17: Biohacking, Implants, and DIY Science with Jacob Boss

The main topic we will be discussing together is Jacob Boss’s research on transhumanism. Transhumanism is a movement of people dedicated to using technology to transform humanity and to radically change the human condition. Jacob’s specific area of research is on a group of transhumanists known as Grinders. This group is highly interested in body modification through do-it-yourself science and technology.

Jacob Boss is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Indiana University. Jacob teaches widely, serving as instructor of record or associate instructor in the Departments of Religious Studies, Informatics, and the Collins Living-Learning Center. He is an editorial assistant for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and the co-founder of the Human Augmentation Research Network, hosted by the Center for Religion and the Human at Indiana University. He is a part of the Human Enhancement and Transhumanism unit of the American Academy of Religion.


The key questions for this episode are: What does it mean to have body autonomy in an era of powerful technology? How will our ideas of self-expression change? How are grassroots movements like the grinders related to more corporatized movements within transhumanism itself? How far should we go in pursuit of new technologies that may relieve our pains and illnesses?

Episode Transcript

Seth Villegas 0:05
Welcome to the DigEthix podcast. My name is Seth Villegas. I’m a PhD candidate at Boston University working on the philosophical ethics of emerging and experimental technologies. Here on the podcast we talk to scholars and industry experts about pressing issues and data business, technology, and society from an ethical perspective. In this episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with Jacob Boss. Jacob is a doctoral candidate in religious studies at Indiana University. He is writing his dissertation on religion and grassroots transhumanism. Jacob teaches widely, serving as an instructor of record and associate instructor and Department of Religious Studies, informatics, and the Collins Living Learning Center. He is editorial assistant for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion and the co-founder of the Human Augmentation Research Network, hosted by the Center for Religion and the Human at Indiana University. He is also a part of the human enhancement and transhumanism unit of the American Academy of Religion, which we serve on together. The main topic we will be discussing is Jacobs research on transhumanism. Transhumanism is a movement of people dedicated to using technology to transform humanity and to radically change the human condition. Jacobs specific area of research is on a group of transhumanist known as grinders. This group is highly interested in body modification through technology. The work of grinders takes the form of biohacking. Biohacking involves Do-It-Yourself biology in which grinders will implant themselves with devices. These devices have a range of uses. For example, some give readouts of medical data; other grinders implant magnets into their fingertips. Grinders are highly conscious of just how potentially dangerous these kinds of experiments are. As Jacob will explained, many of these experiments come out of disillusionment and destruction of corporations, medical authorities, and regulatory framework. We don’t know what the consequences of using implants of this kind are, but they certainly do look like a step towards becoming a cyborg. The larger transhumanist movement is the main topic of my own dissertation research. I believe that the transhumanist movement is worth paying attention to, because they’re thinking, writing, and experimenting with the next generation of technologies, and by extension, the next generation of ethical issues involving technology. In particular, body autonomy is an extremely important issue within transhumanism because it defines the very freedom that grinders and other biohackers use to experiment on themselves. However, as Jacob will poignantly explain, grinders are not merely looking for new ways to express themselves; they’re looking for healing that they may not have been able to find elsewhere. The key questions for this episode are: what does it mean to have body autonomy in an era of powerful technology? How will our ideas of self expression change? How are grassroot movements like the grinders related to more corporatized movements within transhumanism itself? How far should we go in pursuit of new technologies that may relieve our pains and illnesses? This podcast would not have been possible without the help of the DigEthix team: Nicole Smith and Louise Salinas. This episode was cut and edited by Julia Brukx. The intro and outro track Dreams was composed by Benjamin Tissot, through bensound.com. Our website is DigEthix.org. You can find us on Facebook and Twitter, @DigEthix, and on Instagram, @DigEthixFuture. You can also email us digethix@mindandculture.org. Now I’m pleased to present you with my discussion with Jacob Boss.

I think first of all, like how did you get into this? How did you get a hunch of the sorts of things that you’re actually studying?


