James Newman, 37, looks more salesman than cyberpunk—which makes sense, because he's a purchasing agent at a Fortune 500 company.
He rocked a Mohawk in the '90s, but these days, he wears a pasty complexion, slicked-back hair, gray slacks and button-down shirts. He has a natural intensity, accented by Red Bull and Rock Star.
He has no tattoos or piercings. But he has modified his body.
When he walks into his Canby apartment, there's no fumbling with keys or fobs: He simply waves his hand to pass through the gated community's locked gates, then again to open his front door. A radio-frequency ID that was surgically implanted into his left forearm in April is now his key.
Over the past five years, Newman has had six implants surgically inserted into his hands and forearms. Four of them are radio-frequency ID and near-field communication transponder chips, which transmit small bits of information to digital readers when held within a few inches. He also has a magnet and a "Firefly Tattoo," which contains a radioactive isotope that emits a green glow—his only implant that's just for decoration and ornamentation, he says.
His true identity is as a "grinder," or "biohacker"—one of a growing number of Oregonians implanting microchips and other devices into their bodies.
Newman calls himself a "grinder."
Grinders are "people who just put in the hours," says Newman, whose apartment contains a cryptocurrency mining operation. "They just work. No matter how many hours you put into it, no matter how many times you fail, you always just go for it. What's next? What's next?"
Portland's Drew Prindle prefers the word "biohacker."
Prindle, 29, is an editor for Digital Trends, a tech media company based in Portland. He has implanted two chips, one in the soft skin between the thumb and index finger of each hand. He uses them to unlock the door to the Digital Trends office at the US Bancorp Tower and to "wave my hand and give people my business card" by transferring his contact data onto a compatible smartphone.
Prindle says when he got his first chip implanted in January 2017, it was "weird—I could feel the little pill-shaped transponder go in."
But now they're part of his daily routine.
"I don't have to remember to put this on," Prindle says. "It is quite literally an extension of my body. You don't have to remember to screw your feet on in the morning."
He uses the chips multiple times a day. When he goes to a hotel, he says, if it uses a key-card system compatible with radio-frequency ID, he copies the hotel's card reader and "flashes" it into his hand with a specialized card reader and copier. That device copies the digital information stored in the hotel card and transfers it to the chip in his hand.
Matt Smith, a network administrator and Oregon State University student, has implanted three chips so far, and he's "aiming to get five," he says.
He uses them to unlock the deadbolts on his house and the door at his gym, and soon they'll also unlock his "crappy 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer" and his 2015 Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle.
For Smith, the appeal is "multilayered." "I love the convenience, embracing the future," he says. "I love the experience behind it."
Globally, there's little question that biohacking is booming.
In the past three years, more than 3,000 Swedes have embedded microchips in their bodies, freeing them from carrying ID, keys or train tickets. Last year, a Wisconsin company implanted a number of its employees with chips that allow them to leave their credit cards at home, while Elon Musk launched a company, Neuralink, that is seeking to implant chips in the human brain that would allow it to connect wirelessly to the cloud.
How big is the community of biohackers in Oregon? Tough to say. Newman guesses fewer than 100. But Ryan O'Shea, who produces a grinder podcast and works for Pittsburgh biohacking startup Grindhouse Wetware, says it's higher in Oregon than in most states. "In general, the Pacific coast seems to be a popular region for this content," O'Shea notes.
For first-time biohackers, injecting a tiny chip is a simple—even bloodless—matter, done in five minutes with a preloaded, inexpensive injector kit ordered from a company like Seattle's Dangerous Things, one of the globe's most prominent suppliers of implants. (Its motto is "custom gadgetry for the discerning biohacker.")
But with larger devices, like Newman's homemade key fob thingamajig, implantation amounts to minor hand surgery, with scalpel or other instruments. Amal Graafstra, CEO of Dangerous Things, did Prindle's at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last year. (Watch it here.)
In Oregon, body modification professionals—a group that includes piercers and tattoo artists—are forbidden by state law to implant functional, non-ornamental devices in their customers.
Samie Patnode, a longtime policy analyst at Oregon's Board of Electrologists and Body Art Practitioners, says the practice falls outside of the piercing and ornamentation that practitioners are allowed to perform.
"We don't have lawful authority to implant a device under the skin," Patnode says. Practitioners are limited to working with "ornamental," not functional, devices.
Other states and countries allow body modification artists to do the procedure.
"We've had multiple people interested in it, for sure," says Seven Wolfe, co-owner of tattoo parlor Ritual Arts, in Portland's Hollywood neighborhood. "They're interested in getting the chip installed," he says, but can't "because it's illegal in the state of Oregon [for us] to do that."
That doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Smith has had some of his work done by a tattoo artist, but the artist insisted on doing it "completely off the books," he says. "No paperwork signed, no record."
Patnode says her agency has not received any complaints regarding implanting technology under the skin of a person.
"I'm sure there will be a discussion about [tech implants] at the board meeting on Nov. 5," Patnode says, after questions from WW led to a conversation at the board level.
Devices implanted by biohackers are consumer, not medical, grade and are not approved for use in humans. They're made with improvised materials or for use in animals, and haven't passed rigorous clinical testing.
They cost about $100—versus tens of thousands of dollars for a pacemaker. And they come with known risks.
The web is littered with icky stories of DIY biohacks gone wrong. Oregon's biohackers are hardly different.
Newman had a chip become obsolete, and his magnet "popped" through his homemade, Super-Glued stitches, out of his finger and onto the hood of his Ford Escort. He's still having problems with it, he says—like one-third of magnet implantees whose magnet implants failed, according to a small study on biohack.me.
