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The Girl with the Augmented Body and a DIY Manufacturing Habit

Reddit user SexyCyborg is a web developer who lives and works in Shenzhen, China. She is also a 3D printing enthusiast whose projects include a wrist mount for her tiny drones and a hot-pink replica of her own body. As her username implies, SexyCyborg has body modifications, the most prominent being her breasts. She explains in her Pastebin FAQ:

“I could not get longer legs (height is most important in China) so I decided a big chest was the next best thing for looking better (or at least more interesting). I am a transhumanist with an interest in any kind of human augmentation. Any robot parts I can get I would — that’s why ‘Cyborg’.”

She tends to dress in very short crop-tops, tight denim skirts, and stripper heels. Because she combines technical prowess and unusual aesthetics, SexyCyborg has gotten copious attention — some of it admiration, but most of it slut-shaming. (Just look at the comments she’s responded to on Reddit.) She maintains that the norms are different in Shenzhen, and the puritanical reactions come from Westerners.

Again from the FAQ:

“I live in a city of 12 million and not a single other person has my style [of] clothing or my body mods. I don’t know a person in my profession who looks like me. As a creative person that is a source of pride, as person living in a society [where] we are taught from an early age to value conformity above all else it is also very challenging.”

Given all of this context, I reached out to SexyCyborg for an interview. We messaged back on forth on Reddit. As usual, the following exchange is lightly edited for readability.

SexyCyborg in Huaqiangbei, the Shenzhen Electronics District.

SexyCyborg in Huaqiangbei, the Shenzhen Electronics District.

Exolymph: How did you get into 3D printing?

SexyCyborg: In June 2015 we had our yearly Maker Faire here in Shenzhen. I decided to make some LED clothing for the closing night party — LED clothing is a tradition at Maker Faire parties. I didn’t really know what I was doing, just plugging some off-the-shelf stuff together.

I had a LiPo battery that I planned to just stick in my pocket, but some of my friends told me that was not safe. I’d used TinkerCAD a little bit, so I watched some more YouTube videos and made a little box for the battery. Actually took a lot of tries to figure out how to get the screws to work. It was a good learning experience. I borrowed a little Up! 3D printer that had been unused, sitting in a box at a friend’s place, and got to work.

The end result got a lot of attention, or I did, or some combination of the two. I’m not an engineer or anything, and seeing your picture online in other countries is pretty cool for a regular girl who’s never traveled further than SE Asia.

After that, well, if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. So I got into the habit of making little things for around the house or little toys for the neighbors’ kids. 3D-printed things are still a big novelty for most people, so you get a lot of face giving them as gifts and being able to use a 3D printer.

I try to make a point of focusing on functional prints. Too many people just download and print endless Yoda heads and other “standard” designs, which defeats the purpose of having a printer. It’s like being one of those guys who owns a fancy expensive DSLR camera and talks all about bodies and lenses but never really takes good pictures for people to enjoy.

Exolymph: Do you see parallels between software or web development and the process of designing and making physical objects?

SexyCyborg: I’m sure there are but all my code is for work and all my hardware stuff is for fun. The code stuff is just basic contract work — code monkey stuff. So I don’t get to be very creative. The hardware is where I get to do what I like. Using OpenSCAD is kind of fun though (in moderation) since it’s pretty much coding a physical object.

Exolymph: Have you ever thought about making objects for sale or anything like that?

SexyCyborg: Could happen. Our firewall issues here in China are making writing decent code pretty tough these days. It’s hard to stay up-to-date and hard to have any sort of a workflow when VPNs are so flaky right now. Even the best coders use Google — a lot. Mostly I prefer to open-source all my designs as a sort of statement to other Chinese about giving back to the online communities that have given us so much. If I could do that and still earn a living it would be great.

Exolymph: Do you resent the amount of curious attention that your body mods get? Some of it is pretty abusive, from what I’ve read in various Reddit threads, and then there’s a lot of ambiguous attention that could be interpreted positively or negatively. For example, I probably wouldn’t know about you if it weren’t for your body and style of dress, and I’m sure there are a bunch of other 3D printing hobbyists who I theoretically could be interviewing, but they don’t intrigue me like you do because the way you present yourself is perceived as provocative by Americans. You’ve said that you like attention and that you like being aesthetically unique, but I wonder if it ever feels like a burden, or just plain gets annoying.