Jacob Boss 3:34
What happened was a job talk that Seth Sanders, who I think is at UC Davis gave, at our department on, I think it was a Syrio-Hittite funeral tablet. Really, it was a soul stone, with this beautifully preserved image and inscription of a deceased noble. And the translation said to the soul of Katumuwa, this royal official, resided in the stone after death. And the stone contained extensive instructions for the care of the soul. And I thought this was fascinating, and I asked is anyone making the ritual offerings now that the stone has been recovered? And I remember, Seth, being like oh, yeah, that’s a that’s a cool question. Yeah, I mean, we’d have to check out, I don’t- probably not. And so I did some research into it. And I found out that the university had done a digital recreation of the commemorative and restorative sacrifices and offerings. So you could watch this animated version of the sacrifices. And they had actually synthesized a new prayer from multiple inscriptions, and then published a book about how they had fulfilled the wishes of this ancestor. Well, I got kind of salty about that. And I said, No, this isn’t actually fulfilling the wishes of the ancestor because the offerings are supposed to be made directly to the stone, not to a digital recreation of the stone. And I became fascinated with this idea that the soul stone was a repository for this official soul, that it was a way of achieving immortality, that there was this effort to honor the requirements, the the will on the stone in this, you know, I couldn’t figure out what was going on there, it was sort of one step removed or two steps removed through this digital recreation. And that led me to learning more about digital immortalization techniques, attempts to preserve memory and personality through different forms of technology. And in the process of learning about how folks went from using stone to using hard drives to try to become immortal. I found people who are more interested in self-expression, self-exploration, citizen science, art, self-creation, the group called the Grinders, which are these grassroots transhumanists, very punk-influenced, who don’t have the emphasis on immortality that most transhumanist groups are known for.


Seth Villegas 5:49
When I first heard you talk about this, you kind of made a juxtaposition between two different sets of groups. So the first one you kind of called the profiteers and the second one was a group of punks.


Jacob Boss 6:02
Right. Well, part of my confusion was that when I went to DEF CON in 2017, I saw some of these people who were affiliated with the grinders using similar language and world construction as the corporate folks who were there with a very clear agenda. They were pushing the kind of message of technology is hope, buy our products, so that you can feel hopeful about eternal, youthful, perfectly healthy life in really florid terms. I mean, there were folks giving presentations, wearing their business best talking about Saudi funded personal drone delivered medicine, tea deer genome that they were going to replace the clinic with the home clinic. Miniaturized medicine, you could do all your tests yourself as many times as you wanted at home. Doctors are just customer service workers. They’re like fast food workers. You just do all the tests yourself, send them to a doctor and the doctor spits back the results to you on demand. There was an undercurrent of not trusting medical and research and governmental regulatory authorities that threaded through all the groups who were presenting. And there was also a dour, gloomy outlook on human nature. Humans are weak. Humans are a mess. Humans are fallible, they’re kind of a disaster. Some of the folks who spoke talked about how humans aren’t capable of doing good in their current state that to be a moral being requires genetic engineering, biohacking, mind modification, brain implants, hormonal modifications in order to give us the capacity to do good in a sustainable way, to do good in a way that’s broad enough to affect global change. And so I was like, What is going on here? And how do I start to parse this apart? You know, thanks to the generosity of members of the Grinder community, I was able to spend a lot of time with them after that, talking to people, getting their perspectives, kind of sussing out the different trends in the community, the different levels, the different, even generations, within this emerging community. And I started developing this framework of punks and profiteers helping me to think about how to usefully talk about the relationship that do-it-yourself cyborgs, genetic engineers, citizen scientists have towards economics and society, because it’s really hard to be punk, and not find yourself constantly tempted to- I mean, you are going to find yourself constantly tempted to sell out. And this is the sort of the figure of the sellout is key to the punk scene because profiteering is so skilled at neutralizing and reincorporating any attempt to bust out or to achieve some kind of liberation through innovation, that new things just end up immediately being branded on mugs, and T shirts. And folks who come up with ideas and creations that can be threatening to existing systems will find themselves tempted — well tempted or threatened — you know, either they’re regulated out of existence, or they’re bought and incorporated into the existing systems. So the punks are the ones who are engaged in a kind of continuous struggle to advance their research goals, their artistic goals, their goals of self construction, which can include body modification of various kinds: tattooing, do-it-yourself cybernetics, and to- they’re consciously and actively working to avoid participating in and perpetuating systems of exploitation, and they’re trying to find ways to not sell out to larger systems, and it’s really, really hard and you can see people within the movements constantly having conversations about but how do we pay for this? But how do we get these materials? How do we actually make this happen? Should we become a company? Or even occasionally, as you and I know, should we become a religion? Does that have a better regulatory outlook?


