We've been modifying our appearance ever since we first figured out how to pierce skin with wood and bones. Today, our tendency to twist, morph, and expand upon our naturally given forms is very much alive and well, one that's been best expressed by the radical body modification community. And now, owing to the onset of new technologies, this subculture is ready to take body modification to further extremes.
Top image courtesy of Rachel Haywire, organizer of Extreme Futurist Fest 2012. All inset images courtesy BMEzine.com LLC.
To get a better sense of where body modification is headed, we spoke to Shannon Larratt, founder of the BME body modification website. Larratt is no stranger to cutting edge modifications; over the last twenty years he's had a wide set of piercings, scars, tattoos, implants, and surgical modifications. He's designed much of the jewelry and equipment involved, including the procedures themselves. Larratt is also the inventor of the very first ink-injection procedure for eyeball tattooing.
After speaking with Larratt, it became obvious that the future is very bright (and weird) for the body modders — one that aligns very closely to the techno-savvy biohacker and transhumanist communities.
What connection does the body modification community have with the nascent sub-culture of biohackers?
Biohackers aren't different from body modifiers at all — they are a type of body modifier. Body modification is the catch-all term, and inside that are many smaller and often overlapping subcultures. Tattooing is, of course, the largest and best known subcommunity inside body modification, and historically it has made the biggest impact to date on the human experience. But the biohacker subculture is just as valid — and I wouldn't be surprised if we look again in a thousand years, we could be saying that it was the biohackers who set in motion the evolutionary step that made us more than Homo sapiens.
That said, I will say that one of the things that makes biohackers unique from other body modification communities is that they are often more concerned with function than with form. I want to be clear that I am over-simplifying to an almost offensive degree, but tattooing for example, is all form. With the exception of shamanic tattooing that has a spiritual basis, tattooing is an aesthetic practice. Biohacking on the other hand is more concerned with the functional change or improvement the modification will give — they are the transhumanists of the body modification world. They seek to make themselves more than what they were. Not just prettier. But something new or expanded.
Do you know of any mods that would be of interest to the biohacker community, or technophiles in general?
One particular modification that is catching the attention of the biohacker and maker communities is RFID implants. These are the tiny RFID chips encased in a tiny glass sheath that do nothing more than bounce back an ID number — the same thing that a vet might implant in your dog in case they get lost. A small handful of people have built clever systems that use these implanted RFID chips to do things like create keyless access systems to their car, house, or computers.
However, from my point of view this falls into the "stupid human trick" category — a lot of fun, but not really that useful. Ignoring security debates about RFIDs — both how easy they are to hack and clone, and the fact that this turns you into a trackable individual — this type of thing is much better accomplished by fingerprint scanners and other biometric tools that don't require surgery.
For me where things get much more exciting is when people start implanting live electronics into their bodies. The medical community has of course been implanting electronics into people for a long time, pacemakers and cochlear implants being some of the most well-known examples, but the body modification and biohacker community is just now starting to play catch-up.
Can you tell us more about implantable electronics?
These days a growing number of people in the body modification community have extensive experience with complex implant manufacturing. The number of people interested in implants has grown large enough to include a great many people who have the technical skills required to design and build the electronics required. All the pieces are in place to do some really fun things. For example, I've always wanted to have an implanted wristwatch. Long ago I was a huge fan of LED and other futuristic watches, collecting the sort of stuff made by TokyoFlash.
Making a wristwatch implant would actually be quite simple. The electronics need to be as small as possible of course. Even though implants can be quite large (a single double-D breast implant has more volume than many laptop computers at this point), if the implant is kept thin it will be inconspicuous, perhaps even undetectable without touching it. So the wristwatch would be built with surface mount components in a tight package. The LEDs would easily be visible through the skin — it's quite possible that some small backlit panels could be visible through the skin but simple round or bar-shaped LEDs would be my choice for a watch.
One could do a numeric display, a geeky binary display, or even just use a single light and flash the time with morse code. You're probably not going to leave the light on all the time in order to preserve the battery, but triggering could be accomplished in many ways. An accelerometer could be used to trigger it with a specific arm motion, a pressure switch could respond to touch, or in my case, or a magnetic switch could respond to me waving my finger over it — there are many options, but whatever is chosen would have to be versatile enough to also allow the time to be set.
Finally — and this is the biggest issue — there's power. You could have yourself cut open have the battery replaced — but there's no need for that. Inductive charging is easy to build, and wireless chargers are commonplace these days — personally I would include such a circuit.
Wait a minute, won't the body reject these foreign substances?
Well, once the electronics are built, they definitely need to be made biocompatible. If you just cut a hole in yourself and stick in a circuit board, neither your body or your electronics are going to thank you. More importantly, both your body and your electronics will be in serious need of repair if you do this! As with neodymium magnets, which break down when they come in contact with the body, the solution is to not let them come in contact. This is done by coating the magnet or the electronics in a layer of biologically inert silicone.