SexyCyborg: Well, resent like, “My eyes are up here!”? No, of course not, that would be ridiculous. But as with tattoos, piercings, scarification, etc, there’s a line between, “Huh, not really my thing, but okay,” or even, “OMG you look so freaky!” and forming a circle around someone and screaming abuse.

If someone says, “Sooo, you know in the West we associate this style with sex workers, right?” I know they are not deliberately trying to get a rise out of me or be hurtful. If it’s more like, “Fuck you, whore, you should be ashamed of yourself,” as is very common, there’s no real discussion or curiosity. It’s about, “What can I say to hurt this person?”

Lots of comment threads for my projects or pictures start to look like what hackers call fuzzing, almost random combinations of epithets, references to sex work, to promiscuity, to rape, to my parents, to my culture — to see when something or some combination of things has an effect. I have a better firewall than most people, though. None of it is in my mother tongue, so it does not really run on bare metal, as it were.

I still feel I need to respond because if I don’t their narrative of “oh she dresses this way and then complains about attention” gets repeated elsewhere as if it were truth. So it’s more a question of using up bandwidth that could better be devoted to talking about the project, having a laugh about the silliness of it all, or working on more interesting things.

So yeah, it’s annoying, but what you guys consider “the internet” is just “the English internet” to me. The Chinese one is almost as large and they like me just fine. If a bunch of people in, say… Japan hated you, after a certain point it’s pretty easy to just not visit Japanese websites.

So when the “oh that’s fun” to “die in a fire, whore” ratio gets too unfavorable, I just stop posting. That’s what I did last year and I’m sure I’ll do the same again at some point. That’s just me, though. Obviously online harassment is a really complicated discussion in the West and not one that I can really comment on.

Exolymph: Do you have any new body mods planned? In a theoretical world where any tech was possible, what would you change / augment?

SexyCyborg: Cosmetically I’d love a butt, of course, but the implants look terrible to me and I don’t have anywhere near enough body fat to graft, which is how the best butt jobs are normally done. Injectable fillers are generally unsafe or at least poorly tested. I’d love longer legs but again — poor track record for safety and not looking to spend a year in recovery. So no cosmetic plans for a while.

As far as functional, I know someone with an NFC implant. It’s fun, but it seems pretty silly to poke holes in myself for under 1kb when I have 1600cc of empty space just sitting there. Enough for 1000 terabytes or so, assuming 128gb micro SD density. Maybe if they increase the NFC implant memory size a bit, or deal with the battery and charging problems of powered implants. Maybe something for audio in the mastoid bone with an SDR? Seems pretty far off.

Good magnetic implants would be awesome for fashion and wearables. Safe coated magnets should be a done deal by now. I have no idea why we have not solved this or what the hold-up is. I could keep thigh-high socks in place without clips or needing to pull them up; pubic and tailbone magnets would mean stringless bikini designs. Maybe something near the collar bone for a top or magnetic pasties. Polymagnets would deal with a lot of the issues around power. Rotate to release or hold at a fixed distance without compressing the skin. But we can’t get any of that without safe, well-tested, and durable coatings for the magnets.

Exolymph: Have you always been interested in technology and transhumanism?

SexyCyborg: Not really. Like most Chinese, I led a pretty sheltered life until I was eighteen or so. Fortunately my English is okay and I had access to VPNs, so I was able to learn more about the world than most, although I have never been to the West so I’m certainly not worldly or anything. But coming from both a very homogenous culture and a very high-tech region, the desire to be different from the ten million people around me and to use science to achieve some of that difference both had a big appeal as I matured.

Exolymph: What do you think of the breathless coverage of Shenzhen as a tech manufacturing mecca in American media? Does that reflect the reality of living there at all?