Seth Villegas 10:07
I initially encountered biohackers as a result of kind of exploring the Boston transhumanism scene. And there’s an enormous interest in biohackers as one of the, the focal points of new knowledge about how modification and body enhancement might happen. And for those who are unfamiliar, when usually, when we’re talking about things like biohacking or modification, we’re usually talking about, say, changing your genes in some way that’s experimental, or attaching a mechanical prosthesis to your body or putting something into your body. I think someone like Ryan O’Shea at Future Grind actually talks about these things a lot more in detail, for people who are interested in that sort of thing. But the kind of the broader concept is just what can we use with our new kind of science, scientific and technical knowledge to change ourselves? How can we experiment and change and from what when I’ve heard you talk about the this, there’s a lot more, there’s a much bigger emphasis on what’s possible, trying to see what’s possible, rather than the explicit intention of prolonging one’s life. And I think this is- this is really kind of mind blowing to me. And it actually kind of clarified some things, because one of the things I was always a little confused about was about the need for experimentation on oneself to allow oneself to survive, especially if that experimentation might be harmful, it might have harmful side effects. And as I kind of, you know, took a step back, I saw Oh, like there’s a really vested interest in having, say, the grinders experiments on themselves, and then picking those modifications that other transhumanists see as beneficial. It’s this really weird relationship and ecosystem that I think you’re starting to speak to. And those are very different motivations for going about this. One has a kind of projected, idealized, immortal self of some kind that kind of goes on forever, in which you have kind of like complete autonomy, but they really want to pursue that in a way without risk. And I think that goes completely against this sort of punk ethos that you’ve been talking about.


Jacob Boss 12:26
Yes, there is a very high awareness of risk and a strong emphasis on safety among the body modifiers, piercers, body artists that I talk with. There is a fantastic talk that Cassox, whose a prolific body artists gave at DEF CON in 2017, saying here is a- it had the sort of the nature of a debunking piece, where Cass went through a list of the complaints that are leveled against grinders and explained the thoughtfulness, intentionality, attentiveness to safety, and conscious assumption of risk that goes into participating in this kind of self-creation and self-definition, through the art of body modification. I found that experienced members of the community are always carrying with them this dual attitude of radical enthusiasm for what they do with an intense focus on safety. And it’s very interesting to see because in the community, there is celebration of the the raw, fun, wild experience of doing body art, body modification, which carries with it a certain amount of pain, and sometimes bleeding, you know, oftentimes visible changes to the body are what’s desired, scarification. I had a conversation with Lepht Anonym, who’s a very important figure in grinding, who talked about to speak to your point about folks trying to harvest advances from grinders, Lepht said that people who are waiting for corporations to develop body modifications, enhance implants, new forms of body art, are placing their ability to define themselves and to shape themselves into the hands of these massive multinationals. Not just their ability to shape themselves, but also all the information, all the private information that a person can have in the hands of those multinationals. And that grinders are developing for themselves an alternate path where they’re trying to find out what is possible right now in non-institutional research and art spaces and see how far they can push that envelope. But with this very interesting, you know, attentiveness also to safety.


Seth Villegas 14:52
I don’t know if- how much to be able to sort of describe what it is that they’re doing. So, for instance, what kinds of modifications are they making? What are those look like? And what’s the experience like as someone who has this modification? How has that kind of changed the way that they live?


Jacob Boss 15:09
Have you ever been to a craft fair, where there’s like dozens of different people doing so many different kinds of crafts? It’s like that. There’s no one thing that they’re doing. They’re doing everything. As part of their free wheeling, punk-inspired engagement with art and body modification. You see jewelry, traditional piercings, enhanced piercings, maybe some light-up photosensitive lights under the skin. You see the proof of concept or utility focus chips that can be inserted into the body; these are near field communication devices that communicate with readers so your listeners are probably going to be most familiar with something like the pillars that you walk through when you enter and leave a library. Those are scanning devices can detect when that nearfield chip passes through them. And so similarly, these devices inside the body can be used for simple communication, to tell say an office door that you’re nearby so that will open for you. Or to hold small amounts of information like a business card that you can pass on by tapping someone’s phone. Other modifications are intended to change people’s sensory experience, to really alter the humans sensorium in new and exciting ways. Sensing magnets are one of the more popular forms of this, one of the more accessible forms of this. And these magnets placed under the fingertips allow for a fizzing sensation when they’re brought near to electromagnetic activity. And I’ve seen these used in very practical situations: to test whether or not something is electrified and also just for the fun of being able to pick up small magnetic objects to touch or the pleasure of being able to experience the world through a new crafted sense. And there are many other artistic endeavors; I’ve seen scarification or symbols that have personal meaning, and bespoke implants also that a person- sort of like stitching their own badges onto a jacket. People creating these individualized artistic personally meaningful alterations and implants. One of the more dramatic developments was the pegleg, which debuted a couple of years ago, there was a team of DIY researchers who debuted a device that is inserted in most cases into the thigh and it runs a basically runs a server that provides a local area network that people can anonymously download files from and to, powered by a wireless charger slipped into the pocket of one’s pants. So you slip the book charger into your pants, it rests on top of the implant, it powers it. And then you can be a stealth internet server. This was demonstrated at DEF CON by recording and streaming video from the conference to the leg implant and then to the conference.


