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Insights, Interview

DIY Transhumanism Communities for Human Flourishing: Meet The Grinders

Interview with Jacob A. Boss (JB), PhD candidate in Religious Studies at Indiana University by William Barylo (WB).

WB: Can you tell us about yourself and your research around the grinder movement?

JB: I’m Jacob Boss, PhD candidate in Religious Studies at Indiana University. I am doing an ethnography of grassroots transhumanism for my dissertation research, and my work focuses on the grinder movement, who are the punks of the biohacking world. They take their name from the comic book series Doktor Sleepless, where the grinders in the story are anti-authoritarian hacker punks living in a dystopian future who appropriate and repurpose technologies of oppression to resist the Police and carceral systems that control their civilization. The movement is well versed into fiction and imaginative worlds from Ghost In The Shell to Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, and so on.

I found the grinders by chasing technologies of immortality at the DEFCON conference in Las Vegas, which is the world’s largest hacker convention. While I was there, I ran into people who were doing low-resourced, extra-institutional research and who were using their bodies as research laboratories. I asked: “hey, can I tag along? The work that you’re doing is super interesting.” They said: “yeah, sure, buddy. You wanna microchip?” And we were off from there. The grinders very kindly let me follow them all over the country: I travelled to meetups and conferences in Nevada, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, etc.

WB: What about the demographics of the grinder movement, who is part of it? Where are they based? When was it founded? Can you tell us more about that?

JB: Grinding is distributed all over the world. The central inspirational figure for grinding is Lepht Anonym, a body hacker, who is UK-based and gave a talk called “Cybernetics For The Masses” in 2010. Many grinders trace their inspiration for body hacking, body modification, body art, self-experimentation, do-it-yourself cybernetics to this talk and Lepht’s blog, Sapiens Anonym. Lepht’s message was : “people of the world are waiting for someone else, some corporate lab to develop the future for you and sell it to you on subscription. We can do things ourselves individually and with communities. We can figure out what we wanna do with cybernetics, technologies of the body and body modification. We can get into experimentation ourselves, and in fact, we have to. Otherwise the future we get is gonna be a future of someone else designed for us.”

There’s been development in the composition of grinders over the last 10 years. One of the things that I’ve been doing in my work is trying to shift the narrative from a handful of generally generation X white men who have emerged as kind of the media spokespeople for the movement to the fact that the movement is actually very heavily populated by and led by disabled, trans, neurodivergent hackers who are working with very limited resources and building not just communities of research, but communities of support.

WB: You mentioned you stumbled upon a library where they’ve collected some of the main texts of some of the world’s main religions, and using this as an as an inspiration for their ethical framework. So how does it work? What role plays, religions or spirituality in their quest?

JB: Because of this focus on the present, in grinder communities, there’s also an openness. There’s an interesting interplay between the practicality of being grounded in the present and yet so many grinders are actually well informed about the true nature and limitations of AI. If an AI or superintelligence were to emerge, grinders would say: “yeah, cool. I hope it comes from a healthy culture, or it’s open to learning how to be a good person.” This notion of becoming a good person or being part of a good community has fuelled many grinders’ interest in the development of human spirituality, religion and community. They want to try to understand what it means to create a new identity, create a new community, and to experience new forms of transformative togetherness.

WB: Would you find people of faith among the grinders?

JB: It’s common to talk to one person while I’m at a conference and for them to say: “this is deeply spiritual for me.” And then I’d talk to another person, and they’d say: “I have no idea why a person interested in religion would be here because there’s nothing religious going on.” Of course, to a Religious Studies scholar, strong denials of the presence of religion are equally compelling. And then there are also people who engage in defensive strategies because they find their interest in technology criticized or marginalized in their communities. A lot of people have shared with me having to navigate older relatives who fear that they are somehow condemning or damning themselves by engaging with or implanting technologies.

WB: You mentioned these people offering you a microchip when you met them at the DEFCON conference. Can you actually literally show up and ask for augmentations?

JB: Yes, the simplest and quickest ones, the most accessible ones are the RFID or NFC chips. Those are produced with autoinjectors. You simply poke them into the hand in a good location. Press and they pop right in. Slap a Band-Aid over it. You’re good to go. At conferences like DEFCON, there will be lines in front of tables where technicians will be installing these all day round the clock. Magnet implants are extremely popular and these magnet implants typically go into the hand. The fingers are a popular spot because when the nerves heal and accommodate the new magnet, people gain the capacity to feel electromagnetic activity, and this new sense is very exciting for many people.

WB: What are their resources and support?

JB: Working extra institutionally and being marginalized means that they’re engaged in what Lepht calls “scrap-heap transhumanism.” Punk involves scrabbling for materials, remaking, repurposing, and taking ownership for them to create communities that are low-resource but empowered through innovation. Although this is very frustrating for them, they don’t want to take on any kind of external support that would obligate or implicate them in exploitative systems that they’re opposed to.

WB: In this low-resource environment, do they face the temptation of selling-out?

JB: This is a constant source of tension and frustration in the community. My article Punks And Profiteers In The War On Death offers this framework of punks and profiteers to talk about how the grassroots navigates the real benefits that come from selling-out. Their commitment to an extra-institutional punk anti-oppressive vision of technological development is constantly in flux. People have real material needs. They see the potential that can come from things like going corporate, developing products to sell, getting different kinds of sponsorship or move more towards a business model.

WB: Do they have a unified version of what does liberation mean to them? And how can it be achieved?

JB: They don’t have a unified vision of anything. They are a vibrant, bubbling, contentious grassroots movement that is scattered and spread out. For example, when I asked Lepht about an ideal future, Lepht really, really had to think about it before saying that an ideal future would involve a kind of cyberpunk floating city. Why? The floating city means extra-territorial. It means outside of governmental and regulatory control. And what’s the purpose? Not to be some kind of utopian society. Lepht said: “people could come to us and we could hook them up with whatever kind of cool body mods they would like.” In other words, when pressed to offer a vision of the future, the theme was “freedom to do as we like to help other people to have the bodies and capacities that they want.”

WB: How do they imagine bypassing and building that extra institutional lifestyle? Do they think of fleeing or, conversely, do they also include the possibility of existing while hiding or navigating undercover in the system?

JB: I think there is an increasing criminalization of marginalized peoples and potential for creating exclusive ecosystems where people need to buy-in to corporate cultures. A vision that looks very much like that predicted by, say, the Shadowrun media franchise, where corporations become sort of governmental entities unto themselves. In all of these events, the grinders would not be surprised. Just as a hopeful future is familiar to them, so is the idea of resistance. Supporting reproductive justice, access to hormones, and better health devices is an expression of the core values of the movement. Lepht’s vision of scrap-heap transhumanism involves using cast-off and repurposed technologies to create the possibilities of freedoms in societies that seem dedicated to stamping them out – an idea not new or unfamiliar to marginalized peoples throughout history.

Nowadays, funding and attention is fixed on elites who engage in all kinds of fantasizing about escaping or transcending the world: they are waiting for an event like the singularity or artificial general intelligence, mind uploading/downloading technologies or advancements in terraforming and space colonization to fix things. However, in my research, I found that the most promising possibilities for a better future for the world, humans and nonhumans, is in grassroots organizing and in communities like the grinders that are asking “what can we do to help now?”

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