SexyCyborg: It’s nice if not entirely accurate. The whole “Maker City” thing is odd since we don’t have any. Wikipedia says, “Maker culture emphasizes informal, networked, peer-led, and shared learning motivated by fun and self-fulfillment.” In Shenzhen, making is either product development if you are an adult, or a structured curriculum if you are a child. There are almost no Chinese makers in Shenzhen doing it purely as a hobby. I’m pretty active in the community and I have not met them.

Our makerspaces — the few real ones we have — are primarily for educational purposes. We have a couple of places with laser cutters or a small 3D printer for the kids to learn on, but there’s no place you can go swipe a card and use real machine tools in the middle of the night like lots of other major cities have.

Because of this, Chinese spend rather a lot of time online speculating on how I am monetizing my adventures and what company is “actually” behind me. Even a year later, when it’s pretty clear that I would be the worst stealth marketing campaign ever, it still drives them nuts trying to figure out my “angle”.

As far as most Chinese people’s thinking, hobbies are for old people. If you have seen newspaper articles about actual Chinese makers — who have made homemade robots, dialysis machines, submarines, prosthetic arms — they are nearly all older or retirees. Young people in China just don’t have the time or freedom usually.

When you are young there is a huge amount of pressure from your parents to have children, which means getting married, which means buying a house, which in Shenzhen means making a lot of money. So most Chinese feel they really don’t have time for the “play” which really is the essence of making.

On the other hand, if you are working on a hardware startup or just want to get stuff made, then sure, I think Shenzhen is pretty unbeatable.

It was a pleasure to read SexyCyborg’s expanded thoughts. Go upvote her on Reddit.

Archival links, since social media pages are prone to disappearing:

Conversion Ratio

The following short story was written by ReTech and edited for this venue.

Bright neon Wheel of Fortune machine in a casino. Photo by La super Lili.

Photo by La super Lili.

Swen saw the glow from his forearm underneath his shirt. He’d muted his phone, so now someone was pinging him. It was almost an even bet: either his boss or Sully. After a long week it felt nice to be offline, even if it was only for a few ticks.

“Should’ve muted ’em both,” Swen thought as he slid his sleeve up. The loop was swinging underneath the south pass of the Rockies so the cabin dimmed for a moment as the lighting adjusted. His dermdisplay lit up his face as he read: WTF? Need to talk ASAP. You don’t just get recoded and go offline like that. Lemme know where you are. Ping back dammit. (-.-) Sul

Sully might be genuinely worried or he might think that he’d be on the hook. After all, Sully was the one who took him to the clinic, so maybe he was feeling nervous. Swen thought, “I’ll let him sweat till I get to the strip. It’s only twenty more minutes.” He smiled and muted his arm in the same motion as slipping his sleeve back down. The flesh no longer glowed.

Fourteen days ago Swen’s hours had been increased at work. He was given no say in the matter. He was on mandatory rotations for the next three years. Swen had gotten shafted with the most depressing job he could imagine: death-sitter. More accurately, or more officially, “Hospice End-of-Life Observer”. People were too busy to give a shit about a dying family member and headchats just weren’t the same as holding a hand.

Since 2031, WellSys had mandated death-sitters as part of their Grace in Dying initiative. Marketing had originally called it Dignity in Life and Death Options. Apparently not a single person working on the multimillion-coin campaign had abbreviated that. Exactly two hours after the campaign hit the feeds, DILDO was pulled and rebranded as the GD hospice plan. The lesser of two evils.

Thirteen days ago Swen held the hand of a 147-year-old woman who did not receive one call, one text, a single feed mention, nor have anyone claim her things after she died. This was not the sad part to Swen. Millions died like that every year. What made him maudlin was that he’d end up in a bed the same way, in a hundred or so years. The thought of some young forty-year-old sitting with him as he died, just because the kid had to, was repulsive enough.

But the thought of an adventureless life nauseated Swen.

Twelve days ago, he asked Sully if he still had friends that recoded. Swen didn’t try to get Sully drunk first. He didn’t do it over dinner or in some coy fashion, just-so-happening to mention the topic in conversation. Instead Swen walked into Sully’s apartment, smiled, said hello, kissed him lightly, and asked matter-of-factly: “Can you get me in touch with a recoder? I’m tired of being on basic and I want to make enough money so I’m not stuck anymore.”

