MAYBE SHE’S BORN WITH IT…MAYBE IT’S CYBERNETICS
The field of “bodyhacking” has an unlikely ambassador—a Spanish performance artist named Moon Ribas who is redefining the relationship between technology and humanity
If someone were to ask you if you wanted a superpower, you’d probably say yes. In fact, you’ve probably already got one in mind that you think would suit you well: the ability to become invisible, to move things with your mind, to fly, to see the future, to read people’s minds and know what they’re thinking, or to teleport from one location to another in an instant.
For New Yorker Moon Ribas, the power she wanted was extremely specific: to be able to feel whenever an earthquake was happening anywhere in the world. To make that dream a reality, the 31-year-old Spanish cybernetic artist and activist helped design a microchip that vibrates whenever seismic activity is detected. Implanted in her arm, it communicates with a customized iPhone app—which in turn is connected to geological monitors around the world—and responds to earthquakes so small (anything over a 1.0 on the Richter scale) that even people standing right on top of them wouldn’t feel anything. But Ribas does. With over a million earthquakes that minor happening every year, the vibrations happen fairly constantly, several times an hour. When asked if it ever annoys her or wakes her up at night, she says that at first it did, but after three years, she’s gotten used to it. “It’s like I have two heartbeats,” she says.
Ribas is a member of the growing “bodyhacking” movement. Also known as grinding, bodyhacking is a bastard child of technology and body modification. It grew out of transhumanism, a movement that originated in the 1980s and seeks to improve upon human abilities through technology. With implantable technology becoming increasingly available and inexpensive, some are choosing to become “cyborgs,” aka human beings with technological devices implanted into their bodies. A cybernetic implant—as of right now at least—doesn’t offer any of the traditional superpowers that fans of comic book characters or Harry Potter might be craving. In fact, many within this community would consider any device that changes the way your body functions to be “cyborgian.” This includes anything from a hearing aid, to an IUD, to a microchip.
While Ribas’ earthquake monitor is an artistic creation unique to her, there are also more common “cyborg implants” currently on the market. The most popular implants are a tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip and near-field communication (NFC) chip, both the size of a grain of rice, usually inserted under the skin between the pointer finger and thumb, which allow the user to unlock their phones and doors with a wave of their hand. The chips—similar to those implanted in pets to identify them in case they become lost—can store information or use electromagnetic fields to identify things that are tagged with electronically stored information (like a password or an electronic key), and send a signal to those devices in order to get them to do something.
Another common implant is the insertion of a magnet into the tip of a finger, allowing the user to feel magnetic waves coming from microwaves and other electronic devices, and which makes the finger itself a little magnetic.
These bodily enhancements can be implanted easily by a professional piercing shop, or for free at “biohacking” conferences like BodyHacking Con in Austin and Bulletproof in Pasadena, both of which attract thousands of attendees looking for info on how to boost human performance.
So why are people doing this? Their reasons seem to be as varied as the cyborgs themselves. For Ribas, implants are part of her artwork and allow her “to perceive space in a different way, and to feel closer to nature.” Many of her ideas for implants and accessories come from senses that animals have that we lack. For instance, Cyborg Nest, the company Ribas co-founded, is currently developing an implant that will allow people to feel where magnetic North is, the way geese do when flying North for summer or South for winter.
While we’ve gotten used to being practically attached to our smartphones, having technology placed inside of us may seem, to some, like a bridge too far.
Sheer curiosity can be a motivator as well. Quinn Norton, 43, a tech journalist based in California, got a magnetic implant in her hand when she was writing about cyborg culture in order to feel what it was like to have one. “The magnet moved in response to magnetic fields, and over time, my brain came to interpret that as a magnetic sense,” she says of the experience. “It was triggered by many things—electrical wires, strong refrigerators, other magnets, and so on.”
Ribas’ hope is that more people will start seeing implants as normal, and that new bio-innovations will be viewed as a good thing. “We can learn a lot about nature through technology,” she says. Outside of enthusiast circles, however, even the most basic cybernetic devices are viewed with mounting suspicion. The first few listings that come up in a Google search for “RFID chips” are conspiracy theory sites accusing President Obama of harboring secret plans to either implant them into all citizens for some sort of mind control project or into members of the United States military in order to create “super soldiers.”
That is probably not happening. It’s also pretty unlikely that the United States government is going to require everyone to get a chip implanted as a way to buy and sell things, as some apocalypse-minded paranoids claim. But even those who aren’t conspiracy theory buffs may still feel a little squeamish about the idea of having a “cyborg” implant in their bodies. While we’ve gotten used to being practically attached to our smartphones, having technology placed inside of us may seem, to some, like a bridge too far.
Perhaps a large amount of our hesitance to embrace cybernetics comes from the fact that, in the media, the practice of using technology to modify ourselves is often presented as a metaphor for our collective loss of humanity. In a 1964 episode of The Twilight Zone titled “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” every citizen of a futuristic society is required, at a certain age, to pick a new, uniformly appealing face and body and undergo a mysterious process which also, conveniently, alters their personalities and makes them more compliant. Needless to say, this was not an aspirational vision of the future. Similarly, in television shows like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and Chuck, main characters with cyborg parts immediately become spies for the government—whether they like it or not. Hell, even Inspector Gadget had a government job!
But despite these depictions, not one of the many cybernetics experimenters—Seattle-based startup Dangerous Things has sold more than 10,000 RFID chips since 2013—is a secret government spy (that we know of). Nor are they in danger of losing their humanity. On the contrary, cyborgs like Ribas are using technology to become even more human, by becoming more in touch with the world around them.
