‘We were somewhere on the edge of the desert…’ Biohacking, Eyedrops, and Clickbait

green, unripe tomatoes on a vine

Photo by Local Food Initiative/Flickr

Before you read any further, you should know that anything here is probably only half-true.

Nothing is valid without quantifiable data, and no one present for the story I’m about to tell you was responsible enough to make good data points.

Also, everyone was drunk.

A production crew wanted to make a movie about a hobby some friends and I had. A Smith and Co. Fancy, right? Famous last words.

I need to say from the get go that this is all Rich Lee’s fault. If he hadn’t posted that picture of my eyes on Facebook, maybe none of this would have happened.

On the other hand, the rapid, frantic, frothy commodification of anything that isn’t nailed down was already in progress, culminating in an injection of VC capital and the rumblings of what we can now see as the beginning of the biohacker revolution.

Is it really a revolution if most of the people making money have the money already? Are you really disrupting anything? I guess we’ll see eventually. (Spoiler alert: history says no.)

I had been living on a couch belonging to this guy I met online, in the middle of nowhere for the last few months. “Tehachapi” may mean “Land of the Four Seasons” in the language of whatever tribe we killed that used to live there, but after climate change ravaged the landscape, it was just more California: drought-parched with a brief sprinkling of some other season, either cold or fire. Sometimes both. California is special that way.

When I first arrived, the local lake had been dried up into a fine crust of organics that used to live there. I quickly realized I couldn’t trust the local water and decided vodka was my only option.

I don’t think I was aware of what I was getting myself into at the time, and my host wasn’t aware that some people didn’t own cars because in any proper town, you could walk to a supermarket.

It was like the inverse of being a redneck moving to the big ol’ city.

“What do you mean I can’t bike to the store? Why is this apple packed in styrofoam and three plastic bags?”

It was rough on everyone.

So back to this film crew.

At some point, someone got it in their heads that they should pitch a television show about Grinders. Grinders, for those who don’t know, are a clade of biohackers that really love hardware modifications. In their bodies. This all came about from a mash up of a Warren Ellis comic, a person by the name of Lepht pouring vodka on their fingers and cutting themselves, and some body mod enthusiasts who found that you can get some funky sensations from implanted magnets.

The magnet was the blessing and the curse.

Implanting a tiny magic rock in a finger is actually real simple. A statistically significant portion of the people I know have done this. Every other hack (beyond RFID chips, which are even easier to implant) is exponentially harder. How hard? Other than the RFIDs and the magnets, nothing else has worked long enough unless you have serious funding. And most people don’t.

How do you make a television show out of that? To save you the skip to the end: you don’t. But that wouldn’t stop Hollywood from trying.

So we drove to LA and nobody paid us. This began a long history of doing shit for free.

Remember kids, they have a budget. What we have is poorly filled out GoogleSheets that outline how you haven’t been paid a living wage in the last ten years, student debts are the only thing you can’t file bankruptcy on, and all your spare cash has gone into lab supplies.

They flew out some other people, and then we all met with some network executives and a young man who was pitching the idea. Let’s call him “Chip.”

Chip was young, enthusiastic, came from the center of the country, and was trying to make it happen in most classic “Country Boy moves to LA LA Land to make it in the Big City” kind of way. This comes complete with Chip getting trashed with us at 2 a.m., letting his real accent out, and then gently sobbing and asking, “Is this where I have to take my pants off?”

This isn’t Chip’s fault. Los Angeles is a terrible place and it shouldn’t exist.

Somehow, despite there being no material available beyond the basic things previously outlined, the production company decided to come visit us and do a pilot episode.

This is where it all went off the rails.

See, I decided that I would invite all my current internet Grinder acquaintances to join us, from all over the planet. I did this without the consent of the film crew, but I was under the impression that a large group of people would make for better film. Upon reflection, I had not learned the difference between television and documentary filming. You want reality television? Let me invite all my friends! The crew was not pleased.

Also, I just thought it would be funny.

This became the first Grindfest, a conference of Grinders successful enough that it still carries on, five years running.

Back to the filming.

I have issues with scripted moments.

While we had planned a series of events and projects to showcase, I wasn’t prepared to read from a script. In fact, I feel that scripting is inherently dishonest. If it needs to be processed to make it digestible, then don’t sit at the table.

Chip had decided to “extreme makeover” the lab. In between drinks I was attempting to play nice — poorly — and he was hanging hammers and pliers on the walls to give the space a “man-cave-meets-lab” feel. This was a noble effort on his part to make the most out of a day where a bunch of drunk, punk nerds were cutting each other open and inserting solar panels into their forearms.

It also culminated in my shaming him into leaving the lab and weeping in a bush somewhere.

It was a slow motion collapse from there. Everyone knew this was a disaster. We were sneaking off to hold hands with someone with basically a taser to run electricity through a a chain of human beings.  The film crew was attempting not to just walk away. It was spectacularly bad.

It didn’t matter too much, though. MTV picked a few other Grinder kids and did a special on them. People moved on.

Then this other thing happened.

We set up this demonstration of night vision eye drops. Rich Lee took a picture and posted it on the Facebook. Heavy breathing intensified. Mic wrote an article. Then Gizmodo. Then it got big. The flailing desire for clicks from the journalists had me talking with people in Taiwan and Russia. I did probably 50 interviews in two months, along with four documentaries. A branch of the military I’m not supposed to talk about keeps emailing me. They want me to visit again.

What I find most bizarre is this pervasive push to normalize the strange, and the desire for objectification of the weird. Research work is boring to watch, and that should be ok. This is not a rock star thing, and making it that way is not conducive to making good research.

Our society has a way of farming the freaks. Capitalism curates bohemians. You take a bunch of people that not great at integrating with the rest of society, let them have a neighborhood, and then you enjoy the fruits of their labor, whether it’s hip hop, graffiti, the computer revolution, body modification, whatever. Remember when “no one responsible” had tattoos? But that was 20 years ago.

Instead, now, we pick the culture when it’s green. It doesn’t have a chance to grow before someone is trying to sell it. Biohacking is no different.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I wanted more data points! But I had also been told that media exposure gets funding. (Still waiting, y’all). But it turns out that if you learned how to farm from people who picked the fruit green, you never knew what a ripe tomato was supposed to taste like.

We sacrificed data for exposure, the worst thing that we could possibly do as scientists.

Every conference we attend, every talk we participate in, every Facebook post makes it worse. Because we’re not sharing data, we’re just creating noise. “Is biohacking running amuck?” they ask.

No.

No one has even done anything worth talking about yet. The eyedrops worked, but kinda meh, and there is no good data because no one wants to fund the project.

Except for the people sending me emails about how their nine-year-old daughter has retinitis pigmentosa and they would pay for her to be a test subject. Other than that, there are only three other people I know of that work in personal labs that have made something that one could consider functional. And all their data is mostly useless as well.

Have we considered that every project shouldn’t become a product?

Have we thought that the rampant commodification of our efforts usually serves someone else — not us?

I was asked to write an article about the night vision eyedrops experiment, from my own perspective, free of the journalistic bias.

And I think I did.

It was a footnote in this essay, because the eye drops meant fuck all, other than spawning more enthusiasm about a thing that doesn’t even exist yet.

Developing a narrative that sells something or builds an epic arc, it’s a very human thing to do.

But I was there; it was my eyeballs.

If you want to be here for the next chapter, participate more. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure-type of story. Don’t like, don’t follow, don’t subscribe. Do good work and support those who do good work. Don’t try to make money off it.

That’s all that needs to happen.