Citizen Science

~~The early hackers~~

Back in the late 1970s, when computers were just getting to the point where they were more-or-less affordable to everyone, some people decided to figure out how they worked, and to make their own hardware and software, rather than just sitting around, complaining about how certain programs didn't exist.  These people were called "hackers," after the name for an earlier MIT community of a similar mindset.  "Hacker" in this case has nothing to do with the colloquial usage of the term, which might better be termed "cracker."  Contra the common perception of hackers as writing malware, and breaking into systems to steal personal info, these hackers were simply people who dissected the essence of computers, to figure out how they worked and to make their own computers and programs.  Hackers generally thought that this knowledge, and the designs that came from it, should be freely available to everyone, sparking what is now known as either "free" or "open-source" software.

These people, though not as well-known today, actually were the main spark for the computer revolution of that time.  Indeed, Bill Gates--who designed Windows--and Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs--who designed Macintosh--all started out as hackers.  At present, however, despite the cries of the early hackers, neither Windows nor Macintosh are open-source.  The only major operating systems that are still open-source are those based on the Linux/GNU kernel.  However, the open-source attitude has been planted in hackers everywhere, even today.


Around the same time, a movement called "transhumanism" arose from the earlier "futurist" movement.  The futurist movement had essentially split in two, between those who were optimistic, and those who were pessimistic.  The optimistic arm had essentially been absorbed into the new transhumanist movement.  Transhumanists advocate the use of technology to overcome any, or all, limitations or problems with the human body, or human condition in general.  This movement generally makes use of such controversial, emerging technologies as genetic engineering, cybernetics, and nanotechnology; seeing them as a way to make tangible the goal of transcending humanity.


It didn't take long, however, for critics of the new movement to arise.  Other than some batshit criticisms, such as "You're trying to play God," and "You're advocating tampering with nature's way," two legitimate criticisms began to take shape.  The first such criticism was that transhumanists were mainly philosophers, who merely sat on their butts and speculated about the implications of certain emerging technologies, without actually bothering to go out and try to invent such technologies for themselves.  The second was that emerging technologies cost a lot, and it's hard to get your hands on the juicy bits.  Worse case scenario, this could lead to a GATTACA-like scenario, with the rich being able to afford these technologies while the poor cannot, leading to a genetic discrimination against the poor.

It was high time for a new movement to arise.   This happened in the early 21st century, with the rise of the DIYbiology and biopunk movements.  These movements embraced the criticisms mentioned earlier, and each focused on one of them.  "Biopunk" generally refers to the people embracing the first criticism, and doing synthetic biology experiments to avoid it.  Essentially, this movement is of a similar mindset to the earlier hackers, who took a "go out and get it done" attitude to unsolved problems.  The DIYbio movement generally encompasses those who embrace the second criticism, and want to make the biopunk's experiments affordable; the equipment should be able to be reconstructed by anyone.  The DIYbiologists thus embraced the open-source attitude of the hackers.  Indeed, members of these movements are called "biohackers," and each is, in its own way, a fusion of the attitudes of hackers and transhumanists.

The attitude of biohackers can be seen in Meredith Patterson's 2009 piece "A Biopunk Manifesto,"  inspired by the earlier Cypherpunk Manifesto.  While some biohackers are simply content to make yoghurt glow in the dark for the hell of it, most of them are motivated by an attitude similar to transhumanism.  Like transhumanism, most of their work involves genetic engineering and cybernetics, and there is even a group of people dedicated to open source nanotechnology.  Biohackers generally work either out of their own homes, or at co-operative "hackerspaces," which are open to all who want to contribute.  There are communities such as iGEM, where biohackers present their findings to the public; there are even competitions where biohackers can compete with others of a similar mindset.

Some achievements of the DIYbio movement include neuroscientist equipment, PCR thermocyclers  (in fact, at least three have been made), and open access journals, which release their contents publicly.  Achievements of the biopunk movement include making arrays of bacteria that act as logic gates, making bacteria that change color when in the presence of certain toxins, and making lamps that run on sugar out of bioluminescent yeast.


The grinding movement is a subset of the biopunk and DIYbio movements.  Indeed, it's where the transhumanist, biohacking, and body modification communities meet.  This movement has been referred to as "homebrew transhumanism," or "practical transhumanism," as it extends the biohacker's determination to do it yourself to a new level.  Rather than hacking other organisms, as most biohackers do, grinders hack themselves.  Indeed, the term "grinder" is taken from Doktor Sleepless, where it is used to refer to those who practice extreme body modification.  People have been expressing the grinder mentality at least since 2006, but its existence as a unified movement has only happened since early 2011, after grinding pioneer Lepht Anonym gave a talk on the subject at the 27th Chaos Communication Congress.  The main goal of grinders is sensory extension, and to this end, most grinders have implanted neodymium magnets into their fingertips, following body modification artist Steve Haworth.  Other projects include the Southpaw (an implanted compass), implanted RFID tags, the lovetron9000, and, most recently, a sensory extension kit.  Bioproofing is usually done either with hot glue, or a mouldable silicone rubber called Sugru.

The grinder mentality isn't usually reflected by the academic community, but the main exception to this rule would be Kevin Warwick and his students.  These people have implanted various things into themselves (including the magnet implants) in an attempt to better the human condition.  Warwick himself echos grinders when he challenges Ray Kurzweil to actually work on the technologies he claims are imminent.  This movement is even more individualist than biohacking, but just as cooperative.  When grinders work offline, they usually work in solitude.  They log their experiments at personal blogs (such as the one you're reading!), release their findings and ideas to the public via the hub, and receive news of the successes and failures of others via the site

Ultimately, this blog invites the reader:  be a Kevin Warwick, a Lepht Anonym, or a Bryan Bishop; not a Ray Kurzweil.

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