works through electricity, so why not help to boost that?” A sharp pinch ran across my forehead as the first volts flowed into my skull. He and Sarver laughed as my face involuntarily twitched. “You’re one of us now,” Cannon says with a laugh.

HISTORY.01

In one sense, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, part man, part machine, animated by electricity and with superhuman abilities, might be the first dark, early vision of what humans’ bodies would become when modern science was brought to bear. A more utopian version was put forward in 1960, a year before man first travelled into space, by the scientist and inventor Manfred Clynes. Clynes was considering the problem of how mankind would survive in our new lives as outer space dwellers, and concluded that only by augmenting our physiology with drugs and machines could we thrive in extraterrestrial environs. It was Clynes and his co-author Nathan Kline, writing on this subject, who coined the term cyborg.

At its simplest, a cyborg is a being with both biological and artificial parts: metal, electrical, mechanical, or robotic. The construct is familiar to almost everyone through popular culture, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Iron Man films. Tony Stark is surely our greatest contemporary cyborg: a billionaire businessman who designed his own mechanical heart, a dapper bachelor who can transform into a one-man fighter jet, then shed his armour as easily as a suit of clothes.

Britain is the birthplace of 21st-century biohacking, and the movement’s two foundational figures present a similar Jekyll and Hyde duality. One is Lepht Anonym, a DIY punk who was one of the earliest, and certainly the most dramatic, to throw caution to the wind and implant metal and machines into her flesh. The other is Kevin Warwick, an academic at the University of Reading’s department of cybernetics. Warwick relies on a trained staff of medical technicians when doing his implants. Lepht has been known to say that all she requires is a potato peeler and a bottle of vodka. In an article on h+, Anonym wrote:

I’m sort of inured to pain by this point. Anesthetic is illegal for people like me, so we learn to live without it; I’ve made scalpel incisions in my hands, pushed five-millimeter diameter needles through my skin, and once used a vegetable knife to carve a cavity into the tip of my index finger. I’m an idiot, but I’m an idiot working in the name of progress: I’m Lepht Anonym, scrapheap transhumanist. I work with what I can get.

Anonym’s essay, a series of YouTube videos, and a short profile in Wired established her as the face of the budding biohacking movement. It was Anonym who proved, with herself as the guinea pig, that it was possible to implant RFID chips and powerful magnets into one’s body, without the backing of an academic institution or help from a team of doctors.

 

“She is an inspiration to all of us,” said a biohacker who goes by the name of Sovereign Bleak. “To anyone who was frustrated with the human condition, who felt we had been promised more from the future, she said that it was within our grasp, and our rights, to evolve our bodies however we saw fit.” Over the last decade grinders have begun to form a loose culture, connected mostly by online forums like biohack.me, where hundreds of aspiring cyborgs congregate to swap tips about the best bio-resistant coatings to prevent the body from rejecting magnetic implants and how to get illegal anesthetics shipped from Canada to the United States. There is another strain of biohacking which focuses on the possibilities for DIY genetics, but their work is far more theoretical than the hands-on experiments performed by grinders.

But while Anonym’s renegade approach to bettering her own flesh birthed a new generation of grinders, it seems to have had some serious long-term consequences for her own health. “I’m a wee bit frightened right now,” Anonym wrote on her blog early this year. “I’m hearing things that aren’t there. Sure I see things that aren’t real from time to time because of the stupid habits I had when I was a teenager and the permanent, very mild damage I did to myself experimenting like that, but I don’t usually hear anything and this is not a flashback.”

MEDICAL NEED VERSUS HUMAN ENHANCEMENT

Neil Harbisson was born with a condition that allows him to see only in black and white. He became interested in cybernetics, and eventually began wearing the Eyeborg, a head-mounted camera which translated colors into vibrations that Harbisson could hear. The addition of the Eyeborg to his passport has led some to dub him the first cyborg officially recognized by the federal government. He now plans to extend and improve this cybernetic synesthesia by having the Eyeborg permanently surgically attached to his skull.

Getting a medical team to help him was no easy task. “Their position was that ‘doctors usually repair or fix humans’ and that my operation was not about fixing nor repairing myself but about creating a new sense: the perception of visual elements via bone-conducted sounds,” Harbisson told me by email. “The other main issue was that the operation would allow me to perceive outside the ability of human vision and human hearing (hearing via the bone allows you to hear a wider range of sounds, from infrasounds to ultrasounds, and some lenses can detect ultraviolets and infrareds). It took me over a year to convince them.”

