As a computing term “hacking” has negative connotations as it relates to someone illegally gaining access to your computer or computing device, and stealing information or engaging in other malicious activity. But biohackers are loathe to be defined in the same way and prefer their kind of hacking to be viewed in a positive light and understood for what it is — do-it-yourself biology.
As the phrase suggests it’s pretty accessible to just about everyone and is not restricted to fancy research centers or research departments of universities and biotech firms. It actually happens mostly in small laboratories with all kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds meeting to do what they call ‘exploration of biology’. This exploration of biology could range from trying to find out how a plant can be manipulated to produce light in the dark through addition of genes emanating from a different source to try to find out how the growth of a plant is affected by their DNA.
Other terms also used in reference to biohacking include garage biology, citizen biology, amateur biology, basement biology and hobbyist biology. Biohackers have also been referred using other terms such as biopunks and grinders.
While biohacking does and can involve other non-intelligent living organisms, the sort of biohacking that has drawn the wider interest is self-biohacking. This is basically biohacking into oneself and getting control of your body systems to add or manipulate functionality in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Some bio-hackers have hacked their body systems in a bid to improve their cognitive abilities, alter their health and even their weight.
Biohacking is not in the mainstream of science or technology, and licensed doctors or surgeons won’t of course assist anyone to alter their bodies in such ways because of the risks involved. So biohackers have two options – to turn to artists who practice body modification or go the DIY route. And, since biohacking calls for incising one’s own body, practitioners become amateur surgeons in their own right.
Some biohackers do it in their kitchens using such basic equipment as scalpels and needles. They will even improvise on what they use to sterilize their equipment and use alcoholic spirits like vodka. And, because anesthetics might be expensive to some, they choose to cut up their bodies without any anesthesia. There’s the risk of always passing out in pain and some usually have a spotter just in case it happens and they need help. Isn’t that dangerous? Yes, but bio-hackers prioritize intellectual curiosity over their health and are willing to pay whatever price, including a lot of pain, to reach their goals. After all they are the biocurious.
Pushing the boundaries and limits
Some of the bio-hackers who hack their own bodies do it with one and only one aim — to rise above the average capabilities of a human being and attain a state that could only have been imagined possible in a work of science fiction. You could say bio-hackers think human beings are evolving too slowly and need some help and so are working to speed up evolution and take humans to another level! Currently there are two popular ‘biohacks’.
- Inserting small magnets under the skin in order to attain such capabilities as the ability to detect the presence of electromagnetic fields with one’s own body as well as being able to lift tiny magnetic objects.
- Implanting RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags under one’s skin that can be used to open doors without a key and also access computing devices and services as well as storing data.
The growth of the bio-hacking movement can be partly attributed to the falling costs of both the equipment and the technology needed to engage in it and also in the services such as DNA sequencing. And, because it is not limited to highly-educated individuals holding advanced degrees in bio-engineering or some other biology-related discipline, its rise and expansion can only continue.
Investing in the bio-hacking sphere
To take advantage of the business opportunities presented by bio-hacking, one of the areas startups that are being formed is in provision of microbiome sequencing services to biohackers. Investors are investing in startups to sell a range of the RFID and magnetic implants that grinders need. There are also those selling the tools necessary for safe implantation.
One of the issues the anti-biohacking crowd raises to rally against the practice is that augmenting our bodies goes against the laws of nature. Another concern that has been raised is the possibility of creating an ‘augmentation-divide’ or if you like a sort of ‘augmentation-inequality’ (just think income inequality). This is whereby a gap starts to emerge between those who have been augmented and those who haven’t with the augmented having an unfair advantage over the un-augmented. It is feared that this would lead to two divergent human races. But to address this concern, the grinder community has worked to ensure hardware remains open source and that information and resources remain freely available so that anyone with the interest and intent can join in.
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