Seth Villegas 17:58
Everything that you’ve described so far, it seems like the grinder community is probably pretty tight knit. People who are suspicious perhaps of, you know, institutions, other kinds of authorities, and they kind of want to do their own thing. So for you, how did you kind of get involved with the community? You’ve mentioned before that they’re kind of generous and giving their time to you, but what was that experience like of getting to know them, getting to understand the sorts of things that they’re about and what they do?


Jacob Boss 18:30
As enthusiasts, they’re so happy when people are interested in what they’re doing, even though they’ve been burned by the media before. And they’ve talked about their experience with film crews and reporters treating them like something interesting, under a microscope, trying to extract choice quotes from them, trying to make them look mentally unwell, self-destructive mutilators. Trying to set up the most dramatic and spooky version that they could in order to get those clicks in those views. Despite that, they remain very excited to share their interests, to share their community. And so I’ve benefited tremendously from that generosity. You know, I take my engagement with the community very seriously. And all my work is conducted under the auspices of our research ethics institution, and they occasionally institute limited media access to some events. When they have festivals, they will exclude media occasionally or specific media that’s treated in particularly poorly. The community, you know, it’s very interesting to me how little attention the community has gotten in academic circles, because they haven’t- What I mean is that they’re still treated as under the radar. People still act, when I chat with them about the work that I’m doing, as if I’m unearthing something. I’m not. I didn’t discover you, I didn’t like stumble onto this community. They have a web presence. They do online education. They advertise their activities. They were written up in the New York Times. They, for whatever reason, have not commanded the kind of attention that immortality-oriented and better funded groups have. And so I am intent on expanding our scholarship into these punkish, poorly funded, do-it-yourself grassroots aspects of transhumanism and biohacking.


Seth Villegas 20:20
If we could turn to something you’d mentioned a little bit earlier about identity and about self-definition. I think, when most people think about this today, especially because of the kind of digital environment that is so ubiquitous right now. What people usually think about is how do I kind of cultivate this perfect digital image, this kind of projection of my life, of things that I’m doing, but it would seem to me that the grinders are interested in a similar sort of expression, but have gone about that in a completely different way. So what do you think- I know, we’ve talked a little bit about the punk aesthetic, but in kind of your personal experience with these things, do you see something that’s usually driving this push towards identity? Because it is interesting to go through the process of experimentation as a kind of articulation of oneself. And this is a really interesting point within transhumanism as well: What does that mean that I am actively looking to change myself? And what does it mean to have that power to change myself? I know that technology is kind of giving us this power, not to- not to just put out an image, right? But to perhaps even, you know, as you’re saying, like change my DNA to pull it on a mechanical prosthesis of some kind?