In the end, the bio-ethical community still relies on promises of medical need to justify cybernetic enhancement. “I think I convinced them when I told them that this kind of operation could help ‘fix and repair’ blind people. If you use a different type of chip, a chip that translates words into sound, or distances into sound, for instance, the same electronic eye implant could be used to read or to detect obstacles which could mean the end of Braille and sticks. I guess hospitals and governments will soon start publishing their own laws about which kind of cybernetic implants they find are ethical/legal and which ones they find are not.”

PART.02

THE EXPERIENCE RANKED ALONGSIDE BREAKING MY ARM AND HAVING MY APPENDIX REMOVED

  

I had Lepht Anonym in the back of my mind as I stretched my arm out on the operating table at Hot Rod Piercing. The fingertip is an excellent place for a magnet because it is full of sensitive nerve tissue, fertile ground for your nascent sixth sense to pick up on the electro-magnetic fields all around us. It is also an exceptionally painful spot to have sliced open with a scalpel, especially when no painkillers are available. The experience ranked alongside breaking my arm and having my appendix removed, a level of pain that opens your mind to parts of your body which before you were not conscious of.

For the first few days after the surgery, it was difficult to separate out my newly implanted sense from the bits of pain and sensation created by the trauma of having the magnet jammed in my finger. Certain things were clear: microwave ovens gave off a steady field that was easy to perceive, like a pulsating wave of invisible water, or air heavy from heat coming off a fan. And other magnets, of course, were easy to identify. They lurked like landmines in everyday objects — my earbuds, my messenger bag — sending my finger ringing with a deep, sort of probing force field that shifted around in my flesh.

High-tension wires seemed to give off a sort of pulsating current, but it was often hard to tell, since my finger often began throbbing for no reason, as it healed from the trauma of surgery. Playing with strong, stand-alone magnets was a game of chicken. The party trick of making one leap across a table towards my finger was thrilling, but the awful squirming it caused inside my flesh made me regret it hours later. Grasping a colleague’s stylus too near the magnetic tip put a sort of freezing probe into my finger that I thought about for days afterwards.

Within a few weeks, the sensation began to fade. I noticed fewer and fewer instances of a sixth sense, beyond other magnets, which were quite obvious. I was glad that the implant didn’t interfere with my life, or prevent me from exercising, but I also grew a bit disenchanted, after all the hype and excitement the grinders I interviewed had shared about their newfound way of interacting with the world.

HISTORY.02

If Lepht Anonym is the cautionary tale, Prof. Kevin Warwick is the one bringing academic respectability to cybernetics. He was one of the first to experiment with implants, putting an RFID chip into his body back in 1998, and has also taken the techniques the farthest. In 2002, Prof. Warwick had cybernetic sensors implanted into the nerves of his arm. Unlike the grinders in Pittsburgh, he had the benefits of anesthesia and a full medical team, but he was still putting himself at great risk, as there was no research on the long-term effects of having these devices grafted onto his nervous system. “In a way that is what I like most about this,” he told me. “From an academic standpoint, it’s wide-open territory.”

I chatted with Warwick from his office at The University of Reading, stacked floor to ceiling with books and papers. He has light brown hair that falls over his forehead and an easy laugh. With his long sleeve shirt on, you would never know that his arm is full of complex machinery. The unit allows Warwick to manipulate a robot hand, a mirror of his own fingers and flesh. What’s more, the impulse could flow both ways. Warwick’s wife, Irena, had a simpler cybernetic implant done on herself. When someone grasped her hand, Prof. Warwick was able to experience the same sensation in his hand, from across the Atlantic. It was, Warwick writes, a sort of cybernetic telepathy, or empathy, in which his nerves were made to feel what she felt, via bits of data travelling over the internet.

The work was hailed by the mainstream media as a major step forward in helping amputees and victims of paralysis to regain a full range of abilities. But Prof. Warwick says that misses the point. “I quite like the fact that new medical therapies could potentially come out of this work, but what I am really interested in is not getting people back to normal; it’s enhancement of fully functioning humans to a higher level.”

It’s a sentiment that can take some getting used to. “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.”

