Emerging and complex, biohacking is a practice that requires collective reflection | by Lidia Zuin | November 2022
Faced with emerging and therefore often unscientifically based techniques, biohacking could be both a means of emancipation and a trap when co-opted by charlatans
Ppopularized in the United States in 2005, the biohacker movement is associated with the experimentation of biomedical technologies outside of scientific and corporate contexts. It has both scientific and political concerns, as followers worry about the power relationships established between medical institutions (corporate and public) and how patients might be subjected to decisions that, in the face of their lack of knowledge technique, could be detrimental.
I have written before about xenofeminism, this new wave of feminism which is also associated with biohacking where it provides technical and medical support to women. In the manifesto written by Helen Hester in 2018, it is mentioned how, in the 1970s, the American self-help movement encouraged a do-it-yourself attitude among women who, at the time, were subjected to procedures such as sterilization and hysterectomy without their consent.
In response to this, the women created Del-Em (a method of uterine aspiration used to remove menstrual material) and a speculum for self-examination and collection of material for diagnosis. Similarly, contemporary collectives such as Gynepunk have developed open source hardware for self-diagnosis and self-care, while others activists like Ryan Hammond produced, in 2015, hormones for people in gender transition who were struggling with American health care.
In Brazil, biohacking is both an experimental and subcultural movement as it has taken on a more commercial approach, as I have described here. It’s not that different from what they have in the US, with the spread of nootropic-focused startups or mobile apps for monitoring intermittent fasting.
People like Ben Greenfield have been known to experiment with their own bodies and sell content to guide those who want to follow in their footsteps. Yet how is it possible to distinguish between biohacking as a resistance movement that experiments with emerging technologies (therefore not fully scientifically backed) and a niche market full of charlatans selling “miraculous” solutions to improve human health? humanity?
I spoke about it with Juliano Sanches. As a doctoral student in the Department of Science and Technology Policy at the State University of Campinas, he explained to me that since biohacking is an emerging movement, many questions are not yet fully defined. One of them is, for example, the ambiguity between biohackers and artists.
Juliano evokes Neil Harbisson, a Spanish artist who presents himself as a cyborg but whom the Brazilian researcher considers a biohacker. According to Juliano, the development of the antenna implanted in Harbisson’s skull, capable of translating colors into sounds transmitted directly into his brain, is a counter-cultural attitude that has the same transgressive appeal of a hacker in the context of computers and punk. in the artistic context — hence the existence of the terms biohacker and biopunk.
Juliano explains that “the way in which biohackers construct their identity in relation to their body evokes social, political, historical and cultural meanings which, apart from contesting, cannot be reproduced only in the scientific context or removed from its particular context”. As an example, he mentions body modification, a practice that is not only scientific, but also aesthetic, social, cultural and political.
Juliano cites Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” (1985) as heralding this discussion, while Meredith Patterson’s “Biopunk Manifesto”, published in 2010, attempts to present the biohacking movement as a critique of hegemonic models of the body. By the way, I already wrote a bit about this relationship between biohacking and body art.
One way to make the movement better known and therefore more developed is to ask for more flexibilization of access to biomedical technologies, as well as substances like cannabidiol and psychobilin. In Brazil, groups of amateurs and researchers organize discussions and activities to develop more scientific content. “We need to work on the development of public policies focused on biohacking and how these measures should be taken with the participation of various actors, such as social organizations and representatives of startups”, recommends Juliano.
The researcher says that one way to establish this link between the state and biohacking is to grant tax breaks to patients who enroll in courses or practice integrative medicine, which is already happening in the Netherlands: “As citizens generate less expenditure for the government, for example, when seeking treatment for diabetes from public health care, the state can benefit from a resource stewardship perspective. But how desirable is the use (and stimulation) of integrative medicine, when we have practices in this field that do not have enough scientific comparison on their effectiveness? And to what extent is this stimulation not in reality a transfer of responsibility from the state to the individual?
As discussed in an article published on Questão de Ciência, there is not really a difference between the concept of integrative medicine and alternative medicine:
This is because integrative and complementary practices are simply the same old “alternative practices”, which have no scientific backing. Among the 29 practices offered by the Brazilian public health system (including apitherapy, family constellation, bioenergetics, geotherapy, chromotherapy, homeopathy, flowers, etc.), only yoga, meditation and herbal medicine can be considered scientifically based practices; the first as physical activity, the second as a method of stress relief, and the third for specific cases of plants that have actually been subjected to adequate clinical testing. Others either do not have enough probation or, as in the case of homeopathy, have already been rejected by the scientific method as ineffective.
Moreover, many of these practices associated with integrative medicine are, in fact, the same as those practiced by alternative medicine, but they are rebranded with other names that “disguise” their origin. It is in this crossfire that we also find the dilemma of what is truly wrong and ineffective and what simply does not have enough scientific comparison to be an emerging field.
Regulating therapeutic practices could be a way to signal what is recommended and works, but, as mentioned earlier, even the Brazilian public health system (SUS) offers therapies that have already been rejected by the scientific method. For Juliano, the regulation of biohacking goes against the emancipatory spirit of the movement. Also, whenever something is considered forbidden, the more people feel drawn to doing it. “This discussion is much more about the unauthorized way of biomedical technologies by biohackers. Overall, there is more concern about how research into so-called cognitive enhancement technologies is funded by military agencies,” he explains.
In other words, whether regulated or not, these techniques are still used in military projects that could create the so-called “super soldiers”. What the biohackers are pointing out is how an average person, outside of the military context, can also have access to the same resources, so that they can develop something much more interesting and beneficial to humanity than a weapon of war. . In both cases, it is ethics that comes as the difficult but inevitable question to ask. This is exactly why Juliano supports more research on the subject, with the participation of multiple actors such as universities, startups, medical professionals and biohacker spaces.
The warning, however, is to remember that there are biohackers who produce their own insulin to survive in the face of ineffective health care. But with these same efforts, it is also possible to produce the substance 98% cheaper. Biohacking is therefore not (only) a survival strategy, but a space for experimentation that goes beyond the establishment.
If these “underground” or even “illegal” practices can lead to positive gains for society, they can also serve as a subterfuge for the responsibilities originally held by the State towards citizens. In a broader sense, biohacking is another way to bring scientific knowledge to people, so they can make informed decisions about their own health. On the other hand, it is also important for people to understand that common habits such as drinking tea or coffee are already a way of “hacking” your body with substances, such as caffeine, to inhibit drowsiness.
There are several “degrees” in biohacking and this is where we manage to value something that is already functional, that is to say, to offer something that is not therapeutic but rather an “improvement” , thus falling prey to risky eugenic discourse. For Juliano, this is something to discuss from the perspective of bioethics, hacker ethics, neuroethics and the use of technology in unauthorized ways. Solving this problem requires all societies to join the conversation, hence the importance of making biohacking a more accessible and popular practice.