For example, Ribas’ first cybernetic accessory was a pair of “speedborg” speedometer earrings that enhanced her sense of movement by allowing her to sense the speed of people walking in front of her through vibrations. Traveling the world with these earrings allowed her to feel the different ways people move in different cities. In Italy, particularly in Vatican City, people moved slowly, whereas, not surprisingly, in New York City, people moved very quickly. In a way, this tool helped her feel more connected to the people around her. Later, by adjusting the sensors of the earrings and turning them around, Ribas was able to “feel” people moving behind her, opening up her sense of spacial awareness. Her current projects, she says, will allow her to feel sensations from satellites and the moon.
There are, of course, more practical uses for cybernetic technology. Google has filed a patent for a cyborg implant for the eye that will correct vision without contact lenses or glasses. And several patents have been filed for implants (and even tattoos!) that can monitor blood glucose levels in diabetics. Microchips Biotech, Inc., a medical device company funded by the Gates Foundation and headed up by Cheryl R. Blanchard, is in the process of developing chip implants that could deliver medication right into the bloodstream. Implants to help the blind see, the deaf hear, to replace lost limbs— they’re not just some distant possibility, people are creating them and starting to use them already.
Back in 1998, Dr. Stuart Meloy, a New Jersey-based anesthesiologist and pain specialist who was experimenting with remedies for chronic discomfort, inadvertently created a spinal implant that can help those who have lost the ability to orgasm. The Orgasmatron, as of right now, is very expensive. But Meloy is working on adjusting the design in hopes of getting the price down, so the implant can become more widely available.
It all sounds very futuristic. But maybe you’re already a cyborg and just don’t realize it. Brooklyn-based writer and self-identified cyborg Rose Eveleth—she has an RFID chip in her hand that allows her to unlock her phone and car—recently made waves in the grinder world with an article for Fusion.net that asserted that there are actually far more female bodyhackers out there than males. Why? Because an IUD birth control implant isn’t all that different from what is now referred to as a “cybernetic implant.” We just don’t think of them that way because we’re so used to them. But, strictly speaking, they’re a piece of technology implanted into our bodies that changes the way our body functions, which is essentially what cyborg implants do, too.
Eveleth isn’t the only person making connections between the cyborg lifestyle and birth control. Norton says, “I was recently asked at a body hacking conference in Texas what the biggest issue in cyborg rights was, and without hesitation, I said it was access to birth control and safe abortions. Nature doesn’t provide this for women, so women’s rights are indelibly and forever tied to being able to be the cyborgs we want to be.”
But the options for cyborgian birth control don’t stop at IUDs. Researchers at Microchips Biotech have also been working on developing a new form of implantable birth control—a small chip that would only need to be replaced every 16 years—that could be turned on and off at will by the user. Can you imagine living in a world where something like that is an affordable and effective option for women everywhere? Or even better, provided free of cost by the government? It would essentially eliminate the problem of unplanned pregnancies forever. Those who work for companies like Hobby Lobby would never have to worry that their employer could deprive them of effective and affordable birth control. Not to mention not having to worry about hormones or taking a pill every day.
Yet despite these exciting developments, women in the cyborg community are still relatively rare. In the time that she’s been covering the world of cyborg implants, Eveleth says she’s seen more women become interested in cybernetics, but not necessarily participating. She says it could be due to broader societal factors, like, “who can take medical/bodily risks, who can spend a lot of time researching and thinking about totally unnecessary implants, and who has expendable income for something like this.” Whatever the reason, the vast majority of those independently creating implants are men, so it’s not surprising that they are the ones experimenting with them the most.
Norton suggests that the gender imbalance in the cyborg community is at least partially due to the gender imbalance in technology in general. “A lot of grinders and body modders belong to the tattoo and piercing scene, which has more gender balance,” she says. “But the more [body modification] is linked to technology, the more it becomes a sausage fest and reflects the technology industry.”
Nonetheless, there are still a few notable female cyborg pioneers who staked a claim for women in the early days of biotech experimentation. Lepht Anonym, a biohacker based in Berlin who now prefers not to use any gender pronouns, has been performing self-surgery and experimenting with RFID chips, transdermal temperature sensors, and magnetic fingertip implants since 2008. Zoë Quinn—a high-profile video game developer who was targeted for harassment during the Gamergate controversy of 2014—has showed off the magnet and chip she implanted in her own hand to reporters from NBC News, made YouTube videos documenting the implantation, and answered bodyhacking questions on her Tumblr. And bioengineer Rita Paradiso, a former presenter at BodyHacking Con, has been experimenting with clothing with embedded sensors that track body data like EKG signals, respiration patterns, and other stress indicators since she joined the Italian company Smartex in 2000.
When it comes to bridging the bodyhacking gender gap, a cybernetics advocate like Ribas has an important role to play. Both otherworldly and relatable, her creative use of the medium transcends any notion that women can only access this brave new world through their vaginas. As a choreographer, Ribas is always experimenting with movement, building performance pieces around her cyborg implants. One of her projects is a dance performance titled “Waiting for Earthquakes,” in which she allows the earth to choreograph the dance for her. More in the area of fine art, a replica of her arm, which also senses earthquakes, has been exhibited in several galleries. Cyborg art, she says, is “a new way of creating.” And that should be exciting to everyone, regardless of gender.
Whether they are used to create art, give us orgasms, have greater control over our reproductive lives, or just open our phones and doors, it’s clear that cybernetic implants can be beneficial to women. It might be a while before we line up for them in droves. But who knows? In the future, maybe Ribas will be proved right, and cyborg will become the new normal.
By Robyn Pennacchia
Photos by M.Sharkey
Makeup by Candice Forness
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2016 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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