Cyberpunk Review » Invasion of the body hackers

June 16, 2011

Invasion of the body hackers

Source: The Financial Times

“I’ve rewired my brain.” - Dave Asprey

People as Data. Imagine having your body wired 24/7/365 to collect data on what you eat, how you move, when you go to the bathroom,… when (or IF) you get laid…, and that data is used to tweak your body and mind through organic or cybernetic means. Orwell revisited? Google’s or Apple’s business plan?


Financial Times’ April Dembosky reports on a growing group of bio-hackers, or “self-quantifiers,” who are doing just that, and they even have a website where other would-be bio-hackers can find more info (Quantified Self) and meat - er, meet - each other. They held a conference in late May in California to explore the possibilities and discuss the effects of self-quantification not only on each other, but on society as a whole (link for more info).


“We like to hack hardware and software, why not hack our bodies?” says Tim Chang.


Past is prolog. The idea of self-quantification isn’t new, as a paragraph on Benjamin Franklin shows how he kept track of 13 virtues that he would check off when violated. This would help him keep his moral bearing straight. Modern self-quantifiers see themselves doing something similar, only with modern implantable equipment like pacemakers and insulin pumps. And the medical community is also taking notice. Modern medicine has always had a “magic bullet” or “one size fits all” mentality for treating ailments. With the data gathered by willing self-quantifying patients, doctors can better tailor treatments for those cases where the standard issue treatments can cause adverse side effects… like killing the patient. That could save lots on insurance and lawsuits.

Already these self-quantifiers are comparing themselves to a group of 1970s era computer geeks: Early-adopters and hobbyists with visions of everyone in every household quantifying themselves to tweak their meat for optimum performance. One possible system described is the Sprout:

The self-tracking equivalent of an early model, 30lb, four-part desktop computer is Fujitsu Laboratories’ Sprout, as worn by software engineer Alex Gilman at the Quantified Self Conference: a maze of sensors and wires send data from his ear, chest and arm to the pocket-sized computer clipped to his belt – the Sprout. The Sprout synchronizes the physical data from the body sensors and from the apps on his iPod Touch where he records his moods and drowsiness levels. What is now a mess of raw, useless data can be calculated and translated into a neat graph that will eventually be used to measure stress and fatigue, manage weight loss, even predict illness.

The potential of the Sprout is intriguing, but mass appeal will only come when such devices are consolidated into small, wireless, all-in-one products that make data collection completely passive, says Chang. Most will require little to no human effort and some will even be “game-ified”, he says, made as fun and addictive as Angry Birds.

“… and right here is where I farted.”

Speaking of games, I can already see athletes at ALL levels wanting to use self-quantification and bio-hacking. They probably already do, with a poke of ster… I mean “vitamins.” But using this system is not considered cheating… yet.


The Bigger Question: Do you REALLY want to be tracked and quantified? Self-quantification may sound pretty cool, until you need to find a place to put all your biometrics. Not only do you need large enough space, but that space needs to be secure from unauthorized access:

The implications for privacy are dramatic. Advocates and politicians were in an uproar when they realised the kind of access that Apple and Google have to geographic data derived from phones. Imagining three years worth of heart rate data or depression symptoms travelling through mobile devices – potentially being offered for sale to drug or insurance companies, exploited by advertisers or hacked by cyber criminals – puts watchdog groups on alert.

“What consumers need to realise is there’s a huge, huge demand for information about their activities, and the protections for the information about their activities are far, far, far less than what they think,” says Lee Tien, a privacy attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “A lot of these cloud services fall outside the federal and state privacy regimes.”

To put it another way, do you want to hear from Lulzsec that you are genetically predisposed to being gay or homicidal?

Most, if not all, self-quantifiers do it of their own free will, in the name of self-improvement. To many outsiders, they can’t get over the feeling of orwellianism mixed with a bit of narcissism. Even former self-quantifiers admit to taking the quest to perfection to the extreme:

“People thought I was narcissistic. What they didn’t see was the self-punishment, the fear, the hatred behind the tracking,” writes Alexandra Carmichael, one of the founders of, in a poem about why she stopped tracking herself. “I had stopped trusting myself. Letting the numbers drown out my intuition, my instincts.”

Despite the perils, the self-quantifiers are willing to continue the tracking and tweaking in hopes of making humans a better species. Will they become Friedrich Nietzsche’s ubermensch, or just a bunch of skin-eating mutants roaming the streets? Nobody has come up with an app for that, and that leads to the most important question:

How do you measure perfection?


June 16, 2011

SSJKamui said:

Sounds interesting but it also sounds like an a little bit senseless hobby of some “biology geeks”.

Muaddib said:

Actually, athletes do it for quite some time. I read an article a year ago about one who does it, and his trainer tailors the training program and meals for the next day according to collected data, which allows for more flexible bodyhacking instead of using rigid programs. Actually, most people in the field looked down at him, they saw the whole idea as too mechanistic.
I think extreme athletes (such as MMA’s and polyathletes) would be the first to use it, with military special forces not too far behind.
Privacy is not an issue if you keep the data on a machine that is not connected to anything. Who would be stupid enough to share it, anyway? next step would be giving off your gene chart.

SSJKamui said:

@Muaddib: I agree. Thanks to your post, I also understand that topic better.

About Gene Chart, I know some futurologists say that in the future, we will have machines which help us to improve our food etc. according to the personal gene code.

June 17, 2011

Dave Asprey, said:

Senseless hobby? No way. Now I can sleep less than 4 hours a night and be more functional the next day than I used to be after 8 hours. My attention and intelligence are way up, and it’s *trainable*. You can stop quantifying once you hack yourself. I lost 100lbs 10+ years ago…and I haven’t used a scale in months, because I have a mirror, and I can see my six pack. Oh, and I don’t waste time working out. I hacked myself instead. No working out, but I’m lean, muscled, and stronger than most. The quantified self is the path to the upgraded self ( And that comes from a mirrored shades, leather-wearing, William-Gibson-reading 90’s cyberpunk who found smart drugs and EEG. Seriously. This stuff rocks.

June 24, 2011

Sean said:

(Statistics are always based on a rough, ill-conceived version of the data already known to your brain. It’s no wonder that people get musically frustrated after a few years on
It’s always this savage and unintelligent use of technology.
Instead of really improving one’s brain with technology, one overburdens it with useless crutches, bringing their own mind to it’s knees.
The generation of cyberpunk dreamt of being able to record thoughts, call hypermnesia on demand, work with complex conceptual structures beyond usual mind’s grasp, clearer imagination. People today are overjoyed by implanting an mp3 player up their ass and being able to edit idv3 tags by thrusting their hips.
This is no step forward, in fact, it pretty much impedes real progress by not making it happen.
It also looks pathetic.

Also, this fear of being tracked is false fear. It is there to hide from us the bigger fear: the fear of unlimited freedom that we might give ourselves with technology. So we invent minor unexisting fears and don’t move there. This must be changed.

June 26, 2011

Dooby Bear said:

Woah, it’s like that guy who said that technology moves on regardless of whether humans are culturally or mentally ready for it or not, getting augmentations and implants is such a dumb idea anyway, unless they invent invisible cloaking

July 6, 2011

The Useful Commenter said:

Or anal jetpacks

July 10, 2011

Sniper said:

>Or anal jetpacks

There used to be a game of “Boogerman” on Megadrive, so there also has to be an oral flamethrower and nasal grenade launcher.

July 11, 2011

datarez said:

I’m really interested in data tracking my health stats if no other reason than I know and own the data. Getting your health records from a doctor is a need-to-know event. Let me have access to my data and see what my “normal numbers” are.

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