An Interview With Alex Lennon, Cyberpunk Wetware Adopter
Alex Lennon invites me to touch the meat of his right hand between thumb and index finger. It feels like skin, but underneath there is a hardness. It’s not bone or cartilage – It’s glass.
Alex wants to make his life easier. He wants to be able to walk into the building where he works, without needing to fumble through the loose change in his pocket for keys, without realizing at the last minute that he has left his pass card at home, and without setting off any alarms.
The passive RFID tag buried within his hand makes that happen. He can breeze through the myriad of security doors in the shared office space where he makes “Little black boxes which talk to other little black boxes.” He can store a few hundred bytes of information in his chip, and if he ever finds another person with a compatible implant, the pair can exchange virtual business cards with a handshake.
It’s not a lot, and certainly nothing which can justify the risk of infection, rejection, or the pill-sized capsule being crushed when Alex indulges his hobby of scuba diving to depths of more than 50 meters where the external pressure can reach in excess of 5 atmospheres.
“There’s nothing I can do with it that I couldn’t do with a card you put in your pocket. Except that I can’t forget it, which is quite a big thing for me,” he admits.
Alex doesn’t ever refer to his RFID tag as such. He doesn’t call it his chip or even his implant. He calls it his hand, and the technology is as integral to his lifestyle as his own… But still, its only current function is to allow him access to three high tech research and development sites across the city of Liverpool.
He acknowledges the functional limitations of his current tech, and places a glass lozenge onto the table, alongside his credit card, mobile phone, and an outrageously overpriced pint of Polish lager.
“This is the next iteration of what Dangerous Things are doing. They’ve allowed me to be on their super-secret private beta and this is the next level device. It’s a bit bigger. Scarily bigger, really.”
The pill is almost two inches long and contains what looks to be a mechanical squid, with a flat square head, and flat, copper-colored tendrils which float in a clear liquid.
The VivoKey Flex One is a crypto chip, and should, eventually, allow Alex to sit down at any computer without needing to log in, giving him access all of his emails, remote files, and banking. In effect, it is an embedded password manager.
Its main advantage is that, unlike his current RFID tag, it can’t be copied or overwritten by someone standing next to him with an Android device.
“I’d lock my office with my [current] hand,” he says. “But it’s not secure enough for my home or my banking.”
The bulk of the device is mostly antennae, which will give it a much greater range than the one Alex currently has embedded, and he plans to have it installed by Holier Than Thou, a piercing tattooing, and body modification shop in nearby Manchester.
I put it to Alex that this is all a bit mundane. Where are the skull guns? Where are the tendrils of fiber-optic cables which spill from the user’s nail beds to infiltrate foreign networks, hijack cars, and cause limitless mayhem?
But Alex sees biohacking as an iterative process which will gradually creep into the lives of everyone over the course of the next few decades. In the future, implanted hardware will be mundane. It will be so ubiquitous as to be boring, and as a member of Generation X, if he isn’t on board at the outset, Alex and others of his age group will be left behind – floundering to understand what the next generation is doing to themselves.
“Every journey begins with a first step, and this is taking that first step, while not quite knowing where it’s going to lead. It could be a big catastrophe, but you have to take that step to begin with,” he says.
“I see body hacking, life hacking, body modification, the intersection of organic wetware with technology becoming bigger and bigger, faster and faster in our lives. For my kids and their kids, this is going to be huge, huge stuff and I learn best when I’m doing things in an experiential way. Things come out of experiences that you just can’t get from reading.”
Alex is right in stating that biochips are going to become more mainstream. In 2017, vending machine company 32M offered its entire staff RFID implants which would allow them to “make purchases in their break room micro market, open doors, login to computers, use the copy machine, and other work-related purposes.” While 32M stressed that the procedure was voluntary, it is inevitable that employees who opted not to have the chip would find their working life just a little more difficult.
But Alex also enjoys the attention he draws by making things happen with a wave of his hand.
“I show it to people and they say, what are you doing? Is this a joke? Is a trick.. You get to an age and you think I’m going to be dead soon, so I might as well have fun with it”
The industry, although envisioned decades ago, is still in its infancy, and there are minimal safeguards or regulatory oversight which could ensure the safety of people like Alex, who want to grasp the future with augmented hands.
A warning on the Dangerous Things website states that while each device, “has been put through a battery of tests with various private labs, it has not been tested or certified by any government regulatory agency for implantation or use inside the human body. Use of these devices is strictly at your own risk.”
Another click brings you to the Biohacking Tools page, where the discerning self-surgeon can purchase a pack of disposable scalpels, topical anaesthetic, and a ‘pain management kit’, which they feel obliged to warn you contains potentially lethal items.
Alex believes that most chip implants fail, but he has not yet had any issues with his own – probably due to the fact that he did not take a purely do-it-yourself approach to the procedure.
“A moment of pain and then it sealed up over the next couple of weeks. Absolutely no problems.”
Biohacking: The Next Steps
Biohacking is a world limited only by imagination, technological constraints, surgical risks, and the unfortunate trend towards the criminalization of body modification procedures in certain jurisdictions.
Of these, it seems that imagination is the factor holding back would-be biohackers the most. There isn’t a need which isn’t more easily addressed by simpler technology which can be kept outside the body.
It has been 69 years since the pacemaker was first envisioned, and 61 years since the first electrical pacemaker was implanted in a human body. For the last quarter century, implantation has been classed as a ‘routine’ operation. It has become boring.
But it’s a far cry from Alex Lennon, 32M, with their ability to open doors remotely and operate photocopying machines without entering a passcode.
The pacemaker has proved itself as an implant by having a purpose which cannot be replicated by anything else. It keeps people’s hearts beating. It saves lives.
For biohacking to truly take off from its current position as a fun gimmick for would-be cyborgs, it has to do something more. It needs to be revolutionary.
That nothing so revolutionary has appeared on the biohacking scene in more than 50 years is nothing less than a failure of imagination.
Just booked in for my next implant @httpiercing #excited! Some people have been asking me what I use the existing one for. Here’s one thing @DoESLiverpool #weeknotes pic.twitter.com/kzdHfjW9vr— Alex Lennon (@embedded_iot) January 13, 2019