Sully paused mid-breath for a moment. A slice of black hair slid down over his left eye. He didn’t bother to push it back. He didn’t even bother to breath until his brain reminded him to. Then, slowly, he sputtered: “Is this legal money or illegal?”

Swen’s smile broadened. “It’s legal if you win it.”

Read more

Fecal Inquiries: DIY Medicine & DIY Ethics

Josiah Zayner is a self-described biohacker who used to work at NASA and now runs a company that sells home science kits. He’s suffered from painful gastrointestinal problems for years, so he decided to conduct a DIY refresh of his gut bacteria. There’s no need to dance around this: Zayner consumed his friend’s shit in pill form. (For more background info, check out The Fecal Transplant Foundation’s website.) Arielle Duhaime-Ross wrote a fascinating article about this radical effort.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic for The Verge.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic for The Verge.

Zayner wasn’t deterred by the medical professionals who unanimously thought his idea was terrible:

“Of the nine biology and medical professionals [the journalist] spoke with, every single one stressed that Zayner’s experiment could make him very sick. Zayner vowed not to analyze his donor’s feces — it contradicted, he said, the DIY ethos of the experiment and could make the project seem less accessible to laypeople. As a result, he was putting himself at risk for hepatitis, rotavirus, and a whole slew of other pathogens and parasites. And his decision to take antibiotics to kill his own bacteria before the transplant was risky, said OpenBiome’s Osman. Some people carry C. diff without any symptoms; if Zayner was one those people, disrupting the balance in his gut could enable C. diff to flourish — and the consequences of that could be life-threatening.”

Spoiler alert: Zayner is okay so far, and he reports that his gastrointestinal problems have improved. (Anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but not entirely meaningless.) His stated motivation of encouraging science as a means of liberation is admirable:

“I just want people to be able to be free. Free to explore this reality. I think all other freedoms come from this one. Freedom to have access to information and tools and resources. It is hard to oppress people without controlling what information they possess.”

Zayner’s point is reinforced by the panicky behavior of dictators — see Turkish president Erdogan’s current absurd (but terrifying) attempts to curb criticism of his regime.

Zayner also did a Reddit AMA after the article was published. One commenter critiqued Zayner’s “vigilante” approach because it didn’t contribute to the scientific community’s aggregate knowledge:

“The fact that the general populace think your results mean something doesn’t mean anything. They don’t have the scientific background to draw conclusions from your results. […] The fact that you cannot publish your results [in a peer-reviewed journal] means prominent members of the scientific community disagree with what you have done, and are saying your results cannot be trusted.”

Zayner disagreed with this characterization, responding:

“Just because the authority is not doing something, or does not believe in something, does not mean it is not possible or doesn’t exist. Every scientific discovery has ended decades of ‘actual scientists’ being dead wrong.”

Personally, I think we need both. We need university-sanctioned studies and we need biohackers. We need work that establishes ground rules and work that pushes limits. Luckily, both will persist.

Brief Thoughts on Androids, Cyborgs, & Humanity

Horror drawing of androids by Apo Xen.

Artwork by Apo Xen.

“Most remarkable is David 8’s increased emotional capacity, which allows him to seamlessly adapt to any human encounter. Weyland has also fine-tuned David 8’s expression mapping sensors, engendering a strong sense of trust in 96% of users.” — Weyland Industries (the company from Prometheus)

Horror drawing of androids by Apo Xen.

Artwork by Apo Xen.

Androids are a parody of humanity. We design them in our image. We give them — and their software equivalents — our names. Sarah is the theoretical lifeguard bot, and Charles is the helpful museum attendant. Ava is the manic pixie dream bot turned indifferent assassin. David is the sociopathic HAL 9000 redux. Their personalities are stereotypes constructed around particular job roles.

We build and (fantasize about building) human-looking machines that are programmed to ape us, often replicating our weaknesses as well as our strengths. But of course androids cannot feel what we feel. They can’t even see what we see, because computers don’t identify images in the same way the human brain does. Layers of mathematical analysis learn to recognize pixel patterns, but they can be fooled by tweaks that seem silly to human eyes.

