Thumb Hack

At first, I wasn’t sure this story was real: a 28-year-old Coloradan went under the knife so that he could have pointier thumbs. That way, he is better able to use handheld computers, including his Blackberry. It seems like a fake story, to be sure. Probably because it is.

But what makes it interesting is that it is plausible. After all, people choose to have Lasik eye surgery, and there are stories about having toes removed or shaved down so as to fit better into high heels. As body modifications go, adding something for efficiency just doesn’t seem that strange.

Right now, bionics are really meant to replace or supplement failing parts, like Cheney’s implanted defibrillator. But an increasingly common cosmetic surgery in China severs the bones in the leg in order to add boosters, and increase the overall height. Pitchers have been having surgeries that allow for more strength in their pitching arm for some time. I have a congenital problem with a pair of teeth, and at some point will have them replaced with titanium implants. My dentist assures me that because these are screwed into the skull directly, they will be considerably more resilient than “real” teeth. Were it not for the expense, risk, and pain, I can see having major joints–particularly a shoulder injured in a motorcycle accident many years ago–replaced with titanium, just to give me a slight everyday edge.

And I haven’t even touched the chemical alterations. Sure, we all know that steroids are bad for us, but there are a host of drugs, from HGH (did you know it is used for weight loss?) to Provigil, that are being used for body hacking. And need I mention the little blue pill and its cousins? A lot of people on the drugs front, not surprisingly, are amateur hackers, in the tradition of Prof. Leary.

I suspect it won’t be too long before we start to see amateurs willing to do surgery. It will start light, like self-chipping (inserting subdermal RFIDs and other subdermal devices), and move on to other small implants. As do many, I suspect that this will be a major source of medical tourism in the next few years, though perhaps the destination will not be Chiba. Although bioDiY is heating up, I suspect it will be a while before we see self-surgery as getting its own magazine (Make, Craft, and Cut?).

Update (8/11): As Jeremy notes below, body modification has been going on for cosmetic reasons for as long as humans have been around. This includes things like tattoos, scarification, piercings, implanting foreign objects, and the like. (Actually, dental implants into the skull have a much longer history than just the recent titanium versions.) There has also been a rise in DiY and self-inflicted cosmetic surgery, especially among those with various body dysmorphic disorders. Although I am interested in body modification for form, I am more interested in function. I think that this is relatively new, on the amateur side. I also expect that because the expertise is difficult to develop, most of the experimentation on this front will happen in places like India, which is already developing a strong medical tourism industry. Of course, some of it will also come from those in the body modification culture, who already have some practical experience in amateur surgery.

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  1. Posted 8/11/2007 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    well… there is a whole culture of this in the body modification world… bmezine and such.

  2. alex
    Posted 8/11/2007 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Yep, I lived in its epicenter in Seattle, where a lot of the early experimentation with implants was done. One of my students had horns, back in the 1990s.

  3. Posted 8/11/2007 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Oh i think the function bit has been going on just as long. artistically stelarc was doing function in the late 70’s as i recall. i have a few books on body hacking that date to the early 90’s.

  4. alex
    Posted 8/11/2007 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I agree. And separating form from function is not an easy thing–Stelarc being the exemplary case. I don’t mean to imply that it is new, but rather that it is cusping on being a shift in popular culture. DiY stuff is certainly not new, but there seems to be a surge in tinkering and hacking cultures. Selfhacks aren’t nearly at the same level yet, but they will be.

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