It is of utmost importance that this step be done right, because the smallest point of access between the body and the electronics and the project will fail — possibly with medically disastrous consequences. This step needs to be done by someone with extensive experience with both mould making for implants with encased materials body modification. I can not emphasize enough that this is the most important step. If you screw up building the electronics, you've simply wasted your time. But if you screw up the silicone, you're risking your health.
All the pieces are in place for people to start getting some very exciting live electronics implanted. Everything is ready — all it takes is for an electronics maker to team up with an implant maker, and the snowball starts rolling. On a technical level, we are already capable of doing things like the implanted cell phones in the recent Total Recall movie. The future is here, just behind the bedroom door, waiting for us. All we have to do is step through, get in bed, and start.
Sure, this sounds great — but what about the risks?
Yes, of course, all of this is not without risk — significant risk perhaps. If a battery were to leak — let's not even think about exploding — and tear through the silicone somehow, noxious chemicals could be released into the body. Even in the best case scenario, the implant will have to eventually be removed, probably because it stopped working — to say nothing of obsolescence.
It's not going to be as fun to upgrade your cellphone every nine months if you have to cut it out of your hand first. In the early days there will be a lot of problems so doing as much testing as possible is important. For example, after the implant is built, letting it sit in warm body temperature salt water for a few weeks to make sure the implant is solid and that the electronics can handle the temperature and environment.
But even with the best testing, for the first few years, the guinea pigs need to know that things will go wrong and that they're treading unknown ground. For me, and I'm sure many other pioneers, this has always been part of the fun. Exploring dangerous new territory s a wonderful adventure, if a foolhardy one that many people don't understand the joy of and ridicule.
What about magnetic implants — tiny neodymium magnets that are implanted in the finger tip? Is this still a popular add-on?
Absolutely — magnetic implants have actually become quite common, and I would make a very rough guess that at least a thousand of them have been implanted. They work by creating a haptic interface. The magnet moves or vibrates when it is exposed to magnetic or electromagnetic fields. This can be felt by the same nerves that are used for touch, nerves that are extremely dense and sensitive in the fingertips. They are generally placed slightly to the side of the fingertip rather than centrally in the finger pad so that they don't affect function, and they're quite tiny, having a volume comparable to a grain of uncooked rice.
When the magnets move, you are aware of it, and it doesn't take long before this becomes a distinct sensation from touch. It doesn't just feel like having a tiny vibrator inside your finger, even though that's exactly what it is. It's more natural than that. For example, if you are feeling the electromagnetic bubble that comes off of a power transformer, like what your laptop might use, it feels like you're reaching out and touching an invisible bubble. That bubble has form (you can move your hand around to get an idea of the shape) and it has strength (the amount of power dictates how far the magnet is being moved inside your finger) and it even has "colour" (the frequency of the electromagnetic field alters how quickly the magnet vibrates).
All of this is processed on a subconscious level, and it really is like having a sixth sense. It's hard to describe just how wonderful this is — our world is so rich with electromagnetism. It's such an important part of the modern world, yet most people are blind to it. Sure, you know intellectually that it's there, and you can even detect it with various tools, but it's not the same as actually sensing it. Nor are the tools as fast or convenient.
Because I can feel the power running through cables (at household voltages anyway), and transformers are easy to detect, there are many times where I've used it to quickly diagnose hardware issues without having to pull out a multimeter. The sensitivity is high enough to detect a spinning hard drive engine through the keyboard of a laptop, or to feel a distributor firing in a car being repaired.
Of all the body modifications I've had, my magnets may be at the top of my favorites list. They're certainly the most profound in terms of expanding my world. I've had them for a bit over seven years, and I feel like if I were to lose them I would feel blind.
And what do you see happening in the more distant future?
The real holy grail of both biohacking and body modification is of genetically engineering humans and of building new body parts. We make massive strides forward in genetics every year, and we're getting to the point where we can "print out" new organs and body parts on a 3D printer, ready to implant and integrate into the body. These things are incredibly exciting to anyone into body modification — biohackers or not — but I think they will still be some time in arriving, and at least at first will come at a huge financial cost to say nothing of the medical risk. Either way, the human body has a very exciting future before it, both in the short term and in the long term.
However it ends up happening, I have no doubt that a slow merging of human and machine is in our future. Evolution does not move fast enough for our vision and dreams. Humans have reached a point where we are able to control our biological destiny, making us the masters of not just our health, but our morphology. I believe that body modification both prepares us and is an important first step into the undiscovered country.
Image of subdermal tattoo via GearFuse. Banner and bottom image: Rachel Haywire. All other images courtesy BMEzine.com LLC.