Cyborgs, on the other hand, are not so much an imitation of humanity as a gritty extension of it. (In case you’re not familiar with the distinction, an android is fully robotic, whereas a cyborg is a flesh human augmented by high technology.) We already live in a world of cyborgs — prosthetics and IUDsheart monitors that can be hacked — and the more speculative DIY experiments aim to add a sixth sense to our arsenal.

I feel much more comfortable with cyborgs than I do with androids. Why is that? Is it because contemporary androids are still mired in the uncanny valley? When there isn’t as much of a disconnect between robotics, machine learning, and genuine human behavior, maybe I won’t be able to tell the difference.

Or maybe androids will become the norm, because why give birth via vaginal canal when you can avoid it? Cyborgs will stand out as antiquated oddities, still based on blood and bones instead of upgrading to silicon and steel. Parents will generate their infant’s mind based on a random data seed, then tweak the variables until the result is acceptable.

It’s Warm, Like Flesh

The following article was written by Mike Dank (Famicoman).

As technology evolves, the line between science and science fiction starts to blur. At one point, the thought of space travel or even micro-computing was only a dream of the future, yet it became a reality within or before our lifetimes. More and more, we find ourselves questioning if something is real or only exists in thought — a pie-in-the-sky dream of hopefuls or holdouts. We are starting to find that the future is now, whether we are ready for it or not.

A video about a modular life-form grown from human cells made its rounds on the Internet only a few weeks ago. In the video, you are first presented with a couple of slabs of meat on a stainless steel counter. Cut to a scientist who introduces you to “OSCAR”, a modular human-like organism. We see Oscar get assembled: a brain module (literally a black box of electronic components) is plugged into a heart module is plugged into a lung module is plugged into a kidney module. With each insertion, we see the creature twitch, pulsate, or squirm. Then limb modules are added and Oscar awkwardly crawls around in search of warmth.

This Cronenberg-esque video was both terrifying and fascinating. With imagery straight out of eXistenZ (1999) or Naked Lunch (1991), we watch this organic creature struggle and writhe as it gains access to new organs; this is body horror from our fever dreams and darkest nightmares. It seems real, real enough, and a large number of people believed that the video was legitimate. After making the rounds on Facebook, it was eventually discovered to be content from a science fiction web series — not a promotional video from a medical lab deep in the bowels of some no-name organization.

What does this say about the state of our society? Is it not too far-fetched to believe that someone can grow living organs, link them together, and have the resulting life-form instinctively move around the room? For years we have been influenced by news on advancements in scientific fields such as biomedical and biomolecular engineering. From the infamous WWII Soviet propaganda film Experiments in the Revival of Organisms (1940), where a dog’s head was kept alive independent of a body, all the way up to the famed 1997 Vacanti mouse, with what looks like a human ear on its back, we have been shocked and mystified by the promises of science, especially its perversions. Even today we see cables from the relatively new field of tissue engineering with scientists poring over lab-grown meat cultures to be used as food or refining bioartificial liver devices constructed from animal cells.

Are we going to see this type of work packaged and sold to the consumer in a glossy box anytime soon? I don’t think so. I will admit, it would be incredibly interesting if I could head down to my local Best Buy and pick up Samsung’s new bio-hacking kit so I could grow my own cells and build a life-form as casually as I would order Sea-Monkeys from the back of a comic book. Imagine an organic branch of littleBits, selling you packs of organ and tissue for $99.95. What about a biopunk hacker who wants to grow himself a new eyeball with better night vision? This opens things up to more political and philosophical controversy.

While the video wasn’t real, we may not be lagging too far behind the concept of a modular body, speaking technologically. As the line between fact and fiction flickers and fades, we see the potential for groundbreaking scientific advancements for the human race, and unhinged scientific experiments stemming from the simple question, “What if?”

Our world may not be ready for Oscar.

Not yet.

Now go read everything else Mike Dank has written.

