Yesterday, author and prominent blogger John Scalzi posted a picture of himself with “noted body hacker Quinn Norton“.
OK, I’ll take the bait. I’m forty-something, I don’t really sit at the cool kids’ table, and I hadn’t a clue what body hacking is, so I looked it up. Norton, who has some pretty fascinating videos and slideshows online illuminating the subject, defines it as:
Acting on yourself, with or without assistance, to enhance the function of your body or your perceptions. Body hacking is, like all other forms of hacking, ultimately a form of violation: the freedom to enact your will upon a system.
Certainly, there are endless variations on visibly obvious body hacks, like piercing, tattooing, scarification and other more extreme physical modifications. While a few of these may serve a functional purpose, most are primarily cosmetic in nature.
I’m more interested in the concept of functional body hacking, primarily in the field of biomedicine, biotechnology, rather than pharmaceuticals which are an entirely different realm.
Remedial Care and Health Benefits
First, there are many biomedical changes that our current technology allows us to make to the human body that serve a remedial purpose. These are almost universally perceived to be beneficient. Advances like the pacemaker, the insulin pump, the cochlear implant for the hearing impaired, even laser eye surgery all provide improved longevity and quality of life for many patients.
There are also other biomedical advances that are not strictly remedial, but provide significant health benefits to those who can afford them. The IUD is an example of a physically implanted, long term birth control device. Weight loss surgery is another type of body modification, admittedly risky, that has improved health and quality of life for some patients.
A second class of body hack would include enhancements to look or physical function. This would include breast augmentation or reduction, hair implants or removal, bone lengthening or shaping, etc. Many legal and illegal pharmaceutical hacks fall into this category: ADHD medications for adult patients, steroids or HGH for muscle growth, etc.
Expanding the Frontier
The most intriguing area of body hacking, though, takes place in the new frontier, the blurry area between science fact and science fiction that has not been well mapped by humans. These frontiers are only intermittently being expanded because there are grave ethical issues surrounding experimentation on human subjects.
Quinn Norton, herself, set herself up as subject for one such hack. She had a rare earth magnet implanted in her fingertip. This seemed rather minor to me, but over time it gave her a sixth sense, a finger that felt electromagnetic fields along with the normal sense of touch, making her sensitive to electrical fields, computer hard drives, and other magnetic fields.
The Digital Tattoo Interface is a a subcutaneously implanted touch-screen, connected via bluetooth and powered by blood, that operates as a cell phone display. Can a working prototype of a dental implant cell phone, spoofed a few years ago as an April Fools’ joke, be far behind?
The FDA approved implantation of RFID chips in humans in 2004. RFID technology is amusing to write about, as it is fascinating bait for conspiracy theorists and privacy fanatics. These implants are currently being marketed as medical lifesaving devices, storing lifesaving emergency medical information, but the possibility for more widespread application is huge and more than a little scary.
Science fiction authors speculate about many near and far future possibilities, including but not limited to:
- Complete body transformations, including the ability to survive hostile environments.
- Removal of the need to sleep. Or eat.
- Mechanical organ replacement with re-engineered organs designed for increased longevity. Or efficiency.
- Ex utero fertilization and pregnancy. Parthenogenetic reproduction.
- Direct brain data uplinks with augmented brain storage space and retrieval.
- Data-link enabled telepathy.
- Human consciousness upload – to a cyborg body, or to a network.
The body hacking movement has adopted MakeZine’s owner’s manifesto: if you can’t open it, you don’t own it. Are there any body hacks you’d consider, or is your body a temple, something you’re not interested in altering or enhancing?