In tattoo parlors and basements around the world, people are turning themselves into cyborgs by embedding magnets and computer chips directly into their bodies.
They call themselves biohackers, cyborgs and grinders. With each piece of technology they put beneath their skin, they are exploring the boundaries — and the implications — of fusing man and machine.
Welcome to the world of biohacking.
It's a niche community at the literal bleeding edge of body modification, and it attracts fervent fans from a variety of schools of thought. Some simply enjoy experimenting with new tech. Others use the magnets and chips for utilitarian purposes. A few, paradoxically, see it as a path to get back to nature.
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For cyborg Zoe Quinn, a well-known developer in the independent video game world, the magnet and chip in her hand have become inseparable from her body and her identity.
"Being a cyborg is just who I am now," Quinn told NBC News. "To get [the magnet or chip] removed would be like losing a sense at this point, losing part of me."
"I realized, oh my God, I'm feeling my hard drive."
Gaining a magnetic or electronic "sixth sense" isn't easy. Doctors won't perform the implantation, so would-be biohackers generally turn to body modification shops, which are usually part of tattoo parlors and can't legally offer anesthesia. Others perform the amateur operation on themselves.
Many cyborgs get the technology embedded in their fingers or hands, where the skin is thin enough for the devices to interact with external objects. Those with magnets can sense magnetic fields around them; a contractor, for example, can find studs in a wall. Stick a computer chip under the skin and it can do a lot of things: send data to smartphones and other devices, open specially outfitted doors, act as permanent headphones embedded in a person's ears and do anything else the chips' creators may dream up. Even the U.S. government is working on a device that would be implanted in the brain to restore memory.
It's an experimental world that Quinn entered in October 2013, when she and a roommate traveled from Boston to New York City to get magnets in their fingers. Quinn's roommate went white and sweaty when the technician used his scalpel to cut about a centimeter into the top of her finger and insert the magnet.
"It was like my finger had exploded," Quinn said. "The whole thing takes just a minute, but it was the longest minute of my life."
But the payoff for her pain was immediate: "As soon as [the technician] was finished, he touched his magnet to mine. It was totally worth it to feel that tug, that pull," Quinn said.
"The whole thing takes just a minute, but it was the longest minute of my life."
The real joy for Quinn — a 26-year-old who grew up in a small Adirondacks town and became enamored of video games when her father bought a console at a garage sale — came when the wound healed about two weeks later. She felt something strange one night when she was working on a game on her computer.
"It felt like I'd put my hand against a can of something really carbonated," she said. "I realized, oh my God, I'm feeling my hard drive. I can feel this whole new dimension of the tools I use to make my art. It was beautiful."
Precursors to today's cyborg date back to the 19th century with tales like "Frankenstein," and modern sci-fi pop culture has been consumed with characters like RoboCop, the Bionic Woman and the Terminator. The jump from the bolts in Frankenstein’s monster's neck to real-life biohacking started with early pioneers like Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics professor at the University of Reading, who in 1998 had a silicon chip surgically implanted in his forearm.
Biohacking became a small but strong movement thanks mainly to body modification artists like Steve Haworth who were already skilled in piercing and scarification — and they were aided by our changing relationship with technology. Is it really so extreme, they ask, to wed technology and tissue in a time when we can't go a single day without our smartphones? We clutch our devices like talismans, wear Google Glass on our faces and have developed doors that unlock by tracking our heartbeats.
But the leap from Google Glass to sub-dermal technology is a big one, and real-life cyborgs are far from mainstream.
"You get this visceral reaction, this recoil, from people who make a snap judgment and don't know what it's about," said Amal Graafstra, a cyborg who creates and sells biohacking devices — including a chip that Zoe Quinn implanted in her own hand in May — through his company Dangerous Things.
Just $39 buys a glass-encased embeddable chip that works with some Android smartphones. A full DIY cyborg kit, including a sterilized injector and gauze pads, runs about $100.
"Some people see the body as a spiritual vessel not to be tampered with," Graafstra told NBC News. "And some people understand their body is their own, treating it like a sport utility vehicle. I see [biohacking] as, I got fancy new fog lights on my SUV. "
"Some people understand their body is their own, treating it like a sport utility vehicle."
Graafstra, like several others in the biohacking community whom NBC News interviewed, mentioned the acceptance of pacemakers when dismissing criticism from the public and medical community.
"Doctors are OK with technology as long as it's restorative, getting you back to what they consider normal," Graafstra said. "As soon as you talk about technology to enhance, there's a chord of fear that I don't fully understand."
He understands "jamming a piece of technology into the skin is hard for some people to grasp" — but both he and Quinn said the stigma is so strong that people have called them "crazy."
But Dr. Barent Walsh, a self-injury expert who is the executive director of human services clinic The Bridge of Central Massachusetts, said he "wouldn't pathologize" biohacking.
"We generally don’t see tattoos and piercing as self injury, partly because it’s a planful process," Walsh said. "[Biohacking] seems to be an extension of that. There have been lots of experiments around the parameters of the body."
The Cyborg Foundation is a four-year-old nonprofit that aims to break the stigma through biohacking projects, education and outreach. The group is the brainchild of one of the most well known cyborgs: Neil Harbisson, a colorblind artist who had an "eyeborg" antenna implanted directly in his skull in 2003. The antenna converts color into sound waves that allow Harbisson to "hear" the hues.
Neil Harbisson, a colorblind artist who had an "eyeborg" antenna implanted directly in his skull.
"We want to make people understand why we find it normal and natural to have technology in me," said Harbisson, who calls himself a cyborg activist. "I feel closer to insects who also have an antenna, to animals who can sense ultraviolet and infrared color. It's natural. We want to normalize the word 'cyborg' and show it's not about sci-fi."
"It's not necessary to hack into the body to become a cyborg. We are all cyborgs already."
But, like any subculture, not all members agree on the future of the movement. Isa Gordon is an artist who explores "creative cybernetics" in a performance as a persona called Psymbiote. While performing as Psymbiote, Gordon dons a suit with outfitted with various technology like sensors that show her heartbeat on her sleeve.
Gordon considers herself an academic of the cyborg movement, but she doesn't believe that technology must be beneath the skin to achieve cyborg status.
"It's not necessary to hack into the body to become a cyborg; we are all cyborgs already," Gordon told NBC News. "When you send an email, you are engaged in a system of control of communication between man and machine. That is the definition of cybernetics. It's very clearly in the present day."
For those who consider cyborgs to be those who have sub-dermal implants, though, the future is less clear.
Graafstra, the Dangerous Things founder, believes big tech companies like Apple and Google will ultimately buy startups in the biohacking space and create implantable medical devices, fitness trackers and other consumer tech.
As for the current generally negative reaction from the public and the medical community, Harbisson — the artist with the eyeborg — likens it to the taboo of sex-reassignment surgery several decades ago. He believes the environment will shift for cyborgs as well: to "more general acceptance" by the 2020s and a bit more mainstream by the '40s and '50s.
Whether or not the fusion of man and machine becomes as common as the smartphone, Gordon warned, the ubiquity of technology demands that we rethink what it means to be human.
"Technology is changing our world drastically, and the body has to become something new in order to navigate that new landscape," Gordon said. "Will it be a monster, or a thing of great beauty?"
First published July 11 2014, 1:45 AM