While he is an accomplished academic, Prof. Warwick has embraced biohackers and grinders as fellow travelers on the road to exploring our cybernetic future. “A lot of the time, when it comes to putting magnets into your body or RFID chips, there is more information on YouTube than in the peer-reviewed journals. There are artists and geeks pushing the boundaries, sharing information, a very renegade thing. My job is to take that, and apply some more rigorous scientific analysis.”

To that end, Prof. Warwick and one of his PhD students, Ian Harrison, are beginning a series of studies on biohackers with magnetic implants. “When it comes to sticking sensors into your nerve endings, so much is subjective,” says Harrison. “What one person feels, another may not. So we are trying to establish some baselines for future research.”

“IT’S LIKE THIS LAST, UNEXPLORED CONTINENT STARING US IN THE FACE.”The end goal for Prof. Warwick, as it was for the team at Grindhouse Wetwares in Pittsburgh, is still the stuff of science fiction. “When it comes to communication, humans are still so far behind what computers are capable of,” Prof. Warwick explained. “Bringing about brain to brain communication is something I hope to achieve in my lifetime.”For Warwick, this will advance not just the human body and the field of cybernetics, but allow for a more practical evaluation the entire canon of Western thought. “I would like to ask the questions that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein asked, but in practice, not in theory.” It would be another attempt to study the mind, from inside and out, as Wittgenstein proposed. But with access to objective data. “Perhaps he was bang on, or maybe we will rubbish his whole career, but either way, it’s something we should figure out.”

As the limits of space exploration become increasingly clear, a generation of scientists who might once have turned to the stars are seeking to expand humanity’s horizons much closer to home. “Jamming stuff into your body, merging machines with your nerves and brain, it’s brand new,” said Warwick. “It’s like this last, unexplored continent staring us in the face.”

On a hot day in mid-July, I went for a walk around Manhattan with Dann Berg, who had a magnet implanted in his pinky three years earlier. I told him I was a little disappointed how rarely I noticed anything with my implant. “Actually, your experience is pretty common,” he told me. “I didn’t feel much for the first 6 months, as the nerves were healing from surgery. It took a long time for me to gain this kind of ambient awareness.”

Berg worked for a while in the piercing and tattoo studio, which brought him into contact with the body modification community who were experimenting with implants. At the same time, he was teaching himself to code and finding work as a front-end developer building web sites. “To me, these two things, the implant and the programming, they are both about finding new ways to see and experience the world.”

“WE’RE TOUCHING SOMETHING OTHER PEOPLE CAN’T SEE; THEY DON’T KNOW
IT EXISTS.”Berg took me to an intersection at Broadway and Bleecker. In the middle of the crosswalk, he stopped, and began moving his hand over a metal grate. “You feel that?” he asked. “It’s a dome, right here, about a foot off the ground, that just sets my finger off. Somewhere down there, part of the subway system or the power grid is working. We’re touching something other people can’t see; they don’t know it exists. That’s amazing to me.” People passing by gave us odd stares as Berg and I stood next to each other in the street, waving our hands around inside an invisible field, like mystics groping blindly for a ghost.

CYBORGS IN SOCIETY

Last month, a Canadian professor named Steve Mann was eating at a McDonald’s with his family. Mann wears a pair of computerized glasses at all times, similar to Google’s Project Glass. One of the employees asked him to take them off. When he refused, Mann says, an employee tried to rip the glasses off, an alleged attack made more brutal because the device is permanently attached and does not come off his skull without special tools.

On biohacking websites and transhumanist forums, the event was a warning sign of the battle to come. Some dubbed it the first hate crime against cyborgs. That would imply the employees knew Mann’s device was part of him, which is still largely unclear. But it was certainly a harbinger of the friction that will emerge between people whose bodies contain powerful machines and society at large.

PART.03

After zapping my brain with a few dozen volts, the boys from Grindhouse Wetwares offered to cook me dinner. Cannon popped a tray of mashed potatoes in the microwave and showed me where he put his finger to feel the electromagnetic waves streaming off. We stepped out onto the back porch and let his three little puggles run wild. The sound of cars passing on the nearby highway and the crickets warming up for sunset relaxed everyone. I asked what they thought the potential was for biohacking to become part of the mainstream.