Go Ahead & Change Bodies; Just Remember To Take Your Soma

The following story was written by Reddit user ehwut in /r/blastfromthefuture, and is being distributed here with permission. Lightly edited for this venue. You may notice that the style slips in and out of newsiness — I must chasten you to remember that the journalistic habits of 2064 will differ from our own.

Pamela Greensbury is a member of a human group once thought extinct: a stay-at-home mother. Whenever her friends brag about their accomplishments since the introduction of Kindercryo chambers, Pam feels horrified. “I keep thinking, what happened to a normal childhood? Watching cartoons, playing in the yard, going to school? Today, kids learn everything in their dreams. They miss out on so much.”

Pam’s objections echo the headlines we were accustomed to back when decades-old VR academy brands were first becoming household names. Her peer group regards her as the economic equivalent of lifelong lunar pioneers wobbling and fumbling under full Earth gravity. Pam told me, “No one remembers the work that a full-time live household requires. For choosing a traditional path, I was nearly isolated, and became a kind of quaint thing kept around for decorum.” She says that she has few friends.

Photo of Navajo children playing from the US National Archives.

Photo from the US National Archives.

We seldom hear their stories, but mothers who share Pam’s frustration with our twenty-four-hour work culture are more commonplace than we may think. Last year, the SomaCo plant strikes across New Jersey were mostly led by women who professed to be frustrated with being denied their natural range of emotion. In Beijing there are rumors of armed revolt by couples who demand a right to private intimacy as a matter of humanist faith. Have we tread down a path our species was never meant to go?

Doctor Rowan Johnson of the Center for Economic Culture may have the answer. “We tend to forget the struggles of the past once they’re over with. At one time, women couldn’t vote, men were expected to solely shoulder the bloody cost of war, and parents had to maintain nearly endless reserves of energy and discipline to raise their children in person. Kids played, yes, but they also got hurt. There were vaccination objectors, cultural battles between the genders, epidemics of abuse in various forms, and totally out-of-control rates of anxiety disorders.”

“Now, we are free to pursue our goals. We contribute to society every waking moment, our children are safe, and yet women object to the loss of their motherhood role. Men feel displaced in a culture that no longer provides them with any gender-specific role expectations. We may not always see the resentment there, bubbling beneath the surface of our collective social consciousness, but it is very real. National mood regulation has failed to correct this. We might as well face the truth — the alternative seems to be a return to the old days of social calamity.”

Perhaps no longer. Doctor Johnson has worked for thirteen years to perfect what his research team calls the ultimate solution for personal freedom. Through a combination of applications of nanomolecular manufacturing, gene therapy, and a minimal number of implant procedures, volunteer subjects have been gifted with the ability to take total moment-to-moment control of their physical identities. A simple interface allows users to change their gender, fine-tune their physical attributes, and even (despite much controversy) change their race.

“This is the true end of the gender divide.” Doctor Johnson beamed as he showed off a set, which the FDA is expected to rubber-stamp this December. “We can revert to the old way of doing things without disadvantage, due to attributes previously beyond our control. If our work reaches the mainstream, then matters of old contention such as equality and social injustice can be mitigated with the touch of an icon. Does somebody think they’ll be discriminated against for their gender? Then they can take on the appearance of the opposite gender for work and go back to their natural looks when they get home. Is there evidence of disproportionate law enforcement? Then adopt the characteristics of the privileged race while in public. Never before has the individual had such power to overcome social obstacles.”

Photo of a protest marcher from the US National Archives.

Photo from the US National Archives.

But not everyone is convinced. Pamela Greensbury seems like a natural fit to advocate for this solution, which might draw people back into the physical world, but her testimony before the Senate Human Augmentation and Enhancement Committee proves otherwise. “We cannot sacrifice our individuality and diversity to save ourselves from ourselves. We will only adopt new problems! What happens to private relationships when the people you meet in public aren’t who you think they are? What will the psychological effects be when people feel forced to hide their race or gender in order to succeed? We’ve gone too far down a dangerous road already by sacrificing our nature to eliminate problems. Hiding from those problems is no solution either.”

