This is Episode 14 of Real Future, Fusion’s documentary series about technology and society. More episodes available at realfuture.tv.
I don't know precisely when I realized that getting a magnet implanted in my finger was a bad idea, but I do remember the exact moment I began to think it was a good one.
I was sitting in a bar in Tehachapi, California, a little windy town tucked in the mountains between the southern California megalopolis and the Mojave Desert. This was a no-account bar half-filled with locals buying whiskey shots and cheap tall boys. The music blared, but I could hear these two guys—a nurse named Jeff, and his unemployed but aggressively smart roommate Gabriel—describing a new, exciting superpower they wanted to give me.
They pitched me on a crazy-sounding medical procedure: surgically implanting a tiny magnet inside my finger, so that I'd be able to sense magnetic fields in the world around me. With the implant inside my finger, they said, I would feel a physical buzz when a cell phone went off, or when a microwave was cooking food nearby. I'd be able to manipulate small metal objects with a fingertip. Basically, I'd get to experience a new, invisible world of magnetic forces.
And all I had to do was get cut open by two random, unlicensed bio-hackers.
Gabriel and Jeff aren't just any internet crazies. They're the core members of Science for the Masses, a group of mostly amateur scientists and bio-hackers who congregate on the internet (and occasionally IRL) to conduct far-out medical experiments, trade scientific theories, and draw attention to their stunts. Most famously, they created a kind of "night vision eyedrops," which they claim allow their eyes to see in the near-infrared darkness. They call themselves "grinders."
Thousands of media outlets have picked up the grinders' work. Here they are in Newsweek. The guy in the chair is Gabriel. The guy with the eyedropper is Jeff.
I was impressed that a couple of random dudes operating out of the middle of nowhere could manage to convince the whole tech media infosphere to promote their work. And I knew that putting myself under the knife for the sake of scientific experimentation was the kind of thing that any good futurist should be willing to do. So, I made contact, planned the trip, and gritted my teeth.
Maybe it was the beer. Maybe it was the lingering thrill of reading Quinn Norton's early experience of magnet implantation as a young writer. Or maybe I wanted to prove to myself that I still had a little bit of reckless gonzo left in me, even as the father of two young kids. Regardless, I decided I was going to do it—I was getting a magnet implant, and joining the grinders on this batshit-crazy adventure into electromagnetic utopia.
This is my journey.
The morning of my surgery, I drove over to Gabriel and Jeff's place with our TV crew, winding up into the hills above Tehachapi. I didn't know what to expect when we got to Gabriel and Jeff's place–maybe some futuristic lab or a William Gibson novel setting. Instead, we pulled up and saw this.
A trailer and a big garage. That was it. Maybe inside, I reasoned, that's where the futuristic parts would be. We'd walk in and suddenly, we'd be in Ex Machina. But no. It was just a garage, with some creepy-looking plastic sheeting and medical tools everywhere.
As for Gabriel and Jeff, they were a little more jittery than I'd hoped. Jeff works the night shift, and he seemed a bit disoriented by the camera crew. He would be the guy actually operating on me, so I was watching him closely to make sure that he seemed like he knew his stuff. This is them—Jeff is on the left, and Gabriel is on the right:
While talking to Gabriel and Jeff, I wondered a lot of things. What would my colleagues and the world at large think about the fact that I'd decided to get a magnet implanted in my finger? How would I explain it to my mom? Or my wife?
And yet, the appeal of joining the club of body-hackers and gaining access to the invisible world of magnetic fields was too much for me to resist. I went back to the garage and prepared myself for the operation. Here's the operating chair where it was all going down:
Before my surgery, a grinder named Sev, who is friends with Gabriel and Jeff and has joined them on their crazy bio-hacks before, came over to have two magnets implanted in her head, behind her ears. (Yes, IN HER HEAD. That's the ultra-hardcore version of my finger surgery.)
Gabriel helped Jeff put on his lab coat, and they started operating on Sev. (Reminder: neither of these guys are doctors.)
Sev's surgery got pretty bloody. She was an experienced body modification artist who seemed to like pain as much as she hated it. But there was a lot of pain. And did I mention the blood?
Then, after Jeff had stitched Sev's head up, it was my turn. We ritually scrubbed up and numbed my hand as much as we could. Then Jeff began to cut.
The strategy is to slice open the skin, then dig the scalpel in and "tunnel" in between the skin and muscle to create a pocket for the tiny magnet to sit in. Then, once it's in position, the magnet can move a little bit when it's attracted to another magnet, which the nerves of your finger feel and transmit to your brain, allowing you to sense magnetic fields.
Watching Jeff dig a hole in my finger with a scalpel, I felt oddly detached from my body, as if I were sitting at a drive-through oil change spot, and they were replacing my oil filter. It hurt, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be. And a little pain as the price of gaining a superpower, I reasoned, seemed worth it.
In the end, getting a magnet implant hurt a lot less than a tattoo and was over much more quickly. After getting stitches to close my finger back up, I left Tehachapi, sped to the Bakersfield airport, and was back home in a couple of hours. I had some explaining to do to my wife.
Now, months after my surgery, I really can feel magnetic fields—at least at close range. I can pick up bottle caps and paperclips with my finger. (My friends have mocked me as a low-rent Magneto.) I can push my son's toy railroad cars on their tracks without touching them, and move metal balls around just by waving my hand over them, like this:
But on the downside, recovering from the surgery was annoying as hell. I was constantly worried I'd done something wrong and I'd contract some horrible infection. And the sensitivity has left my finger over time. Magnets that used to almost jolt me from the inside now feel like a gentle pressure. I've yet to feel a magnetic field from something that wasn't a straight-up magnet.
Still, I don't regret getting the magnet implant. For me, it was a real epiphany. My body, your body, all bodies: they are flesh and blood, and that flesh and blood is like any other material. We can enhance our bodies, add new capabilities, and augment the parts we already have. All that's holding us back, really, is a reasonable fear of infection and the weight of recent medical taboo.
I still have the magnet. It sort of looks like an odd wart on my finger. It hurts a little bit now and again. I will probably get it removed some time, maybe the next time I find myself in Tehachapi.
You can watch the video of my bizarre bio-hacking adventure below: