Hacking the Body

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.

What’s Next

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?

15 Responses to “Hacking the Body”

  1. Eric Says:

    I don’t know if it counts as a hack, but I do spend a lot of time, um, downloading porn into my brain….

    I guess that probably isn’t what you meant at all, is it?


  2. Jeri Says:

    You know, I did consider ED treatment as a body hack, but couldn’t decide where to list it – so left it off entirely. The same for gender reassignment treatment.

    The question is, Eric, do you simply view your porn through standard human eyes, or do you have a direct data link with a heads up display, superimposing ghostly, improbable X-rated images over your more mundane daily life?

    And to answer the body hack question myself – I have two pierced ears and no tattoos. A quasi bionic knee and a tubal ligation. I imagine before I hit my golden years I’ll be enjoying a knee replacement or two. Would I implant a cell phone? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that – and I’m really not going to be an early adopter. Same goes for in-brain enhanced storage capabilities. Beyond that, I’m not sure that I’d be very comfortable with such technologies…

  3. mattw Says:

    I don’t have any body hacks, unless you count the removal of a wisdom tooth a hack.

    It all sounds cool, but when I came down to it, I don’t think I’d want something inserted into me. Unless it gave me some form of super power, then I could be all for it.

    My father-in-law is totally blind due to diabetes and he’s looked into (no pun intended) the various surgeries to try and restore even a small portion of his sight, but there’s something that would prevent these procedures from working. He’s had body hacks in terms of transplants, and that doesn’t sound fun at all.

  4. Nathan Says:

    I’m all for any type of replacement “now known or hereafter devised”. Need an artificial heart? Go for it. Titanium knees? Why not? Artificial Eyes? By all means.

    I don’t like the idea of replacing anything just because the artificial is “better”. And it all brings up the question of competition. Remember the double amputee who wanted to compete in regular track meets? They disqualified him because his artificial limbs gave him an “unfair advantage”.

    As to the implanted cell phone? I won’t be lining up for that. I don’t even want the to wire the subways for cell phone reception. I need a break from my own calls and especially everybody else’s.

    And folks who want little metal horns on their head? Or forked tongues? That just creeps me out. Knock your brains out, but please don’t work the counter at the 7-11.

  5. Ilya Says:

    I’d love to re-sculpt my body in an image of a Greek God, but I seem to have displaced my genie lamp, and the traditional methods bore me interminably…

  6. Eric Says:

    The question is, Eric, do you simply view your porn through standard human eyes, or do you have a direct data link with a heads up display, superimposing ghostly, improbable X-rated images over your more mundane daily life?

    I’m not sure if that would be awesome or just creepy. I’m leaning towards creepy.

    To actually answer the question: no, I don’t have any body hacks. Which will be awesome in 2012, when I’ll be able to cast powerful spells without risking massive Drain damage because I haven’t lowered my Essence with mods.

  7. Janiece Says:

    Like Nathan, I would totally replace failed components with artificial ones.

    But I wouldn’t replace for the sake of replacements.

    I also have pierced ears and four tats.

  8. Michelle K Says:

    I want a digital plug into my brain so I can directly upload data, and access things like my calendar alarms.

    I’ve got pierced ears and that’s it. I’ve wanted a tat for years but never gotten around to it.

    My grandmother has two artificial knees, and although they’re better than what she had, the do have a reduced range of motion. Why is this important? Because if she falls, she has to lift herself backwards onto a chair.

  9. mattw Says:

    On a somewhat completely unrelated note, the Masons in Illinois have the ILChip program, which is used to help the authorities find children that go missing or are abducted. It has nothing to do with chips of any kind, but some of the dumber members of our species see the name and assume the Masons are implanting chips into people to control their minds.

  10. Nathan Says:

    I forgot that piercings count. I have a pierced ear, but I haven’t worn a earring in almost five years.

  11. MWT Says:

    Hmmmm. Unless pulled teeth do count, I have none whatsoever.

  12. Vince Says:

    I have a plate in my right ankle, put there when I broke it a couple of years ago. As I am not a fan of needles (in fact, I hate them and they hate me, and don’t tell me they can’t hate me – I know better), and had never had surgery before, I did everything in my power to convince them that surgery wasn’t necessary. I lost. They offered to do a spinal as opposed to putting me asleep. I chose the sleeping part. I can not conceive of being awake and knowing I was being cut on. I suppose there are drugs that would keep me from freaking, or given time, mental/breathing exercises that might do the same, but I doubt it.

    I have no problem with replacing failed body parts/organs. I guess if someone can afford it out of their own pockets and want something more, I have no problem.

  13. Jeri Says:

    Interesting. We are a fairly unhacked bunch. And – I don’t think that pulled teeth, wisdom or otherwise, probably count. ;)

    Ilya, if I could achieve pain-free, reasonably priced body sculpting, I’d be there — but if it was readily available everyone would be doing it.

    And Nathan, I agree with you on extreme body modifications. They are a part of a certain subculture but they do make more mainstream folks cringe… especially the some of the more alien mods. There’s a certain point, I think, where the owner of such mods has be discarding all thoughts of any kind of customer facing or white-collar professional life.

  14. Beast Mom Says:

    I just keep thinking STEVE AUSTIN.



    I think bionic legs would be cool. And that bionic eye deal too. I also wouldn’t mind an UNpainful version of Wolverine’s metal hand claws. Nobody would mess with me then. ;)


  15. Carol Elaine Says:

    I have pierced ears and I’d like to get a couple of tattoos, but that’s about it, unless something needs to be replaced.

    I’m not creeped out by other modification – I have a friend who is seriously into tats, piercing and the like, though the only mods that are really visible are his ear hoops. Maybe I’ve just seen a lot of it, so it’s not a big deal to me. But my friend works for the USGS and doesn’t do a heck of a lot of business with the public.