Jacob Boss 21:49
There’s a marvelous embrace of the fantasy while maintaining contact with the practical in the conversations that I’ve had with grinders. In my conversation with Lepht, Lepht talked about how their ultimate hack, their vision for the transhumanist future is this marvelous, floating transhumanists city, this Castle in the Sky where people can come. There’s a an intentional community that lives with a science fiction level of technical control over their body and their environment, people voluntarily come there, and then they get hooked up with whatever kinds of augmentations, enhancements, changes they want in order to further that quest of self-exploration, self-creation, and self-discovery. One of the key distinctions that I’ve been working on is the argument from the immortalists that nothing really matters, except the achievement of immortality. Everything falls away, everything becomes vanity and dust unless we can achieve immortality by whatever means, whether it’s reversal of aging, or chryonics, or other methods. And in my conversations with Lepht there is a straight up acknowledgement of mortality and their understanding that they will die in the body that they have. And that that is the nature of things, that is their expectation. And that doesn’t hamper them from having these marvelous fantasies of castles in the sky or of attempting- attempting to take concrete steps in that direction. In fact, one of the things that I am continuing to explore and am very fascinated by is the grinder interest in creating technical legacies, passing on knowledge to each other, to future generations, in contrast with the immortals push to preserve themselves in this life, in this lifetime. There is a- there’s a practicality that comes along with the messiness of grinding, they’re in the dirt. I mean, they- many of them, gardening, farming, raising animals and doing activities in nature, not just developing technological interventions and augmentations in their flesh. They demonstrate the influence of maker culture, DIY culture, and punk culture in this mixture of idealism and practicality that I find very intriguing, especially because of how it contrasts with other elements of transhumanism and biohacking.


Seth Villegas 24:19
It’s funny when you talk about this sort of Castle in the Sky in which people can, as you’re saying, do all kinds of self-exploration, all kinds of transformation, just to sort of see what it’s like. Because in looking at the immortalist crowd, and that’s primarily who I study for my dissertation work, there’s a kind of assumption that such a place will exist and that it’ll be possible but kind of as you were saying, there’s this undercurrent of “but that doesn’t really matter. What’s important is the the continuity of my life.” And the reason why this is important for people who are are not as familiar with transhumanists and kind of the the fault lines within the group. Is it possible to achieve that level of self exploration and transformation in a completely risk free way? And I think for the immortalists that’s really important. It’s, “well, if something happens to me, I want to make sure I have a backup, that’s gonna kick in. And because the the preservation of my life is really important.” Whereas here, even is what you’re saying of kind of the desire to pass along knowledge is- there’s a kind of acceptance that whatever, whatever is being done might not go well, it might lead to the end of one’s life potentially, or, you know, to a kind of compromise of whatever is going on. And that well, that whatever technological innovations might come might not reach me, because as you’re saying, the thing with the immortalist is, how do I make sure that I, in my lifetime get there? And that’s very, very different, than let’s see what’s possible almost for the sake of seeing what’s possible. There’s a real kind of adventurous spirit there, that punk aesthetic really kind of fits into that, rather than the, this is the only life that I have, and I can’t compromise it for any reason, especially with something that might be risky.


Jacob Boss 26:30
Yeah, isn’t it fascinating: the different levels of acceptance of risk, and the different projections as to what level of technological competence will be achieved within our lifetimes? It’s so fascinating. And I feel so fortunate to know you and our community of scholars who are emerging to study these issues, who have a strong ethnographic focus, which is the reason why we put together HARN, the Human Augmentation Research Network, so that we can have some cross-institutional support for folks who want to engage in this kind of research.


Seth Villegas 27:03
I don’t mean to bring one other thing up, but I know that the kind of self experimentation is actually a bit of the branding in some of the kind of corporate side of this, and I kind of want to hear your take on how the grinders see that. So for instance, someone like Liz Parrish deliberately calls herself Patient Zero to emphasize the risks that she took in experimenting on herself for the sake of life extension. It seems, though, that that kind of refers to a singular moment of a particular risk taken at a particular time to say like, oh, look, you know, I made this leap of faith, so to speak, but it seems like those are the sorts of things that grinders, that’d be like the very first thing, if you’re that grinders are doing that they’re taking a lot more risks than that. So I guess I was just kind of wondering how they see those sorts of things where people kind of- they want to show that they’re making those sorts of experimentation for the sake of these efforts, but it doesn’t seem to reach nearly the same level.


