RICH LEE IS PART OF A NEW GENERATION OF BIOHACKERS, HOBBYISTS WHO EXCHANGE DESIGNS ONLINE IN THE HOPES OF CREATING A HYPER-DIVERSE, SENSORIALLY-ENHANCED HUMAN RACE.
The human body doesn’t do upgrades. Take poor care of your machinery, and there’s no reboot, no system overhaul, no virus software that can come to your aid. In terms of the basic sensory apparatus and what it offers, you’re pretty much stuck with the equipment you’re born with. At least, until now.
Rich Lee is a grinder, which is to say he’s part of a small but robust community of body hackers, open-source transhumanists, and body modification nuts who have decided not to take nature’s limitations sitting down. He received waves of attention in the press last month for being the first person to surgically implant neodymium magnets into his ears; paired with a small apparatus around his neck, Lee can use his ear magnets as built-in headphones. That’s right: headphones built into his head. Lee received this unregulated surgery without anesthesia, based on a concept modified from an online Instructable. Like hundreds of other grinders all around the world, he dreams of a future when this–and many other strange physiological adjustments–might be made with the same ease that we now get tattoos or haircuts.
What follows: an interview with your everyday basement biohacker. Read closely. People like Lee will outnumber the rest of us someday, touching hidden magnetic fields, listening to music inside their own heads, and sensing an invisible world.
How did you get started Grinding?
Rich Lee: I inherited this tub of magazines from my grandmother, a ton of magazines from the 1950s, 60s, 70s. Out of habit, I’d flip to the sections about science and technology, to get a kick out of all the stuff they were excited about way back when. And it freaked me out, it really did. A lot of it was: you’re going to have flying cars before you’re dead. So that was my moment, where I thought: man, I might not make it.
So you became disillusioned with the way the future was presented to us, and you just had to take hold of it yourself?
Rich Lee: That’s probably the best way to say it. I’m going to steal that.
Where does this do-it-yourself ethos come from?
Rich Lee: Actually, I’m horrible with the DIY stuff. I really am. I’m just learning. I totally dove into biology, the Maker thing. Because I was stupid and went into business, I have this bad attitude: I tell someone, hey I want this, build it for me. And I get mad at them until it’s done. You can do that now. Back when I had money, I was contacting medical implant companies, saying, “hey, I want you to engineer me something, I have this idea, and it’s kind of crazy, and I’m probably the only one who wants it, but tell me what it would cost to get it engineered. And don’t worry about FDA approval, because I just need a prototype.” They were suspicious, and a lot of them shot me down, saying they weren’t interested unless they got paid on the manufacturing end, or, “we don’t like that idea, we don’t want it our name on it.” Anyway, I still have a really hard time. From time to time I ask people, “hey, are you open to making me this device?” I get a lot of resistance.
Do you have a magnet implanted in your finger?
Rich Lee: It’s kind of a rite of passage. As soon as I found out about them, I went out and got one. The magnet thing is underwhelming a little, but it’s a good way to break into it. You have it in and you totally forget it’s even there. It’s always going. You take it for granted after a while.
You have additional senses and expanded capacity to perceive the world. Does it ever feel lonely, not being able to share that with other people?
Rich Lee: You know, that might be one reason why there’s such a strong bond among grinders. When we get together, when we meet each other, we’re just “oh yeah! did you pass by this? did you check this out? come feel this!” We get really giddy about exploring. And I’d say, yeah, I get a little bit lonely.
Do you want to see Grinding go mainstream?
Rich Lee: You know, I think some of the things might go mainstream someday. I can see this ear implant maybe going mainstream for some people, for the military, but it’s not going to be for everybody. The finger magnet isn’t for everybody. I think a lot of people are really excited for wearables and gadgets in the future. If it does mainstream, by the time it does, we’ll still remain on the fringe. We will create the new fringe.
Let’s talk about your headphone implant.
Rich Lee: It was done by Steve Haworth. I’ve talked to him a lot. He implanted my magnet, I’ve hooked him up with other people to implant their magnets, we met in LA–he was selling magnets at a futurist convention where I spoke. I know him, and I bounce ideas off him all the time. When I thought about this idea, I just told him, “those same magnets you put in people’s fingers, I need you to stick them in my ears.” I saw the concept online, somebody had done it. I thought, I can build this, I can make it. So I put everything together, even though I’m pretty terrible at assembling things, at soldering things. But I still try, I try my little heart out. Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned since I’ve started grinding.
You’re a businessman. Do you see this as a business opportunity?
Rich Lee: No. In fact, I don’t think that I can, to be honest with you. Legally, you can’t implant anything, besides these magnets, which have grandfathered materials, as far as the FDA is concerned. The next implant I get done, which will be in conjunction with the magnets–I’m gonna remove the whole coil thing and just go wireless. I’m gonna get a bluetooth module, hook it up to a coil, and a small power supply, and just implant it near my magnet so that when I get something through bluetooth, it’ll just make the magnet buzz. When I have to recharge, then I’ve got something figured out for that too.
I think I’m one of the only transhumanists that doesn’t have a huge science fiction collection. I don’t even watch Star Trek.
Does your headphone implant sound good?