Smith had a chip "brick," or stop working, after a failed software update.
Prindle, 29, the Digital Trends editor, says he's been happy with his two implants and sees few if any downsides. But at one point, he noticed the implant in his right hand "kind of wandered." That worried him because its exterior is Schott borosilicate glass and it drifted near his bones. What if it shattered?
"Yeah," he says, "then I have to either cut this out myself, or go to a doctor and have them remove it, at which point they're going to be like, 'You fucking idiot,' and nobody wants that."
Smith points out that the kinds of chips implanted in humans, unlike those put into cats and dogs, don't have any bonding agents, so "it just sits in your skin pocket."
Biohacking advocates such as Graafstra and O'Shea say the practice is hardly more dangerous than breast or buttocks implants.
"There are some scary stories about romaine lettuce as well. Informed consent is key," O'Shea summarizes.
If there is a Johnny Appleseed of biohacking, it is Seattle's Dangerous Things founder Amal Graafstra.
A self-described "jack of all trades," Graafstra dropped out of computer science school and took a job providing IT support for doctors. He got tired of having to use keys to open locked doors while carrying heavy server equipment.
"Don't encumber me with more shit," he says, describing the ubiquitous modern trifecta of keys, wallet and phone as a burdensome "Tamagotchi."
In 2013, he started Dangerous Things out of his Seattle garage.
Since then, he has sold tens of thousands of devices.
The Seattle entrepreneur has personally done "about 4,500 installs," he says, including Prindle's. Since he doesn't accept a penny for installation of the devices—which come with warnings they have not been "tested or certified by any regulatory agency for implantation or use inside the human body"—he doesn't worry about being accused of practicing medicine without a license.
"It's just literally two consenting adults, one jabbing another with a needle," Graafstra says. "The minute I charge a dollar for that service, it becomes a different issue."
At this stage, with notable exceptions like Zoe Quinn—a biohacker who spoke at TechfestNW in Portland in 2015, describing herself as "I'm not a woman in tech; I'm tech in a woman"—implant biohacking seems mostly the province of white men.
This is no socioeconomic elite, though: Most biohackers, like Newman, Prindle and Smith, have working-class roots.
Biohackers appear to be mostly atheist or agnostic, not religious; they see their bodies as available tools, not sacred temples. They don't worry about online trolls who call implants the "mark of the beast," or technophobes who fear Big Brother.
Three Square Market, the Wisconsin company that offered its employees implants, says the No. 1 question the firm gets is, "Aren't you afraid of being tracked?" But as any biohacker can tell you, it simply isn't possible.
Smith, Prindle and Newman all say they've never had any problems passing metal detectors or TSA security protocols. "The implants are too small," Newman says. According to one report by Forbes, only X-ray scanners can uncover them.
Reactions from friends and family, it's worth noting, can range from dubious to hostile. Smith says his friend's wife banned him from their Corvallis home because she thought the government was listening to their conversations.
"I've had people tell me I'm going to hell," Smith says.
All of Newman's, Smith's and Prindle's implants—like the vast majority of biohacking tech devices currently sold—are "passive," meaning they don't contain batteries.
But as the insatiable tech curve bends toward more powerful devices, batteries are sure to be more common in next wave, "active" devices like the NorthStar, the subject of a Facebook live video featuring O'Shea and Tim Cannon of Grindhouse Wetware.
The NorthStar can light up its LED lights—which glow right through the skin—an estimated 10,000 times.
Many biohackers view the use of batteries in implants as the Rubicon: Crossing is simply unacceptable. Last year's Samsung lithium ion batteries exploding and catching fire is Exhibit A. Exhibit B, perhaps, is that battery-powered implants could theoretically allow GPS tracking.
"If you put a powered device in someone, it's extremely risky," Graafstra says. "There are all kinds of chemical reactions happening in there. It is a time bomb waiting to go off."
Grindhouse Wetware's O'Shea admits batteries carry risk, but says it's about mitigation. "What level of risk do you feel comfortable with to attain the benefits offered? For cars, we as a society have decided that the current number of fatal automobile accidents do not outweigh the benefits of being able to get where we're going more quickly."
Prindle, the Digital Trends journalist, says the chips have already improved his life, and are the best pieces of tech he owns. "A lot of days I don't carry keys at all," he says.
He's considering adding the VivoKey, a more sophisticated, encrypted device that allows a user to make contactless payments and can provide access to various accounts, applications and devices: "That would be pretty slick."
Newman believes biohacking can only grow.
"I really think there's a future here," he says. "There's so much technology out there that we already integrate with the human body. We can do so much more."
- Dangerous Things sells “custom gadgetry for the discerning biohacker.” Its encrypted VivoKey could be seen as the next wave.
- Australia’s Cyberise.me sells a range of “rewritable implantable contactless chips that can be used to access most [radio-frequency ID] control systems,” such as “MultiPassMe,” an implantable, $80 near-field communications chip that comes preloaded into a syringe. It’s got 888 bytes of rewritable memory, and can be used to unlock phones and store medical information. Its CyberPunk products offer what you need for “DIY surgery.”
- Biohack.me calls itself the “virtual home of biohackers everywhere,” and features a forum, wiki and Slack.
- RFID Implantees is Amal Graafstra of Dangerous Things’ closed Facebook group page. His TEDx Talk surveys “sixth senses,” sepsis and “anti-chip people.”
- Various news reports about 3,000 Swedes getting implants also discuss that nation’s strong strain of transhumanism, a philosophy that overlaps heavily with biohacking.
- A quick internet search will bring up plenty of disgusting images of biohacking horror stories: the minority, but still.