Body Alchemy: Let’s Hack the Microbiome
First, think of flesh and blood as a machine, preferably the latest model thing, the flashiest device, that scientists regard as fact, not metaphor – the one that technocrats all claim will usher us into a world of leisure. As of 2015, that thing is the computer.
Yesterday, it was the steam engine. Tomorrow, it will be another thing entirely; and when that comes, will we still speak of “bodyhacking” like we say “I blew a gasket” or “I need to let some steam off,” relics of our language we don’t literally mean, the way we did a hundred years ago?
Then, draw a line somewhere to demarcate where body ends and world begins, informed by step one’s metaphor: computers are all linked together, drawing on each others’ CPU, accessing distributed data, and about as useful as a rock when separate from the cloud-based services and power lines that animate their matter. Human beings, similarly, cannot exist without the three percent of human body mass comprised of micro-organisms living in our guts, we ought to think of our internal coterie of germs as part of what makes us what we are.
(Perhaps it’s not a stretch to say our bugs are “software” that determine how we operate – the evidence is pouring in that microbiomes modulate our moods and allergies, our weight and health and energy. Our thoughts and feelings are dependent on their action. It makes equal sense to flip the metaphor, and say the software bots that roam and run the Internet are germs – a sentiment contained by The Atlantic columnist Alexis Madridgal’s neologism “microbotome,” meaning all those wild lines of code that live in servers, interacting out of human oversight, every bit as crucial to our lives online as our intestinal ecologies are to our everyday well-being.)
So, humans are computers, sort of, and computers are, in equal measure, organisms. Now we are equipped to think and talk about how to “hack” our microbiomes, which are basically an organ of our bodies.
By far, the leading player in this game is uBiome (“Get Sequenced”), a DNA sequencing startup poised to claim some of the greatest acreage in the “land rush” for personally-tailored gene-based healthcare. For quantified-self biometric tracking fans, uBiome is a kind of holy grail – the kind of company that only happens once converging revolutions in technology allow routine, repeated peeks into our ever-changing ecosystem of bacteria, enabling fine-grained study of how diet, exercise, and other habits change the little world inside us, and – thanks to the giant pool of data they collect and collate – how those changes will affect the “human” at the hub of all this swirling change.
For readers who remember Tamagotchi, imagine that your microbiome is the “pet,” and uBiome allows a kind of gamified relationship to your internal universe. Except the interface is poop – we’re living in a world that none of us would have believed ten years ago, where human fecal transplants are transforming how we think of and perform medical interventions, a major hack if ever there were one. In fact the Center for Disease Control will team up with uBiome in 2016 to sequence over 10,000 stool samples, amassing data on how standard allopathic practices like penicillin, chemotherapy, and junk food hinder our “hardware’s” built-in self-correcting systems. Studying the finer, more complex effects will teach us just how much of this extended definition of the self that we have lost (and can regain) in our attempts to distance “civilized” existence from the biosphere.
Hacking our microbiota also helps us find the cheat codes. Maybe we can “overclock” digestion and extract more nutrients from food. We will almost certainly evolve beyond the ecocidal sanitizer gels and soaps that ruin our immune systems, replacing them with friendly germs to fight the bugs that make us sick. Imagine when Prozac and Zoloft are a thing of history, because we’ve mastered using serotonin-boosting flora as a psychiatric treatment. Perhaps, as Charles Eisenstein’s suggested, these hacks can cure the modern epidemic of autoimmune disorders allergies and asthma, atherosclerosis, eczema and Crohn’s disease, maybe even forms of autism and cancer. When apps are living creatures, amazing things are possible (and also the inevitable novel horrors: customized assassin vectors keyed to ethnic groups or dietary demographics are only one example).
But wait, there’s more! It turns out DNA is probably the most secure and lasting data storage medium. Imagine your descendants hiding banned books in their probiotics. Imagine them “downloading” a new states of consciousness à la BitTorrent style, distributed through populations, activated when we come together in sufficient densities for parties.
We don’t have to wait to hack our point of view, because this scientific revolution is a revelation, also: that we are nodes in some vast planetary network like the living internet in Avatar. We know now that entire tracts of “human” genes (as well as those of other animals, like octopi) have origins in other organisms, transferred horizontally to us through our bacteria and viruses. The evolutionary narrative that genes are only passed down through the generations has unraveled, and through contemplation of the microbiome, the computer/organism metaphor yields to its replacement: “technology as ecosystem, ecosystem as technology,” which finally collapses the apocalyptic and illusory divide between the wilderness and city.
Guided by this new and more sufficient metaphor, geo-engineering is a kind of bodyhacking, since we are the planet’s microbiome. Fractality is a defining trait of ecosystems. Does the dawning world of companies like uBiome imply a global mind, a Gaia (or Medea?) that regards us as we do E. coli? And if so, could we talk to it?