Rich Lee: It sounds surprisingly good. First off, I had really low expectations. I thought it would be really muffled. I didn’t even know if it was going to work. I thought if the skin was stretched over this magnet, it wouldn’t have room to vibrate. But when I got the music going, it sounded good. Like a cheap set of headphones, one of those dollar headphones. That’s probably the best description.
You may soon be legally blind. Does this condition influence your desire to enhance your body?
Rich Lee: I’m definitely trying to outdo nature. Nature’s great, but it only takes you so far. It only gives you so much. I didn’t ever see this as a fix to blindness at all, and I haven’t resigned myself to blindness.
Do you believe that grinding is a process that can ever be finished? In one of your articles, you talk about “wanting out” of the human race. What does that actually mean, pragmatically?
Rich Lee: Honestly, when I close my eyes, if somebody were to ask me about the future…well, there’s really two types of people: the majority of people will say that they hope humans…all evolve together, that everybody’s the same within a certain degree. I’m really hoping for hyper-diversity. Where we can go so many different directions, and we just sort of shake hands and walk away, or, say, hey–you’re an intelligent being, you look completely different than me, we can have a conversation, that’s great. I’m hoping for that hyper-diversity, where we’re just freaks all over the place. In my end game, geez, I’d just keep adding on. I’d love to breathe underwater. I’d love to do this and that. I’ve got a list of over a hundred things, projects I would love to see completed, that some grinders are working on.
Is there a point at which you think that the human body can be modified so much that it’s no longer human?
Rich Lee: I guess, first, you have to define human. There’s a lot of different ways to do that, but I partly define human as being subject to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–if you’re subject to those things, you have to eat, breathe, sleep, that’s part of what makes you human.
But those are mostly biological constraints. If you transcend all those biological needs, are you still human?
Rich Lee: I don’t know. That’s the thing, I’m still an intelligent being, hopefully, if this hasn’t destroyed my mind. I think that’s a question society will ask. I think they’re the ones that are going to say, “is he still human?” To me, it doesn’t matter if I’m human or not. If you can have a conversation with something…as crazy as it sounds, if I have a conversation with a cat–which I’ve done before, but if it really talked back to me–and it was intelligent somehow, I’d treat that creature as I would a human, probably. So I don’t know. The kind of change that I want is pretty radical. I think it would probably take me out of the gene pool at some point.
Do you see that as a possibility in your lifetime?
Rich Lee: I do. I think it’s really close.
Can you be a transhumanist without being a grinder?
Rich Lee: There’s the transhuman philosophy, right? And there’s the act of becoming a posthuman–that form of transhumanism. For me, doing things to make yourself posthuman or transhuman–that’s what I’m focused on. A lot of people would much rather it be a club, or some kind of high society thing, or a philosophy. A place where they can sit around and talk about these things, or stomp around and say, “hey, we want this philosophy recognized by everyone in the world.” But I’m just going to take it. I didn’t come into transhumanism wanting a social club. Or wanting friends. Stimulating conversation is great, but I want my fucking jetpack. You know what I mean? To me, if you are really going to call yourself a transhumanist, you should get involved, you should take steps towards it.
So it’s a philosophy of action.
Rich Lee: Grinding is definitely a philosophy of action.
Are you afraid of death?
Rich Lee: I see it as a challenge. I guess I am afraid of it too. I’m more afraid of pain.
Do you read science fiction?
Rich Lee: I think I’m one of the only transhumanists that doesn’t have a huge science fiction collection. I don’t even watch Star Trek.
Are there any modifications or implants that you wish you could have?
Rich Lee: If I was funds unlimited, I seriously have got a huge list of things. There’s a genetic modification that I would love to have…
Rich Lee: See, that’s the thing with grinders–most of us are into the cyborg thing and the mutant thing, for lack of better terminology. There’s a few different levels. Genetic modification would mean you’re actually changing your own genes, which is very dangerous. it’s something you can’t take lightly. There are people working on some gene therapies right now where pretty much you take a virus, put a new gene on this virus, bombard your body with it, and it goes into your cells, reprograms your cells. After that these cells express this new gene.
There’s going to be some version of Nancy Reagan in 5-10 years: instead of crack, it’s going to be gene doping.
Has that been done by grinders?
Rich Lee: I don’t know that I should comment on that. I know that there are a lot of gene therapies in the grinding community that are being worked on right now, for night-vision, tetrachromacy, strength, and endurance.
Obviously, this level of grinding involves scientists who have access to labs and materials. How?
Rich Lee: Yes. That’s our thing: Anon Science. It’s not just Citizen Science, it’s Anon Science. There’s IRC Channels right now going crazy, people saying “hey, did you get this vector? Can I get the specs on that device”? All kinds of crazy things that are probably going to be illegal–that are technically already illegal. There’s going to be some version of Nancy Reagan in 5-10 years: instead of crack, it’s going to be gene doping, or digital doping.
Do you encounter a lot of resistance?
Rich Lee: Absolutely. My wife doesn’t get it. I just quit trying to explain. I still don’t have the words for it. The closest I can come is, after I got my finger magnet implant, and I experienced this other world that’s there–I tell people that if I lost it, I’d be heartbroken. I’d be so mad. It’d be like losing an eye. I tell people, do you like being able to hear? If you couldn’t hear, you’d be pretty upset, right? Well, now that I know there’s other stuff out there, I feel like I’m blind.