Inside the strange new world of basement body hackers.
With the advent of the smartphone, many Americans have grown used to the idea of having a computer on their person at all times. Wearable technologies like Google’s Project Glass are narrowing the boundary between us and our devices even further by attaching a computer to a person’s face and integrating the software directly into a user’s field of vision. The paradigm shift is reflected in the names of our dominant operating systems. Gone are Microsoft’s Windows into the digital world, replaced by a union of man and machine: the iPhone or Android.
For a small, growing community of technologists, none of this goes far enough. I first met Sarver at the home of his best friend, Tim Cannon, in Oakdale, a Pennsylvania suburb about 30 minutes from Pittsburgh where Cannon, a software developer, lives with his longtime girlfriend and their three dogs. The two story house sits next to a beer dispensary and an abandoned motel, a reminder the city’s best days are far behind it. In the last two decades, Pittsburgh has been gutted of its population, which plummeted from a high of more than 700,000 in the 1980s to less than 350,000 today. For its future, the city has pinned much of its hopes on the biomedical and robotics research being done at local universities like Carnegie Mellon. “The city was dying and so you have this element of anti-authority freaks are welcome,” said Cannon. “When you have technology and biomedical research and a pissed off angry population that loves tattoos this is bound to happen. Why Pittsburgh? It’s got the right amount of fuck you.”
Cannon led me down into the basement, which he and Sarver have converted into a laboratory. A long work space was covered with Arduino motherboards, soldering irons, and electrodes. Cannon had recently captured a garter snake, which eyed us from inside a plastic jar. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been telling people that I want to be a robot,” said Cannon. “These days, that doesn’t seem so impossible anymore.” The pair call themselves grinders — homebrew biohackers obsessed with the idea of human enhancement — who are looking for new ways to put machines into their bodies. They are joined by hundreds of aspiring biohackers who populate the movement’s online forums and a growing number, now several dozen, who have gotten the magnetic implants in real life.
…Cannon got his own neodymium magnetic implant a year before Sarver. Putting these rare earth metals into the body was pioneered by artists on the bleeding edge of piercing culture and transhumanists interested in experimenting with a sixth sense. Steve Haworth, who specializing in the bleeding edge of body modification, and considers himself a “human evolution artist” is considered one of the originators, and helped to teach a generation of practitioners how to perform magnetic implants, including the owner of Hot Rod Piercing in Pittsburgh. (Using surgical tools like a scalpel is a grey area for piercers. Operating with these instruments, or any kind of anestheia, could be classified as practicing medicine. Without a medical license, a piercer who does this is technically committing assault on their person getting the implant.) On its own, the implant allows a person to feel electromagnetic fields: a microwave oven in their kitchen, a subway passing beneath the ground, or high tension power lines overhead.
While this added perception is interesting, it has little utility. But the magnet, explains Cannon is more of stepping stone towards bigger things. “It can be done cheaply, with minimally invasive surgery. You get used to the idea of having something alien in your body, and kinda begin to see how much more the human body could do with a little help. Sure, feeling other magnets around you is fucking cool, but the real key is, you’re giving the human body a simple, digital input.”