Magnet implants in your body? Welcome to the confronting world of medical punk

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©2018 THE NEW YORK TIMES

Louis Anderson, a 16-year-old aspiring biotech entrepreneur, eats dinner with an anarchist, a world-renowned tongue splitter and at least 30 people who have implanted themselves with magnets or radio-frequency identification chips, aka RFID implants, for fun on a recent Friday night in Tehachapi, California.

Jesika Foxx, a cosmetic tattoo artist, and Russ Foxx, a professional body-modification artist, at Grindfest, an annual meetup of biohackers, in Tehachapi, Calif., April 13, 2018. Less than a decade old, grinding is the anti-establishment fringe of a biohacking movement that’s increasingly in the zeitgeist. (Arden Wray/The New York Times)

Jesika Foxx, a cosmetic tattoo artist, and Russ Foxx, a professional body-modification artist, at Grindfest, an annual meetup of biohackers, in Tehachapi, Calif., April 13, 2018.

Source: ©2018 THE NEW YORK TIMES

We're at Grindfest, an annual meetup of biohackers, and Louis has never met a single member of the community in the flesh before, although he's been planning the trip for two years. They have a lot to talk about.

Will artificial intelligence kill us or save us? Will global warming be worse than experts predict? When will the next financial crisis strike? What brings Louis here?

"I don't want to say too much," he demurs, the lanky high school senior as coy as anyone confident enough to defer college to start a company might be. "We could be competitors."

"We're transcending capitalism!" scoffs Michael Laufer, who helped publish free online instructions on how to create a do-it-yourself, or DIY, version of the perennially expensive prescription EpiPen, provoking a warning from the Food and Drug Administration. "Competition doesn't exist!"

Grinders practice suturing on kombucha cultures, which have a skinlike consistency, at Grindfest, an annual meetup of biohackers, in Tehachapi, Calif., April 13, 2018. Less than a decade old, grinding is the anti-establishment fringe of a biohacking movement that’s increasingly in the zeitgeist. (Arden Wray/The New York Times)

Grinders practice suturing on kombucha cultures, which have a skinlike consistency, at Grindfest, an annual meetup of biohackers, in Tehachapi, Calif., April 13, 2018.

Source: ©2018 THE NEW YORK TIMES

Grindfest is named for grinding, a subculture I might describe as medical punk. Less than a decade old, it is the anti-establishment fringe of a biohacking movement that’s increasingly in the zeitgeist, in the form of health and fitness trackers, "cognitive enhancing" coffee and vitamins, and billionaire-backed schemes to outwit aging. Grinders, too, aim to optimize the body — with scalpels more often than seed funding. Now in its fifth year, Grindfest isn’t on the radar of the cowboys at the rodeo ground down the road, much less the wider public. But that might soon change — people like Louis hope it will. "Building your own computer used to be really niche," he says. "Now everyone does it."

Louis — who talks at a speed he calls "2x," for the YouTube videos on cryptocurrency he watches when he's not winning science-fair prizes — is at Grindfest on business. By the end of the weekend, a biocoating of his invention will be attached to a glowing wire under the forearm of Hylyx Hyx, a self-described "submissive for science" who met Louis in a Slack group. Yes, glowing. That is, if all goes according to plan.

Hylyx is happy to serve as a test subject. "I'm used to having weird feelings about my body," says the pink-haired 35-year-old. "I use 'they' pronouns. I don't care about most of my meat, so this is a way to have control over a part that I chose."

That night in the mountain air, a North Star shines — under the skin of Justin Worst, an archaeologist in whose hand the LED device was implanted. A dozen bodies curl together under blankets on a living room floor; more are in tents and in the backs of vans. A laundry alcove is strewn with circuit boards and soldering irons; in a 1980s garage-cum-laboratory, baby chicks chirp in a pen near the door. The mood resembles an alternate universe, what Silicon Valley might look like if a natural disaster had wiped the electrical grid for the entirety of the 1990s, or if Burning Man had devoured it rather than vice versa.

There are blunt knives rigged with shock wires for sport. There are scalpels, carefully sterilized. There will be blood, and a documentary crew that will hover around it. Perhaps this isn’t our dystopian past, but an imminent future, biding its time in the mountains near the western edge of the Mojave Desert.

The procedure room in the converted garage of Jeffrey Tibbetts' home where Grindfest, now in its fifth year, takes place, in Tehachapi, Calif., April 13, 2018. Less than a decade old, grinding is the anti-establishment fringe of a biohacking movement that’s increasingly in the zeitgeist. (Arden Wray/The New York Times)

The procedure room in the converted garage of Jeffrey Tibbetts' home where Grindfest, now in its fifth year, takes place, in Tehachapi, Calif., April 13, 2018.

Source: ©2018 THE NEW YORK TIMES

Powerful people are betting on a version of it. In 2016, Elon Musk founded Neuralink, a startup developing brain-computer interfaces to be implanted underneath the skull. Its technology is eight to 10 years away from use by the public, per Musk; Jeffrey Tibbetts, a registered nurse whose home plays host to Grindfest, isn’t willing to wait. Under the webbing of his thumb on both hands are RFID chips, enclosed in glass capsules. Musk, the founder of Tesla, says his device could enable telepathy and circumvent memory loss; Tibbetts’ don’t do more than open doors at the hospital in nearby Palmdale, where he works. But, unlike Musk’s, they’re in there.

"It's not good enough to talk," says Tibbets. He wears an eyebrow piercing everyday and scrubs during procedures. "You should be taking action. That’s kind of our ethos." Near the lab, a group of understudies practices his techniques for suturing on a fleshy kombucha culture. Tibbetts is careful to emphasize what they are doing is not medicine or surgery but akin to body modification and piercing (the first two could be legally problematic).

Jesika Foxx, a cosmetic tattoo artist, and Russ Foxx, a professional body-modification artist, at Grindfest, an annual meetup of biohackers, in Tehachapi, Calif., April 13, 2018. Less than a decade old, grinding is the anti-establishment fringe of a biohacking movement that’s increasingly in the zeitgeist. (Arden Wray/The New York Times)

Jesika Foxx, a cosmetic tattoo artist, and Russ Foxx, a professional body-modification artist, at Grindfest, an annual meetup of biohackers, in Tehachapi, Calif., April 13, 2018.

Source: ©2018 THE NEW YORK TIMES

In the driveway outside, Russ Foxx, a body-modification artist with puck-like horns, shouts after Louis Anderson Sr., who's carrying fruit into the house. "Are those bananas fully automatic?"

Anderson, a suburban dad in a Nike T-shirt who woke up at dawn to go into town and get everyone doughnuts, responds without a beat: "Yep, plug me in and get ready!" The two shared a ride together up from Los Angeles, organized by Louis.

Magnets and RFID implants are rites of passage among grinders. On the avant-garde, according to Ryan O’Shea, a former broadcast journalist who runs the podcast Future Grind, are powered subdermal devices, which could communicate things like blood pressure and sugar levels via Bluetooth, and DIY gene therapies. Results of the latter have so far been mixed.

Earlier this year, the creator of a purported hack for lactose intolerance scarfed down a cheese pizza at the end of a YouTube video. Another biohacker, who at a conference in February injected himself onstage with what he said was an untested herpes treatment, was last month found dead in a flotation tank.

- By Alice Hines and Arden Wray

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