How much do you have to change before you’re not really human anymore? Is it worth it to cling to the idea of humanity when you could be something better? These questions may be the domain of philosophy right now, but all too soon they’ll be having practical effects on our lives. Spearheaded by the the Grinder culture in biohacking, and to a lesser extent by modern medicine, human modification is becoming more and more common and extreme.
Humans have been modifying themselves for a very long time. The first recorded tattoos were made around 5,200 years ago, just as the first written language was coming into being, and the first recorded dental fillings are even older, being from some 13,000 years ago. For a long time, relatively simple modifications such as tattoos, scarification, piercings, and tooth fillings, crude prosthetics for lost body parts, and dangerous trepanations were all humanity could manage – but that didn’t stop humans all over the world from modifying themselves as much as they could, often for aesthetic and cultural purposes, sometimes for medical ones.
Then came modern medicine, and with it the advent of serious medical bodily modifications. Tattooing flourished while piercing became rare and scandalous for a time, then rebounded in popularity around the 1960s. Around the same time, joint replacement surgeries were invented, and relatively modern pacemakers followed. While these modifications were medical in nature, they were unarguably the beginning of a trend of adding permanent, integrated non-organic components to human bodies.
Which brings us to today, where an actual, government-recognized cyborg named Neil Harbisson has an antenna that lets the naturally color-blind artist hear color. And Harbisson and others like him aren’t going to let that be the end of modifying humans, whether for aesthetic preferences or to provide super-human capabilities. And while right now cyborgization might seem edgy and extreme, how long do you think it’s going to take after brain-machine interfaces start giving people basically superpowers for implants to become mainstream? I don’t think it’s going to be long. After all, cochlear implants are already considered normal enough. What’s the difference between that Harbisson’s antenna? What’s the difference between a prosthetic shaped like a hand and one with a built-in USB? We already chip our pets, some brave individuals chip themselves, how long until it’s as standard a right of passage as pericing your ears?
The idea of society changing in this way can seem scary. We may fear losing touch with what has traditionally been considered “human”, despite the fact that our ancestors would have thought us gods. We may think all of this is just the domain of young people and counterculture punks, just as we dismissed piercings and tattoos. We may consider changing the human body to be hubris – but if that’s the case, it’s already too late. Humans have been modifying themselves for practical and aesthetic reasons for longer than civilization has existed, and it’s not going to stop. If anything, it’s going to grow, going to spawn a future where people look however they want and have whatever capabilities they want. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to it.