Doctor Johnson was reached briefly for comment. He sighed and said, “Take away the root of these problems, and somebody complains. Give people the tools to mitigate discrimination with the freedom to live however they want at home, and somebody complains. Let people figure it all out for themselves, and somebody complains. Solve problems through regulations, and somebody complains. Anybody who doesn’t like our work doesn’t have to use it.”

It’s too soon to guess whether we’ll see a new kind of diversity or just continue as usual. The market will be the ultimate test. In the meantime, we may be wise to question those who stand in the way of progress. On her way out of the Senate chambers, Pamela Greensbury was arrested for mood regulation noncompliance. A spittle test administered by security at the entrance to the building proved that not only has she not taken her soma in recent months, but she has never been treated. CPS is investigating allegations of neglect, but has not commented on whether her children’s mood regulation needs were being fulfilled.

Once again, I encourage you to join the subreddit and upvote ehwut’s story. Thanks to fellow Redditor and sub moderator mofosyne for directing me to this piece.

Personality Piracy

Let’s play with a hypothetical. Imagine that personality traits are akin to software, and you can download them into your brain. They’re like WordPress plugins — you search through a marketplace of both free and paid options, then install and activate them. Congrats! You’re now smarter, or you have a sardonic sense of humor, or you’re more cautious when evaluating risks.

How would this system be monetized? I assume the hardware for interfacing with your brain would be purchased outright, or maybe you’d sign a two-year contract and make monthly payments. Perhaps the government would subsidize your purchase, as long as you promised to modify your personality in ways that they favored, such as boosting your docility. (Prisoners, needless to say, would have “healing” modules forced on them, developed at the taxpayers’ expense.)

Photo by Cory Doctorow.

Photo by Cory Doctorow.

Some of the personality plugins would be available for an upfront payment or a recurring subscription. Others would be open-source, free to anyone and audited by the community. The most popular ones would be nominally free but monetized by advertising. For example, maybe you can gain eight IQ points, but in exchange you have to love Coca-Cola. You know why you love Coca-Cola, but it doesn’t make a difference — you still love it. Not only do you personally buy lots of Coke, but you also evangelize the drink to your friends. If you want to go back to having your original soda preferences, you have to give up your augmented intelligence.

Cracked versions of the Coca-Cola-type plugins are available, but they’re not always trustworthy, and installing them invalidates your hardware warranty. Eventually airports routinely scan your brain as well as your body, and if copyrighted patterns are detected in your gray matter, you’ll be pulled aside and stripped. As in, the TSA engineers will yank out that new part of your mind.

This post was inspired by the “Jedi SpongeBob” episode of Terrifying Robot Dog and based on a conversation with Alex Irwin, who contributed the Coca-Cola/advertising example.

Identity Velocity

Today’s dispatch was contributed by Way Spurr-Chen, a developer who curates the Glitchet newsletter (“weekly futuristic news and glitch aesthetic webzine”), hangs out on Twitter, and has myriad other projects.

We’ve always changed ourselves with some form of magic or another. Incantations, self-hypnosis, drugs. A finely pressed suit and $400 handbag. The dire imaginations of children, actors, pretenders. We wear masks and we play games — we are changers. The cessation of an atom’s vibration is a deep freeze: to stay still is to die. That’s probably why you’re reading this. You can smell which way the wind blows, and “forward” is a funny smell worth paying attention to.

Still, that wind blows fast. I’ve been reading about people controlling robotic limbs with their minds, a surgeon who implanted himself to see if he could digitize his thoughts, companies injecting their employees with RFID chips, and people putting LEDs under their skin. And those are just the biohackers! The internet allows us to get lost in increasingly specific subcultures and ideas. Our connectivity splinters us like lightning as our lives course through endless information. Years don’t feel like years anymore; I feel like I’m being blended into months and I’m counting my days in weeks. I wonder when I’ll know that I’ve been left behind, but that’s the trick: I’m already behind. We all are. You can’t be “on it” anymore — you can only tune into the infinite noise and pick out a signal. Wherever you find people, you’ll find a community thriving and moving faster than you can keep up.

