Want to Sense Electromagnetic Fields? Biohackers Look for New Sensory Experiences


The following is an excerpt from the new book We Have the Technology by Kara Platoni (Basic Books, 2015): 

It's Friday night, and the denizens of Grindhouse are going to RadioShack. They cut odd figures in this suburban Pennsylvania shopping center, where the harsh fluorescent lights expose them as basement-dwelling creatures. Wiry, pale, bespectacled, these underground engineers are founding members of the biohacker group Grindhouse Wetware. But Tim Cannon and Shawn Sarver are also minor celebrities around here, partly thanks to many late-night forays to this very electronics outfitter, and partly because of how much of its inventory is lodged in Cannon’s arm. The minute they walk inside the building, the guy at the mobile phone kiosk eagerly waves them over so he can check out their latest project: a thermal-sensing implant buried in Cannon’s lower arm. The implant is a silicone-encased slab about the size of a deck of cards, and it lights up like a Christmas tree. You definitely can’t buy anything quite like this at the mall.

Grinders are biohackers who build body-modifying, or “body-modding,” gear in an effort to enhance human experience. Tonight they need parts for building an implant to put in Sarver’s hand. They envision a star-shaped insert that will glow brighter whenever he faces north, turning his hand into a kind of compass. This, they hope, will endow him with a not-quite-innate, but still improved, ability to gauge direction.

“Do we need anything else?” Cannon asks, sifting through drawers of electronic components, bits and pieces to modulate the flow of current. “We’ve got resistors by the dozen.”

“Yeah, we have plenty of resistors,” agrees Sarver. They call to each other across the aisles as they browse for parts to add to their stash of lab supplies. Jumper wires? They can always use more. Circuit boards? Sure. Piezo transducer? “Excellent,” says Sarver.

Once the grinders have bagged their wares, they stop at a diner where they onboard many fluid ounces of the nerd fuel of choice, Mountain Dew, and get ready to head down to their basement. There, they’ll see if they can Frankenstein themselves a new sensory experience.

Grindhouse members are, to put it mildly, underwhelmed by the perceptual apparatus that comes with the standard-issue human body. They see the relative dearth of sensory ports open to us—only five: taste, smell, vision, hearing, touch—as a problem to solve. And even these five have their limits. Why can’t we catch up to our colleagues in the animal kingdom and sense the polarization, or directional patterns, of sunlight, the way some bats, birds, and bugs do? Or feel electricity like sharks can? Or pick up ultraviolet wavelengths like the lowly mantis shrimp?

Grinders are the electrical engineering arm of an exploratory community of citizen scientists more broadly known as biohackers. Although computer hackers have a bad reputation for malice or sabotage, biohackers use “hack” in the positive sense of a helpful trick or fix, and I’m going to follow their lead. Biohackers are interested in the organic world, rather than the silicon one of computers. Thanks to the easy availability of genetic engineering information on the Internet and the falling price of lab technology, some biohackers are tinkering with the DNA of plants and bacteria, a practice known as DIYbio, or “do-it-yourself biology.” Others try to upgrade their bodies with specialized diets, nutritional supplements, and wearable biometric gadgets that help them track and optimize their sleep, workouts, energy levels, or brain fitness. And grinders: They hack themselves. They are part of a body-modding community that goes well beyond decorative tattoos and piercings. The most ambitious among them are trying to outfit themselves with new machineries of sensory perception.

But whatever their method, biohackers are driven by an urge to create, to enhance, to supersede the ordinary. Nature is amazing, they readily concede, but couldn’t it be more so? As Cannon puts it midway through his third Mountain Dew: “Why not mess with the body?”

The grinders’ explorations are fueled by a steadily boiling, if perfectly affable, impatience: impatience with the weaknesses and limitations of the basic human unit; with the slow pace of evolution; with the unwillingness of major research corporations to develop—and sell—the kind of sci-fi sensory apparatus that biohackers desire to keep things moving along. Their inspiration—and the grinder name—hails from Warren Ellis’ Doktor Sleepless graphic novels. The series, which began in 2007, portrays a hardscrabble underground populated by body modders: Shrieky Girls who share a sense of touch through networked devices buried inside fake teeth and fingernails. People who instant message each other via their contact lenses. Couples with palm implants that let them feel their beloved’s heart beating in their hand.

Doktor Sleepless is a mad scientist (of course) who, through late-night radio, exhorts the grinders to invent a future no one else will. “You can rebuild your own fucking bodies at home with stuff you bought from the hardware store,” he urges them. “You’re grinders. While you wait for the real future you think you’re owed, you fuck around with your bodies like they were virtual-world avatars. You add things to them. You make them better. You treat them like characters to be improved and you grind them.” Grindhouse’s mantra is also borrowed from the series: “Where’s my fucking jet pack?” It’s a cri de coeur born of out of frustration with a future that, so far, looks a lot like the past.

And so they’re trying to hurry up a better future for perception. Grindhouse denizens have implanted magnets in their fingertips in a bid to sense electromagnetic fields. They developed a device that works with these magnets to create a kind of sonar that gauges the distance of nearby objects. The lump in Cannon’s arm is a first stab at reading out internal health metrics; if it works, this implant will monitor his temperature. Up next on the Grindhouse wish list is an in-hand compass, a voluntary mutation for anyone who’s ever envied a homing pigeon.

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