Media Sensationalism in Bodyhacking
The popular media image of bodyhacking owes more to video games than real life. Prosthetic-limbed pop stars and ambiguously science fiction influenced fashion have given impressions real and false about the state of the art. Often, what is purely aesthetic will be incorrectly identified as “bodyhacking.” EEG headsets reading muscle movement in faces and causing robotic limbs to move will be described as “mind-controlled” prosthetics and will claim advances in technology that are probably years away for most people.
There are some interesting stories in this space, no doubt. There are grinders dripping untested chemicals in their eyes to give themselves night vision, hackers enhancing their brains with carefully curated selections of vitamins, neutraceutical vendors hawking their wares. You have self-taught electricians working with medical silicon making human-implantable tech and then getting under the skin of their friends and customers. Most of this, by definition, is at the edge of both technology and legality and the media takes the opportunity to make a big deal out of it.
Media sensationalizes this stuff because it generates a lot of ad revenue. But more than that, they sensationalize it because the atavistic impulses that led people to go to freak shows still exist- there’s pressure in the media to point out the more extreme examples in any field of human endeavor and ignore everyone who’s not going full JC Denton out the gate. Inevitably, this could lead to a pretty predictable feedback loop in which the most extreme members of the community demand the lion’s share of valuable media attention, leading them to promise ever greater feats of radical disregard for safety, and so on. Luckily, most of the leaders in bodyhacking have tread carefully.
The Chief Information Officer of Grindhouse Wetware, Tim Cannon, famously had a massive implant under the skin of his arm – the Circadia. The massive bulk of the thing was a consequence of its function as a testbed, as an intentional experiment intended to be removed. Nonetheless, the removal of the implant was widely interpreted as a sign of failure, the implant being lambasted as impractical. Of course, the fact that this led to a new generation of implantables based on that testbed didn’t play into the matter. What mattered was that someone tried something that looked scary, it didn’t last forever, and it was easier to report it as a failure than acknowledge that science is a process.
This is a continuing problem. Media sensationalizes and summarizes the action and research, and even the results become suspect as the least comprehensive research is treated as gospel by journalists who out of a desire to find a big story end up following the implications of a piece of work farther than can be supported. This is true in most realms of research and endeavor but particularly bad for the bodyhacker cause, because the stuff that we do involves two things just about everybody has – a body and a desire to be better.
There are a couple examples of this becoming pretty significant, implications taken a bit far. Take for example the case of recent experiments with night vision chemicals from Science for the Masses. The stuff itself is pretty interesting. But media coverage all focused on an image of Gabriel Licina with black contact lenses in – several representing it as the actual effect of the drug, as opposed to a semi-incidental solution for helping to saturate the eye. The visual drama drowned out the real nature of the innovation, the real research being done. And the end result was a bunch of ill-informed articles about seeing in the dark that neglected the real complications inherent in messing with your eyeballs, which Science for the Masses made serious attempts to inform people about.
There’s another component here, of course. The content treadmill always needs new material. Misrepresenting bodyhacking as some kind of nihilistic drive to self-demolition or wild transhuman abandon is understandable, but shortsighted- especially considering the mainstream traction these ideas are gaining even now. While there’s that possibility inherent in the movement, every movement, subculture, and sect has within it the threads of a bizarre deviancy – the nature of humanity is such that there’s nothing we can’t turn to both good and bad.
Every time there’s a new project, product, or initiative in the world of bodyhacking, the world gets a notion that someone is pushing technology outside their comfort zone. Then you get to see a whole lot of journalists writing what amounts to speculative fiction about how in the future we’ll all have drones instead of hands- a troubling adaptation, to be sure, but hardly the most likely outcome. (Although, I must admit, it sounds pretty rad.).
But the majority of the bodyhacking community are not atypical – unusual, perhaps, but hardly radical, or cultists. They tend to be people who embrace the unstoppable human urge to improve. A lot of bodyhackers are technical people, people who have trained themselves to see the world as a series of systems that can be improved upon. Even the body, from the right point of view, is just DNA software running on a protein substrate. Pushing the limit to become a better person is something everyone does- bodyhackers just have better data.
The cliche of “bleeding edge” is especially salient when we have real people with real scalpels experimenting with transdermal charging, lighting, and data transfer. The lines between art, science, medicine, and science fiction becomes less a divider and more a spirograph, intersecting in strange new patterns. Of course, each new intersection will provoke a cry of outrage of one kind or another, but the evolving pattern is clear. Humans want to be better, and will be, and hacking the way our bodies work will be part of it- and along the way, if a few shrieking headlines and scary pictures of implants get emailed around, so much the better. Life should be sensational.