Jacob Boss 28:01
Right. There’s a lack of concern with publicity, with validation, there’s a lack of attention seeking that comes from that orientation of I’m doing this for myself that expands then into I’m doing this as part of a community, but it very rarely bursts out among the folks who I’m- who I’m studying into, and I’m seeking external validation for this work from a larger- from the larger community. There is, there’s a whole side to this, which I hope we can talk more about, which is the search for healing. We’ve talked a little bit about folks trying to avoid death or conceptualizing technological interventions and death. But in terms of health, so many of the conversations at tech conferences are around healing, and mitigating illness and suffering. And there’s also a really wide ranging and frequently troublesome way of relating to stability, where there are lots of disabled biohackers. And at conferences, you’ll get these very typical, like, inspiration porn stories about this implant or this prosthetic that fixes a disabled person. And there is a strong pushback against this way of conceptualizing technological augmentations and interventions from disabled biohackers. One of the things that I really appreciate about the grinding community that I’m studying is their desire to be continuous learners. And so they’ve had a disability and accessibility reading group conversation forum that they’ve been participating in over the past couple of years to improve the the group’s awareness of, knowledge about these issues. The language around disability, the quick fix, approach, the personalized medicine approach, corporate health interventions that I’ve seen touted at these different conferences, all have eradication as their goal which is you know, it’s a nasty, dangerous, and exploitative model to adopt and propagate. Many people come to biohacking transhumanism, grinding looking to feel better in one way or another, or many ways. I think, you know, correct me if I’m wrong, but folks who are in the groups that you’re doing your work with are known for taking large amounts of supplements in order to extend their lives in the hope that they’ll live long enough to reach breakthroughs in immortality technology.


Seth Villegas 30:19
Yup, that’s exactly right.


Jacob Boss 30:20
And it’s not at all uncommon for folks who are coming into biohacking spaces, web forums, even things like subreddits on biohacking, to open their conversation with the community with health issues and to say, What have you learned? What have you seen? Very often also stories of being failed by doctors and by medical establishments: no one can help me, can you help me? Can you offer something new? This is a difficult and painful form of initial engagement from many grinders and biohackers, whether they’re working on medical device hacking, or genetic engineering, or implants are confronted with the current limitations of the work, the regulatory environment, the pernicious relationship between regulation, oversight, accessibility, cost of effective drugs, the insurance situation in the United States and people’s real needs. There are a lot of fantastic groups that are in this universe, in this cloud, of biohacking grinding transhumanism, and groups who are working, whose focus is on making things like insulin, and insulin pumps, continuous glucose monitors and things like this accessible to everyone who needs them, affordable to everyone who needs them, to improve people’s fluency around these devices, and also hugely, hugely, and this is a passion for for many people in this in this universe, control over one’s data and electronic health records. Because implanted devices, one thing that you can always have a robust conversation with grinders about is the privacy of implanted devices and your ability to control what information is collected and shared by that device. And who shares that information with, as opposed to medical implants that collect who knows what data and shares it with who knows what individuals and corporate entities.


Seth Villegas 32:12
Definitely have a lot of thoughts. So first, when I actually- I have this thing called vasovagal syncope, which is sometimes I’ll kind of spontaneously faint. And this was a really troubling because it was hard to establish a cause. And it wasn’t actually until I was here at Boston University, worked with some of the doctors of Boston Medical Center, where we kind of realized that part of the reason why it was hard to diagnose my particular issue is because I was sensitive to the symptoms of this outside of the normal range. And so when I was interacting with doctors in high school, when I started to develop these sorts of things, they said, “well, we don’t know because you have to be at, you know, X measurement for this to be affecting you. But you’re not there.” And it wasn’t until I worked with a cardiologist here, he was like, “oh, you know, it seems like your thresholds for this, for whatever reason are just different. Like you have different parameters for what your body needs, as opposed to other people.” And that was actually kind of a mind blowing thing, this kind of averaging of everything out over everyone failed to capture something about me, that was probably diagnoseable, but the data itself kind of obscured that. I think this is the case, definitely for lots of people, where they have an individual situation that’s not quite captured by where medical data is right now. And the other thing I want to kind of bring up is that there are lots of sort of business incentives, not necessarily to help someone get over a problem, or rather to keep people say dependent on certain kinds of pharmaceuticals, and to take that control out of the hands if the patient, it just sounds really interesting that people feel this need to take that into their own hands. And I think the situation in the US is so interesting, because we really do have both the best health care and the worst health care simultaneously in this really strange situation of what is it that’s medically necessary? Why is it deemed medically necessary? And why or why not can you get a specific type of treatment? These things are all kind of in play. The final thing I’ll say here, and then I’d really love to hear what you think is there’s kind of this bigger issue of body autonomy, of what is it that we can allow people to do on themselves, to experiment on themselves? For what reasons might justify that. That I think we really haven’t explored yet, in part because of grinders are, at least in my mind, still somewhat out of the public consciousness. And it’s unfortunate because I think this is actually a really important conversation to be having of what is the relationship between say the state and the person on the this topic of okay, we’re gonna specifically prevent you from making these sorts of experimentations on yourself or we’re gonna deny you the resources for it perhaps, when perhaps there isn’t another solution. And it is obvious, I think, that if things did come out of these kinds of experimentations, they would be widely adopted. And yet the people who make those, who take those kinds of risks are kind of outcasts, and it just seems sort of backwards, to me, that that’s kind of how it works. That the, everything’s kind of put on so few people. But I’d love to hear where you’re kind of out with that whole conversation.


