Journalist turns to ‘body hacking’ in search of a ‘sixth sense’

You have to tip your hat to journalist Alex Pearlman, who writes about emerging science and technology. She decided to find out more about the transhumanist movement by having a magnet implanted in her finger, she writes today on WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog.

It’s also called “body hacking,” and perhaps you caught the feature story on it on NPR last spring, which documented attempts to transplant technology into humans to improve whatever evolution hasn’t. It’s rife with ethical questions.

Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley and a contributor to NPR’s 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog, has written extensively on what he calls “cyborgian naturalness.” He disagreed that the modern philosophers dropped the ball, saying that tackling the matter would involve unpacking two questions:

Is it OK to cut into human bodies for these kinds of experiments?

How much tolerance should society have for artificially enhancing the body?

To the first question, Noë said he found the “body hacking” experimentation on humans “ethically disturbing” and couldn’t fathom a doctor or any other scientists conducting these kinds of operations.

The second question was more complicated.

“We don’t condemn people for using glasses to see better,” he said. “But we do start to think taking speed to cope with your work life is questionable.”

Pearlman writes today that she felt she couldn’t properly write about why people do this sort of thing unless she, too, had a magnet implanted in her finger to feel the sensation of having a sixth sense.

Intrauterine devices (IUDs), too, are legal surgical implants with the ability to affect human biology. Essays by technology journalists Quinn Norton and Rose Eveleth point to the cyborgian nature of implanted birth control methods and argue that chips and magnets should be treated no differently.

I loved the magnet. It was incredible to feel electricity around me. The “zap” and “buzz” I felt in the nerves of my hand was a high. I became elated whenever I came into contact with a machine and felt my magnet respond. I loved freaking people out by picking up safety pins just by running my hand over them, and feeling the inner workings of my steering wheel, my laptop and my microwave was a revelation.

I emailed or talked to Cannon and Watson daily, giving updates on the magnet’s status, sending photos and asking about the inflammation, colors, and feelings of my finger, attempting to document every moment of life with an implant.

While many citizen scientists do keep meticulous records and publish many of their logs online, there is a dearth of information from the many hundreds of individuals who have implants and don’t track their reactions. Collecting data on the experience of implants only help make a case for legalization, and grinders should encourage each other to document what materials and techniques work best, how and why.

After 12 days, however, her body rejected the implant. She was devastated, she says.

But she says from such failure comes leaps in technology.