“That’s the thing, it’s not that much of a leap,” said Cannon. “We’ve had pacemakers since the ’70s.” Brain implants are now being used to treat Parkinson’s disease and depression. Scientists hope that brain implants might soon restore mobility to paralyzed limbs. The crucial difference is that grinders are pursuing this technology for human enhancement, without any medical need. “How is this any different than plastic surgery, which like half the fucking country gets?” asked Cannon. “Look, you know the military is already working on stuff like this, right? And it won’t be too long before the corporations start following suit.”

Sarver joined the Air Force just weeks after 9/11. “I was a dyed-in-the-wool Roman Catholic Republican. I wasn’t thinking about the military, but after 9/11, I just believed the dogma.” In place of college, he got an education in electronics repairing fighter jets and attack helicopters. He left the war a very different man. “There were no terrorists in Iraq. We were the terrorists. These were scared people, already scared of their own government.”

Yet, while he rejected the conflict in the Middle East, Sarver’s time in the military gave him a new perspective on the human body. “I’ve been in the special forces,” said Sarver. “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.”

“THIS IS JUST A DECAYING LUMP OF FLESH THAT GETS OLD, IT’S LEAKING FLUID ALL THE TIME”

“IT’S GOING TO BE WEIRD AND UNCOMFORTABLEAND SCARY. BUT YOU CAN DO THAT, OR YOU CAN BECOME OBSOLETE.”

The boys from Grindhouse Wetwares both sucked down Parliament menthols the whole time we talked. There was no irony for them in dreaming of the possibilities for one’s body and willfully destroying it. “For me, the end game is my brain and spinal column in a jar, and a robot body out in the world doing my bidding,” said Sarver. “I would really prefer not to have to rely on an inefficient four-valve pump that sends liquid through these fragile hoses. Fuck cheetahs. I want to punch through walls.”

Flesh and blood are easily shed in grinder circles, at least theoretically speaking. “People recoil from the idea of tampering inside the body,” said Tim. “I am lost when it comes to people’s unhealthy connections to your body. This is just a decaying lump of flesh that gets old, it’s leaking fluid all the time, it’s obscene to think this is me. I am my ideas and the sum of my experiences.” As far as the biohackers are concerned, we are the best argument against intelligent design.

Neither man has any illusions about how fringe biohacking is now. But technology marches on. “People say nobody is going to want to get surgery for this stuff,” admits Cannon. But he believes that will change. “They will or they will be left behind. They have no choice. It’s going to be weird and uncomfortable and scary. But you can do that, or you can become obsolete.”

We came back into the kitchen for dinner. As I wolfed down steak and potatoes, Cannon broke into a nervous grin. “I want to show you something. It’s not quite ready, but this is what we’re working on.” He disappeared down into the basement lab and returned with a small device the size of a cigarette lighter, a simple circuit board with a display attached. This was the HELEDD, the next step in the Grindhouse Wetwares plan to unite man and machine. “This is just a prototype, but when we get it small enough, the idea is to have this beneath my skin,” he said, holding it up against his inner forearm.

The smartphone in your pocket would act as the brain for this implant, communicating via bluetooth with the HELEDD, which would use a series of LED lights to display the time, a text message, or the user’s heart rate. “We’re looking to get sensors in there for the big three,” said Tim. “Heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. Because then you are looking at this incredible data. Most people don’t know the effect on a man’s heart when he finds out his wife is cheating on him.”

Cannon hopes to have the operation in the next few months. A big part of what drives the duo to move so fast is the idea that there is no hierarchy established in this space. “We want to be doing this before the FDA gets involved and starts telling us what we can and cannot do. Someday this will be commercially feasible and Apple will design an implant which will sync with your phone, but that is not going to be for us. We like to open things up and break them.”

I point out that Steve Jobs may have died in large part because he was reluctant to get surgery, afraid that if doctors opened him up, they might not be able to put him back together good as new. “We’re grinders,” said Cannon. “I view it as kind of taking the pain for the people who are going to come after me. We’re paying now so that it will become socially acceptable later.”

3rdi, 2010-2011Photographed by Wafaa Bilal, Copyright: Wafaa Bilal
Image of Prof. Kevin Warwick courtesty of Prof. Kevin Warick
Portrait of Prof. Kevin Warwick originally shot for Time Magazine by Jim Naughten

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