Jacob Boss 35:39
The first place that my mind goes, is how media attention toward grinding, instead of highlighting the enthusiasm for science and research, that is living energy in the community. When folks get together, they talk about research projects, they talk about what kinds of computer chips, what kinds of jewelry coding, what kinds of experiments and trials they’ve run in their home labs and maker spaces. Media attention focuses on look how weird dangerous this is. Look how gross and irresponsible this is. Click our web page, watch our show. It’s like it’s, instead of bringing into public consciousness, the excitement and potential to get involved in human augmentation research, the kind of excitement, by the way, which is very much like that, that drove home science kits when I was a kid, and much and much before either of our lifetimes, where you could order a home science kit that would come with 60 different chemicals and a little lab set guide book, and you could do all kinds of chemistry and biology experiments right there in your home. This was this was normal. This was the kind of thing that a family could be praised for encouraging an interest in science in their children for getting them one of these home chemistry sets. The kind of home research that grinders are doing is instead exploited by media who emphasize it as spooky and gross instead of a natural extension of a widespread enthusiasm for doing research at home. And that is one of the key reasons, I think, that it hasn’t attained a larger presence in popular consciousness, because it has been, to this point, only a source for clickbait instead of seen as a natural extension of public interest in research and also a natural extension of maker culture and DIY culture.


Seth Villegas 37:37
Yeah, definitely. I think that there’s also larger boundary keeping this is actually something Abou Farman talks about a lot, of what counts as science, what counts is research. If people aren’t, you know, in a lab at a university, then it’s not the same; I think that’s the way a lot of people see it. And I don’t think most of the public even understands how much legitimation goes into those kinds of things, especially as you’re saying, this sort of do it yourself efforts, particularly because when these sorts of clickbait things do come out there, there isn’t any showing of Oh, like, we understand we’re taking x risk, and we’re trying to do everything we can to make it as safe as possible, which is it seems a lot more responsible than the kinds of science experiments that are going on, like say the late- late 1700s, early 1800s of you know, digging up cadavers or something. So it’s it’s just so interesting that the it chooses to be portrayed that way when at least from my perspective, I’m I wouldn’t even say have a really good handle on what’s what’s happening outside of when I talk to you.


Jacob Boss 38:45
This is an ongoing conversation in grinding about how do we get our information out there? How do we get our results out there, there’s been conversation around creating their own journal to publish the results of their research. Part of the challenge there is again, these are individuals spread out around the world who come together periodically, and that coming together was interrupted by the Coronavirus pandemic, to share with each other and to do, to spend brief high energy periods of time sharing and experimenting together at set times and locations throughout the year. And that’s the the conference and convention circuit that I’ve been traveling and they, for the most part, have to rely on other jobs to live and to fund their interest in Do It Yourself research. There is no pre-existing infrastructure for creating a academic-style journal and all the regulatory and review and publishing apparatus that goes along with it there’s a desire to share and they do share in person and on their websites. But this is this is quite new. These emerging Do It Yourself cybernetics movements, biohacking movements are quite new. And so I’m following along with them now and I’m interested to see how they develop and if they develop more robust forms of communication and public outreach, or if they remain fairly inward facing in terms of their communication about their work.


Seth Villegas 40:08
So to kind of starts to land the conversation a little bit, maybe to make it a little bit wider in its application, it seems that part of your interest is not just in this sort of technological exploration, but also the kind of socio-political relationships that the grinders idealize, and I think, by that, it seems like they want to have different kinds of relationships with institutions, than are now possible. And I know you’ve kind of talked a little bit about the the City in the Sky already, but would you mind telling me a little bit more about how they imagined that that community would function?


