Biohacking
Growing Cult of the Enhanced Human

In 2009, artists Lucy and Bart produced a series of images that reimagined the human form by physically altering parts of the body with globules of foam, asymmetric spines, paper enhancements and even mounds of turf. The results were arresting and unsettling, as the artists explained: “Each transformed human looks blankly back at you, neither horrified or surprised or excited about their change of form, but merely present and allowing it to be shown to you.” Fast forward to the present day and these once startling photographs have gained relevance outside the artistic realm thanks to the burgeoning trend of human enhancement in the form of biohacking. The release of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, will no doubt pique people’s interest in a subject that is refusing to stay put in the world of sci-fi.

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Biohacking is a process that fuses biology with the hacker approach. By that I don’t mean exposing naked celebrity pictures and taking down North Korea’s internet.  This form of hacking enables a subject to integrate different parts of technology into the body which in turn creates a new type of human, a superhuman. As the name implies, extreme biohacking is a heightened version of this: microchips in the brain that allow the individual to view the world from a new perspective – a bit like wearing permanent Google Glasses. Fans of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror on Channel 4 will recall how the satirical series prophesied about the dangers of pervasive technology.

A more positive, real life example is Neil Harbisson, who is the first human cyborg to be granted permission on his passport to wear his antenna or ‘eyeborg’ as a form of identification.  For anyone that doesn’t know, a cyborg is a theoretical or fictional being with both organic and biomechatronic parts.  Harbisson was born with achromatopsia, meaning that he has never seen colour and can only see in greyscale. The antenna allows him to perceive visible and invisible colours through infrareds, ultraviolets and sound waves.  He recently became the first person in the world to have this antenna implanted in his skull. This special relationship between the eyeborg and Harbisson enables him to view the world in a unique way, making him a new kind of enhanced human. Harbisson says the eyeborg has become an “extension of me a new part of my body!” – Watch Neil Harbisson’s TED talk and you’ll be amazed.

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Neil Harbisson

The cult of biohacking has become a Internet sensation with biohacking communities popping up across the world. For example, London’s Biohackspace enables “enthusiastic amateurs and professionals with backgrounds in a broad mix of professions such as artists, engineers, biologists and programmers to carry out innovative bioscience projects.” 

wired.com
wired.com

One episode of Channel 4’s documentary series, Futurgasm, delved into the world of DIY hacking kits that allow you to implant magnets into your finger, giving you the power to draw metal towards you (think X Men’s Magneto, only punier). Great if you lose your keys but not if you have to open a metal door knob. For a mere $49 dollars you too can become a cyborg thanks to sites such as dangerousthings.com (‘custom gadgetry for the discerning hacker’) and biohackyourself.com, which advocate an enhanced lifestyle through biohacking.

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As a legitimate scientific exploration, biohacking isn’t going to hit the mainstream anytime soon –  in a way it’s fair to think of its enthusiasts as today’s tech answer to the 70s punk subculture. They too were perceived as radical for their extreme piercings, the only difference is that biohacking involves the plantation of technology under the skin. Although I am all for progression, I do worry about the ethical consequences of the Do It Yourself approach.  But who knows, this time next year we could all be walking around with iPhones embedded in us!

Watch Ellen Jorgensen TED talk on BioHacking and Cyborg America Biohacker Short Documentary (provided you are not squeamish).