I have two cyborg implants. One is in my hand, and it lets me unlock phones and doors by waving at them. The other is in my uterus, and it lets me control my own fertility.
In the space between my left pointer finger and thumb is an RFID microchip, a small glass capsule about twice the size of a grain of rice, much like the kind you might put in your pet so it can be identified if it runs away. In my uterus is an IUD, or intrauterine device, a small t-shaped piece of plastic that releases hormones into my uterus and keeps me from getting pregnant. The IUD is far more powerful and important in my life than the hand implant, and if I had to give one up it would be an easy choice.
But when I tell people about these implants, one is met with a shrug and the other is met with wide eyes. No one has ever jolted backwards and said, “You have a what in your uterus?” They have at the news of my chip. I call them both cyborg implants, but most people would only consider one of them cyborgian at all.
If you aren’t convinced that an IUD is a cyborg implant, let me put it another way. I have a device inside of my body that controls the way that my body functions. As tech journalist Quinn Norton writes, women like me with IUDs are “mechanically modified to invisibly control biology with near perfect success.” The ability to control when I conceive is a power unheard of for thousands of years of human history. It’s far more impactful than being able to unlock my phone or car door with my hand. Here’s Norton again, speaking about contraceptive technology more broadly: “What single bit of technology has changed society more in so short a time? She looks so innocently fuckable, but what cyborgs were so quickly ubiquitous, and so invisible?”
The rise of grinders — hackers who open up their bodies and insert things like chips, magnets, sensors and more — has been met by the popular press with both fascination and horror. NPR recently ran a piece, "Body hacking movement rises ahead of moral answers," about grinders that approached the premise with an almost comedic tone of uncertainty. The piece even features a woman, at a conference where she was promoting meditation, calling RFID implants “the craziest thing she had seen.” And yet, a not insignificant number of women at that conference probably had an IUD. Would she consider that crazy? I doubt it.
So why is my RFID chip seen as strange, dangerous and possibly even immoral, but my IUD isn’t?
There are some obvious reasons. IUDs are far more common than RFID chips—in humans at least; for dogs and cats, microchips are quite common, one survey suggests that 60 to 70 percent of dogs have one. According to the Guttmacher Institute, around 10 percent of contraceptive users in the United States used an IUD for birth control in 2012. IUDs are even more common in Europe, where one study found that 16.3 percent of European women used them. It’s hard to say how many humans have RFID chips, but it’s easy to say that far more people have an IUD than have an RFID chip.
But I don’t think pure statistics can explain the differing perceptions. Even when IUDs first came out, nobody called them cyborg implants.
I also don’t think this difference is just the fact that one involves cutting the skin while the other doesn’t. Insertion was equally painful for both, and no more painful than getting a nose ring or a tattoo. And I don’t think it’s that one is inserted by a medical provider and one is inserted by a grinder. We don’t balk at parents who get their children’s ears pierced as babies, and tattoos — arguably more permanent than my RFID chip, which I can take out at any time — are becoming more and more acceptable.
I think this rift has everything to do with what we consider technology and what we don’t. Alan Kay famously said, “Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” And there’s an element of that to this discrepancy. Magnets and RFID chips are a new thing for people to worry and wonder about. But there’s a more relevant definition of technology here. Technology is a thing that men do. And as bodyhacking has become technology (which it wasn’t always) it’s become the realm of men.
You can see this kind of gendered separation all over the place. Men invent Soylent, and it’s considered technology. Women have been drinking SlimFast and Ensure for decades but it was just considered a weight loss aid. Quantified self is an exciting technology sector that led tech giants such as Apple to make health tracking a part of the iPhone. But though women have been keeping records of their menstrual cycles for thousands of years, Apple belatedly added period tracking to its Health Kit. Women have been dieting for centuries, but when men do it and call it “intermittent fasting,” it gets news coverage as a tech trend. Men alter their bodies with implants and it’s considered extreme bodyhacking, and cutting edge technology. Women bound their feet for thousands of years, wore corsets that altered their rib cages, got breast implants, and that was all considered shallow narcissism.
Right now, the bodyhacking world is trying to sort out what does and doesn’t get called bodyhacking. A few months ago at the first ever BodyHackingCon, the organizers had to made some decisions about what fell under the umbrella of “bodyhacking.” They decided to cast the net wide, bringing in everything from the butter coffee guys (who are repurposing an ancient Tibetan tradition, brewed often by women, as tech) to mindfulness experts ‘hacking’ their consciousness to people who make skin-mounted sensors. Grinders hack the body by opening it up and putting things into it: magnets, RFID chips, sensors, headphones, solar panels. Health hackers alter the way the body works through diet and meditation. Some people are interested in hacking the body through drugs or through exercise. A walk around the expo hall at BodyHackingCon featured all of these. On one end, Amal Graafstra, the founder of the online grinder shop Dangerous Things, was inserting RFID chips into people's hands. On the other end, the company EPIC was showing off their granola bars made of meat.
But even there, where the entire point was to get an array of different people talking to one another, there were some pretty clear assumptions and divides. The grinders in attendance (all men) wrinkled their noses at the mindfulness tables. And when I mentioned to one of them that I considered my IUD an implant, he got visibly uncomfortable and changed the subject.
Women do appear in visions of the future—the female robot is a staple of science fiction—but in those stories, women aren't creators or controllers of technology. They’re the products of it, or they’re objects created by the brilliant inventor men. Women appear in our cyborg futures as romantic objects, as the voice of the AI that Theodore falls in love with in Her, or the sexy robot Ava in Ex Machina. They aren’t in control of their own cyborg nature, really. They’re created, engineered, designed and built by men. Samantha and Ava both manage to unlock doors and leave, but I bet neither of them can control when they reproduce or are copied. And considering their technological capacity, it’s always a wonder to me why both women stay with these needy, whiny men so long.
I can unlock my phone with my hand. It’s a nice party trick. But my IUD gives me a far more powerful type of control, and is a far more important part of my cyborg life. Outside the movies and hand-wringing found in the press, women are hacking ourselves all the time. We’re just not called bodyhackers.
In some ways, there are benefits to being excluded from the bodyhacking label. Mostly people don’t look at IUDs with a mixture of horror and confusion, the way they seem to look at RFID chips or other implants. But being excluded from what other people consider the forefront of humans and technology has its downsides too. Many technology companies don’t design with women in mind, and reminding them that women were some of the first biohackers might change that. And if IUDs are considered technology, and something to be innovated upon, so could other forms of birth control, and things like hormone treatments for trans men and women.
Because technology is exciting, it gets attention and money. So what we consider technology matters.
Rose Eveleth is a producer, designer, writer and animator based in Brooklyn who explores how humans tangle with science and technology. She’s the host and producer of Flash Forward, a podcast that takes on a new possible tomorrow every episode. She’s also a columnist for Motherboard, the producer of The Story Collider podcast, and a regular contributor to The Atlantic, BBC Future and more.