If you open a beer next to me, I can levitate your bottle cap with the tip of my finger. I can’t carry hotel keycards in my right pocket, because I occasionally demagnetize them. You can find my website by rubbing your phone on the back of my hand. Depending on how you look at it, I have either some amazing party tricks or the most pointless psychic abilities of all time.
Push hard on my skin, and you’ll find that the source is two lumps of glass, metal, and plastic embedded in my right hand: a years-old magnet in the ring finger and a newer NFC chip in my thumb webbing. Before getting the magnet, I read paeans to the coming cyborg revolution. After putting it in, I had people tell me my hand would fall off. Since getting the NFC chip in June, I’ve read that I’m carrying the Mark of the Beast and found instructions for how to disable it with a taser. Well, I come from the future, and I’m here to tell you: transcending the limits of the flesh can be downright dull.
I first heard about magnet implants in college, but I didn’t seriously pursue one until my colleague Ben Popper got his for the piece that would become "Cyborg America." At a Brooklyn tattoo parlor in 2012, I watched someone cut along the top of my finger, tear open a pocket with a dowel, and slide in a dark rod about half the size of a sunflower seed. Later, when I ran my hand across everything in my apartment and felt it humming over an intercom, I fell in love. I began to catalog sensations: the vicious pinch of picking up a Buckyball, the jitter of using a microwave, the sense of floating when I hovered my hand above another magnet.
We don’t get stopped by airport security or magically crash computers
These days, Ben is bored with his implant. Neither he nor I have ever felt trains going by underneath us or found distant electrical signals while walking down the street. We don’t get stopped by airport security or magically crash computers by touching them. Still, I’ve never stopped liking mine. My body is more like a paper doll than a capable tool, but it holds the seeds of tiny superpowers. I can lift screws out of holes when I’m opening up electronics. I can sweep up pins while I’m sewing. I’m acutely aware of the invisible signals that machines and electronics put out. It’s mostly useless stuff, yes, but how many of the textures you feel qualify as need-to-know information? These days, the magnet no longer feels like magic, but you can still find me waving my hand in front of running microwaves from time to time. I’d feel bereft if I couldn’t sense the little arc over the "Enter" key of my MacBook, which I think means I’m near the hard drive.
A year and a half later, I bought an NFC chip, deciding that if it was even a fraction as much fun as the magnet, I wanted it. It wasn’t hard to find. The site Dangerous Things sells a passive tag — a chip that doesn’t require a battery to work, like the ones you find in rings or business cards or stickers — pre-loaded into a syringe and packaged with plastic gloves and disinfectant. Fast as the magnet installation was, it was like having my skin ripped off. The NFC injection was more like giving blood. If you’ve got an Android device, it’s also easy to program, although positioning an antenna to read through my hand is another matter.
But, well, NFC was kind of boring when it was outside my flesh, and so far it’s still kind of boring underneath. To really harness a chip, it helps to surround yourself with things built to work with it, and most of those things aren’t an option for me. I can’t get my office’s giant security conglomerate to make my chip a trusted keycard. I’m not buying a smart lock for a rented New York apartment. I’m not putting a credit card on this thing, and I don’t think I could if I wanted to. I don’t own a car to retrofit. An app lets me open my phone with NFC, but it’s not worth using the limited custom lockscreen. I spent some time trying to make myself the catalyst for an alternate reality game — in case you were wondering, I was going to put map coordinates on my hand, which would direct you to a geocache in Brooklyn, which would give you some kind of link to a Tor hidden site, which… I hadn’t really figured it out beyond that, except that it involved Manhattanhenge and teenage cyber-druids.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s cool and people love it. For a while it opened the Verge website on phones, it briefly directed people to coordinates for the NYU Game Center, and right now it opens Snapchat really quickly if my phone is unlocked. I can imagine telling all my friends to come to a hard-to-find bar and directly sending them the location.
I haven’t exhausted my store of ideas, even if I’m not sure how many are feasible. It’s just not an integral part of my life the way the magnet is. What I have feels like a piercing that can incidentally hold a kilobyte of data, and someone online very aptly compared it to the RFIDs you use to tag your pets. I knew beforehand that its value would be determined by how well other things support it, but I hadn’t fully understood how often I would bump up against that fact, or how much of a contrast it would be to the narrative of cyborg conversion. It’s also a strange reminder that someday, small parts of me will be obsolete.
The chip that’s inside me is rated for 100,000 writes per memory block. Even if I wrote something new to it every day, I’m theoretically safe for at least 273 years. But how long will the current NFC standard be around? I’ve already had to swear off iPhones for the foreseeable future, unless I want to cover one with a custom case. When nothing works with it any more, I’ll just be carrying a useless glass capsule.
Cyborgness is a continuum
I still don’t think I’ll have wasted my time. There’s something poetic about having the present so firmly fixed into you that you can feel it become the past. I don’t have any interest in artistic or even visible body modification; there’s already enough pressure around figuring out how to look and dress. But give me something with even the thinnest veneer of usefulness, and I don’t care whether it makes any practical sense. It’s a symbolic way to declare my apostasy from nature, a first step towards becoming something that evolutionary psychologists can’t neatly box up with stories about cavemen and cavewomen. Maybe this is what being very slightly posthuman is — being able to get a new ability and say, "What’s the big deal?"
Someone asked me recently whether "cyborg" was really a word people with implants used to describe themselves. Cyborgness is a continuum, and I’m a whole lot closer to the "corrective lenses" end of the spectrum than the Terminator one, so I’m saving the term until I find something that feels a little more undeniably science fictional. People with pacemakers are far more cyborg than I am, and I have medical implants more high-tech than the stuff in my hand. But I’m willing to claim it on rhetorical grounds, in a way that’s more literal than Donna Haraway probably intended. If getting an NFC implant can somehow put me closer to piezoelectric energy harvesting or instant medical diagnosis, so much the better. If not, I can take solace in the fact that my body opens hyperlinks, and there's nothing weird about that. We're living in the future, after all.