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Permanent Earbuds and Night-Vision Eyes: The Weird World of Biohacking

In an interesting article over at the Telegraph this week, writer Jamie Bartlett details a strange road trip to visit a convention of biohackers. Depending on your point of view, it’s either a thrilling peak into the future or the premise for a deeply disturbing horror film.

Biohacking, for the uninitiated, refers to intersections of the hacker ethic with matters of medicine, biology, and biotechnology. The term can refer to ethical issues around high-minded institutional research — genetic engineering, say.

But more often it’s applied to a radical subset of the DIY/maker community. These are the people who, impatient with pesky traditions like government regulations and clinical trials, hack their own bodies in the name of science.

One of the more infamous biohacking incidents took place just a few months ago, when an independent researcher injected his own eyeballs with a serum that granted temporary night vision. It also made the researcher look like a villain in a 1980s cyberpunk movie, but that was just a bonus, really.

These aren’t just random guys monkeying around, either. The researcher, Gabriel Licina, is a biochemist and part of a larger group of biohacking proponents calling themselves Science for the Masses. The group’s mission: to make “the tools and resources of science more available to the layperson.”

In the Telegraph article, Bartlett describes attending an informal convention of biohackers, or “grinders,” who regularly perform experiments and install upgrades on their own bodies. He meets various citizen scientists who have, for instance, inserted RFID chips under their skin, or implanted magnets in their fingers.

Why magnets in the fingertips? To feel electromagnetic fields, of course. No joke — those who have undergone this particularly painful biohack describe how a previously invisible world suddenly opens up when you have a tactile perception of the magnetic fields all around us.

Other grinders at the event demonstrated how they use implanted chips in their hands to automatically unlock their phone, or even start their cars.

A specific biohack currently gaining in popularity involves implanting permanent earbuds that can be paired with your smartphone or media player. To pull this kind of thing off you need to know what you’re doing, in terms of materials, and work with a body modification artist familiar with piercings and implants.

Like the activists at Science for the Masses, the participants at the convention — called Grindfest, by the way — are wary of ginormous tech or pharma companies wresting away legitimate scientific developments and hoarding them for profit. There’s an abiding open-source ethic in biohacking in which researchers publish their work online, for everyone, for free.

It’s all pretty compelling, and even quite admirable from a citizen-scientist point of view. Unless, of course, you have an irrational fear of needles, scalpels, or dripping 50 microliters of chlorophyll analog into your conjunctival sacs. Hey, science isn’t for the squeamish. If you’d like to ease into all this, maybe consider starting small. Just hack your 3D printer with a tattoo gun and stick your arm in there. No, seriously.

Glenn McDonald writes about the intersections of technology and culture at glenn-mcdonald.com and via Twitter @glennmcdonald1.