As a lifelong science fiction reader, I was struck by this interview on io9.com with Shannon Larratt, founder of the BME body modification site. Larratt is, unsurprisingly, an expert on the fine points of body modification, and raises all kinds of distinctions in the body modification world, starting with distinguishing tattoos (usually about form) from body mods that are primarily about function.
As a person who stopped wearing a wrist watch decades ago specifically because I felt that it tied me too much to knowing the time, an internal wristwatch is the last thing I would want. As well as I can tell from the article, this internal wristwatch doesn’t exist yet, and neither do internal cell phones or internal GPSs or calendars. But they are not far away. They are certainly no more complicated than insulin pumps or cochlear implants–those just happen to be medical body modifications, and thus we perceive them somewhat differently.
I like how Larratt talks about risk:
Yes, of course, all of this is not without risk — significant risk perhaps. If a battery were to leak — let’s not even think about exploding — and tear through the silicone somehow, noxious chemicals could be released into the body. Even in the best case scenario, the implant will have to eventually be removed, probably because it stopped working — to say nothing of obsolescence.
It’s not going to be as fun to upgrade your cellphone every nine months if you have to cut it out of your hand first. In the early days there will be a lot of problems so doing as much testing as possible is important. For example, after the implant is built, letting it sit in warm body temperature salt water for a few weeks to make sure the implant is solid and that the electronics can handle the temperature and environment.
But even with the best testing, for the first few years, the guinea pigs need to know that things will go wrong and that they’re treading unknown ground. For me, and I’m sure many other pioneers, this has always been part of the fun. Exploring dangerous new territory s a wonderful adventure, if a foolhardy one that many people don’t understand the joy of and ridicule.
Larratt does have magnets implanted in his fingertips:
The magnet moves or vibrates when it is exposed to magnetic or electromagnetic fields. This can be felt by the same nerves that are used for touch, nerves that are extremely dense and sensitive in the fingertips. They are … quite tiny, having a volume comparable to a grain of uncooked rice.
When the magnets move, you are aware of it, and it doesn’t take long before this becomes a distinct sensation from touch. … For example, if you are feeling the electromagnetic bubble that comes off of a power transformer, … it feels like you’re reaching out and touching an invisible bubble. That bubble has form (you can move your hand around to get an idea of the shape) and it has strength (the amount of power dictates how far the magnet is being moved inside your finger) and it even has “colour” (the frequency of the electromagnetic field alters how quickly the magnet vibrates). …
It’s hard to describe just how wonderful this is — our world is so rich with electromagnetism. It’s such an important part of the modern world, yet most people are blind to it…. Because I can feel the power running through cables (at household voltages anyway), and transformers are easy to detect, there are many times where I’ve used it to quickly diagnose hardware issues without having to pull out a multimeter. The sensitivity is high enough to detect a spinning hard drive engine through the keyboard of a laptop, or to feel a distributor firing in a car being repaired.
He doesn’t say how this affects air travel and metal-detector scanning (let alone whether he can have an MRI), but with approximately a thousand such implants out there, and probably more every day, I imagine this will become something people learn how to deal with.
The future of body modifications? Seems like the sky is probably the limit. As he points out at the end of the article, 3-D bioprinters are not far from making new organs and body parts; I read separately about this damaged bald eagle and its 3-D printed, surgically attached beak.
Biomodified prosthetic devices for humans are obviously coming, but what else?
Will I live to see an opportunity to get the prehensile tail I’ve always wanted?