Jacob Boss 40:49
Alright, I gotta think about this one. While there’s a seed of a robust political vision, that city in the sky, and in that conversation that I have Lepht, we didn’t unschool it into a larger articulation. What I see community merging interactions around the annual course of these conventions and conferences, and then tied together through continuous online interaction. But the the in person gatherings are the drivers of energy, enthusiasm, and community identity formation. There are certain principles that are consistent in these gatherings around excitement, safety, a kind of skepticism, but openness, there’s a very charming and appreciable compassionate approach to folks who may be suffering from some mental illness or, or maybe caught up in wildly impractical visions of how this could go. Now what I mean is that on their web forums, it’s fairly common for people to post saying that they’ve been microchipped by aliens, or by the government or via jealous acts. And some forum posters have written out whole guides in helpful, thoughtful, step by step, compassionate ways to deal with this belief that you’ve been microchipped against- instead of angry dismissals or condescending dismissals, multiple authors in the community have stepped up to try to guide people through what to do if you think that you’ve been microchipped against your will. The community operates in a similar way where it is inclusive, and people bring in a wide range of investments and projects. There is an intellectual hunger, where if somebody comes up with an idea, that the gang wants to sit down and hear all about it. And perpetual frustration with the economic and regulatory environment in which they operate. They have limited resources, and what they do is profoundly constrained. So this is all pretty new. They’re figuring out as they go along. And one of the things that I’m interested in is what kinds of consciousness of regulatory legal environments they’re developing as a community and that the individuals in the community developing. What Gabriella Coleman describes in Coding Freedom, the emergence of legal consciousness among computer hackers. And so I’m curious to follow along with what kinds of economic, legal or other forms of consciousness develop in the community. And also religious or spiritual consciousness and sensibilities as well. We haven’t talked about this too much, but there’s a kaleidoscopic array of self determined religious or spiritual, you know, they use a wide variety of language: arts, tattooing beliefs practices, investments, there’s there is no church of grinding to which everyone belongs since that there is the everyone brings in a whole array of past religious experience and current methods and modes of meaning making in the world mediated through or involving their engagement with technology and self creation.


Seth Villegas 43:56
This is so fascinating. I really like what you said about there being a seed of something. And I think that’s partially what I’m picking up on is there- You can sense this grander vision that people are kind of putting together as they go, how are they going to do these things as they’re kind of pursuing their interests in technology? And I guess one of the things I would hope would come out of this conversation is that we start to see where some of those seeds are and what people are trying to do and why they’re trying to do them and what kinds of ideals kind of surround them. Because, as we kind of understand those things, we might also get a little bit better picture of how the technologies themselves are kind of shaping and framing or our expectations. Yeah. So thank you so much, Jacob. How can people follow you and your work?


Jacob Boss 44:44
Thank you so much, Seth. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I’m glad we get a chance to catch up and I really appreciate your interest in my work. If folks want to get in touch with me or follow along with my work. You can find me on Twitter at @jaarboss. That’s J A A R B O S S and I also have a page at Indiana University’s Department of Religious Studies if you just put Jacob Boss Indiana University into Google should be the first results.


Seth Villegas 45:10
Thank you for listening to this conversation with Jacob Boss. You can find more information about the ethics on our website digethix.org, and more information about our sponsoring organization, the Center for Mind and Culture at mindandculture.org. If you’d like to respond to this episode, you can email us digethix@mindandculture.org. Or you can find us on Facebook and Twitter, @DigEthix and on Instagram @DigEthixFuture. In many ways questions about technology are often questions about the future. We live in a time in which different visions of the future are making themselves known. For instance, Facebook recently announced that they’re attempting to build the Metaverse, a new kind of internet with virtual spaces built onto physical ones. So many of the topics discussed in this episode seem rather science fiction for now, there’s no telling when they will be shown to be relevant in the future. To conclude, I think it is worth thinking about who exactly is allowed to develop experimental technologies, and where those technologies can be deployed. If you have been thinking of technology as something that happens at big tech companies, or in the research at universities, then you may be missing out on the drastic experimentation that is going on in grinder communities. But this question of whether you’re allowed to experiment on yourself or not is still a prevailing question. If I decide to implant myself with a the device, should I be allowed to do so, even if the exact risks are unknown? What if we have other reasons for seeking out experimental treatments that have resulted from some kind of institutional failure? We don’t live in a time with any easy answers to any of these questions. But what does seem clear to me is that the next generation of people is already looking to build technologies we’ve never dreamed of before, to try and solve the problems that have stayed with us: everything from our monetary systems, to our communities, to our bodies. The future may come faster than any of us can really imagine. This is Seth, signing off.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai and edited by Julia Brukx.