BERLIN – Lepht Anonym wants everyone to know the door to transcending normal human capabilities is no farther away than your own kitchen. It’s just going to hurt like a sonofabitch.
Anonym is a biohacker, a woman who has spent the last several years learning how to extend her own senses by putting tiny magnets and other electronic devices under her own skin, allowing her to feel electromagnetic fields, or – if her latest project works – even magnetic north.
Since doctors won’t help her, she does it in her own apartment, sterilizing her equipment (needles, scalpels, vegetable peelers) with vodka. Good anesthetic is largely impossible to buy, so she screams a little, and sometimes passes out. But it’s worth it, for what’s on the other side.
“Bodily health takes a big fuck-off second seat to curiosity,” she says. “Though it hasn’t really changed my life, it’s just made me more curious.”
This is DIY transhumanism, the fringe of a movement that itself lies well outside the mainstream of philosophy, ethics, technology and science.
For decades, transhumanists have argued that science and technology are approaching (or have approached) the point at which humans can take evolution into their own hands. They can transcend limitations of sensation or movement or even lifespan that are purely the accident of evolution. Some thinkers focus strictly on the “post-human” physical body, while others write of evolved social systems, as well.
Anonym’s vision of the transhuman is rather different. Less visionary, possibly, but more realistic. What she does is “grinding,” with homemade cybernetics and an intimate familiarity with medical mistakes, driven by a consuming curiosity rather than a philosophical creed.
She does her own surgery, with a scalpel and a spotter to catch her if she passes out, and an anatomy book to give her some confidence she isn’t going to slice through a vein or the very nerves she’s trying to enhance.
“The existing transhumanist movement is lame. It’s nano everything. It’s just ideas,” she says. “Anyone can do this. This is kitchen stuff.”
Visiting Berlin to speak at this week’s Chaos Computer Club Congress, Anonym proves to be witty and articulate, a slender woman with spiky black hair and dark makeup around her eyes. She has a way of moving as she talks that suggests thought is a kind of physical thing for her too, like the electromagnetic fields she can sense with her modified fingertips.
She has tattoos and piercings on her face, but there’s nothing obvious to indicate her practice – even her fingers look smooth and unscarred, though the metal discs can be felt faintly under one pad.
The Aberdeen, Scotland, native got her start about two years ago, experimenting first with RFID sensors under her skin that let her do things like lock a computer specifically to her signature. That was a decent start, but didn’t scratch the itch entirely. (Anyway, she says now, RFID is crap as a personal security system, it’s really only a way to experiment with the implant techniques.)
She moved on to trying a transdermal (emerging through the skin) temperature sensor, which would show a variable level of brightness to indicate the temperature. It was a disaster, she says. Mostly she learned rather uncomfortably that waterproofing is not the same as “bioproofing” something. She gave up quickly on the transdermal idea, but not the broader project.
An American body-modification artist of a similar mindset has created small metal discs of neodymium metal, coated in gold and silicon, which give off mild electric current when in a electromagnetic field. When inserted under the fingertips, this current stimulates the fingers’ nerve endings, allowing the bearer to literally feel the shape and strength of electromagnetic fields around power cords or electronic devices.
Anonym had several of these implanted professionally, choking at the cost, and then learned it was possible to buy the metal herself in bulk, far more cheaply.
So she began experimenting with homebrewed sensors. The metal itself is extremely toxic, so she needed a coating to bioproof it, finding a solution ultimately in a silicon putty-like substance called Sugru. But hot-gun glue works fine too, she says. (“I have lots of things in me coated in hot-gun glue,” she says.)
The upshot was an affordable way to continue – all 10 fingertips for about 20 British pounds. She has one left to go.
She’s calling her next project the “Southpaw.” It’s based on the Northpaw, a wearable device created by the Sensebridge group of wearable-electronics hackers. The Northpaw is worn around the ankle and gives a constant gentle motor-derived vibration on whichever side is facing north.
It’s not finished yet, but Anonym is trying to give something internal the same function – a small compass chip, a power coil that can be charged externally, and output in the form of neural-grade electrodes, all to be implanted near her left knee. It’s a much bigger project than her others, and probably riskier. She doesn’t care.
She wants other people to share her DIY vision. It’s not the full transhumanist idea, it’s not immortality or superpowers – but even living without the gentle sensation of feeling the invisible is a difficult thing to imagine, she says. One of the implants stopped functioning once, and she describes it as like going blind.
But it isn’t for everybody, this cutting yourself up in your own kitchen. She’s the first to warn people that it hurts. A lot. Every time, you don’t get used to it. Afterward, people may not be inclined to understand, to put it mildly. (“Avoid normal people,” she warns. “They’re stupid.”)
The medical consequences can be both severe and likely to elicit hostility from doctors. She’s put herself in the hospital several times. She nearly lost a fingertip the first time she tried to implant a neodymium disc herself. Various experiments with bioproofing have failed, with implants rusting under her skin, or her own self-surgeries turning septic.
But if that list of horrors isn’t enough to scare someone off, she’s also eager to help others avoid some of the mistakes she’s made in learning.
“You just have to get deep enough to open a hole and put something in,” she says. “It’s that simple.”