What does that do to our play? We’re learning the power of permanence online while realizing the importance of having anonymous options. As the amount of information we put online increases, encased in silicon boxes, so does our ability to modulate, flex, and bend that signal through the future. (May our audiences be as forgiving of our pasts as we are.) It becomes simultaneously easier to transform yourself and to be pinned to an old version of yourself. Yet we will always shove forward bravely to new identities; we can’t stop.

Magical glitch artwork by Mário João.

Artwork by Mário João.

That’s just the internet. Old news already. Our ability to change ourselves, though, our bodies — that’s fast. When I saw those armless kids with modular LEGO prosthetics they could build on, I wanted one. I bet there will be a point where it’s a reasonable exchange to swap a flesh arm for a robot arm, even if your robot arm’s USB 3.0 extensions will probably be obsolete by 2020. (I hope you got the universal RFC shoulder socket adapter. Sometimes you gotta lose a little more flesh, but that’s just the tradeoff for longevity. Make sure you do your research: you wouldn’t want to buy from a startup that’s hoping to get acquired by Microsoft. Google might be OK.)

Of course, those are just functional, almost decorative. The thing I wonder most is how I would feel, knowing that I’m part machine, or part internet, or different, enhanced. Even if I can control the rate of my own transformation, would I feel pressured by the options available? What about aesthetics? When we can change ourselves so quickly, and we see the degree at which others might change, would we be compelled to enter an arms race (no pun intended) to become the most stylish, the most hip, the most specific? How fast can self-perception change? Does it lead or does it follow the things that we find ourselves becoming?

Certainly, perspective and identity are constantly in flux and the self rarely sees its reflection. But I hope the things I can hold onto are my habits. These give me stability. These define me. Even if I did get a robot arm, or an RFID chip, or a vibrating penis (I wouldn’t — I mean, maybe — no — let me think about it), I would still like whiskey and ginger beers, lasagna, dark clothes, the smell of a bonfire on the beach. I have these things to hold onto, regardless of what else about myself I change. I can take solace in the idea that I still haven’t changed. Not really. I can hold onto the rest of my humanity that is slow and almost static.

But the future always brings us new questions: what happens when you augment that? Your mind? Would you erase your memories? Would you program yourself to like something that the love of your life likes? Does it matter? Identity may not need to seem discrete, concrete. After all, can you step into the same river twice? Maybe you just have to tune into the signal in the noise wherever you find it. Mask-wearers, pretenders, changers that we are — maybe that’s already what we do. We’ll just get faster.

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Grinder Seeks Philanthropist

Contextualizing disclaimer: This dispatch is about someone who is not a “public person” in the typical sense. He solicited attention for his crowdfunding project in an open Facebook group, so I feel okay about directing attention his way. I tried to be respectful without being dishonest about my reactions.

Yesterday I mentioned grinding (also called biohacking). Today I encountered someone whose ambitions rise beyond self-modification — he wants to advance transhumanist medical possibilities on behalf of the entire human race. Voltage Muriel set up a GoFundMe campaign called Robotic Body Designs. The claimed goal is “No more health issues, longer lives, upgrades to yourself”. To be kind, that’s extremely optimistic — to be harsh, it’s grandiose to the point of delusion. “No more health issues” — at all? Really?

A grinder's workstation. Photo by Voltage Muriel.

A grinder’s workstation. Photo by Voltage Muriel.

Muriel explains his situation and intentions like this:

“Currently finishing my bachelor of science degree in electronic engineering, so I may gain the knowledge I need in order to help design an invention for all of humanity. As a dedication, I ask for donations to help with the supplies I need to design my ideas. Eventually I will successfully restore my own body using robotic technology. There will be a way to make this at no cost to all patients. I promise your donation will be used for helping the world become a better home for everyone.”

In case the GoFundMe page gets taken down, here’s a Wayback Machine link.

The way Muriel describes Robotic Body Designs is particularly interesting — his language borders on religious. “As a dedication” … “restore my own body” — these phrases echo Christian lore. I’m not sure whether English is Muriel’s first language, but if we assume that he fully understands the word “restore”, it’s an odd choice. “Restore” implies that the body’s current state is different from its original one; Muriel seems to be saying that he’ll return himself to the start. What might that be?

I asked Muriel to comment; he did not respond by press time.