Image: ​David Keen

Cyborgs I Have Loved

There's something sexy about being part machine.

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Apr 17 2015, 1:00pm

Image: ​David Keen

I was walking down a Brooklyn sidewalk with Case* on the day Malaysian Flight 17 crashed in Ukraine.

Nobody knew what had happened, but the media was abuzz with "may"s and "could"s as speculations about the next major international crisis spun out of control. The wilder the scenario, the higher the traffic, and my TweetDeck had infused me with grim visions of the apocalypse.

"What if this is the start of World War III?" I asked him as we passed clusters of tin trash cans and kids playing in a baseball field. He paused, quietly calculating the possibility of such. I wondered for a moment if I'd bummed him out.

"Then I'd finally be able to use my actual skills for once," he said.

***

In my days as a journalist, I've learned that while most people wait for new gadgets to reach out and grab them during a Black Friday sale, some of us will never leave it totally up to corporations to decide what technology can do for us—unless we're running them.

In every city, there are the tinkerers, the hackers, the observers who connect the dots and find clever ways around obstacles. Initially born out of necessity, the impulse to create, enhance, evolve, attracts others like satellites being pulled into orbit.

He was working for me when he got his magnets implanted: the strongest of their class, he boasted

Some are drawn to the scene, to an alternate course of action from the options society has laid out, to the search for a back door. For others, it's about complete personal autonomy and exploration—the drive to gain an edge or be the first, the inventor, the pioneer.

Whatever the reason, people everywhere are pushing the bounds of what human beings are capable of, even going so far as to alter their physical bodies and neural pathways, sometimes for no reason greater than curiosity. They're the cyborgs of today, and I've loved a few of them.

I met Case years ago at a hackerspace while assembling a team of DIYers who could hopefully also write. He was rigging up an LCD display on a watch band, and I challenged him to explain it to me in writing for $500. He told me I'm the only person who's ever gotten him to do anything on time.

He was working for me when he got his magnets implanted: the strongest of their class, he boasted, one disc under the pad of each ring finger.

I loved his party tricks. I remember the first time I saw him levitate a beer bottle top while sitting across the table from him in the bowels of the Wreck Room at 2 AM. Once, I gave him some Buckyballs in a tiny glass bottle that we played with together for hours, freaking out the people sitting next to us.

At that point, his magnets were still a little raw, his fingertips started to get sore from the contact, the way a too-tight clip-on earring pinches your lobe, but worse. I teased him for saying it hurt, since he wasn't exactly a stranger to pain. He once told me how he fell down an elevator shaft and broke a bunch of bones and 22 teeth. Somehow, he managed to live, find some painkillers, and put himself on a flight to Thailand to get fixed up for cheap.

Case was no stranger to body modification either, which I think was a large part of what compelled him to get the magnets. But they had more practical uses than impressing babes —he could also grip magnetic fields and feel electric currents in circuitry. In a way, the magnets expanded his consciousness and gave him a sixth sense; they were a window into a world invisible to the rest of us. He'd get distracted walking over transformers in the ground, and is still weirded out by microwave ovens.

The arm of a cyborg.

I became fascinated by his new abilities, and fascinated by him.

The basic definition of a cyborg is part human, part machine, but there was something more than the magnets that made him a cyborg—it was also the lifestyle he internalized. He hated sleeping and eating, saw them as wastes of time, and would get kind of embarrassed when his flesh body forced him to need those things. By behaving like he was already a machine, he gained control over life—and he reveled in control.

When I'd ask Case about his magnets, what they looked and felt like, he'd guide my index finger over his magnet, letting me feel them and showing me how much pressure he could take while he watched my reaction.

We stayed friends long after I moved on from covering the DIY scene. One summer, he took me on a road trip to an average-looking house in the middle of Rust Belt, USA to meet a group of his biohacker friends who were rigging up new wetware experiments in their grungy basement.

We got whiskey drunk and stayed up all night talking and keeping each other warm on the couch and he kissed me for the first time.

I allowed him to push my limits, and pull me forever into a world of post-human exploration.

***

Perhaps apropos to sci-fi visions of post-human sexuality, polyamory or something like it has long factored into my courtship rituals. Case was my first and most serious cyborg love interest, but when I left New York City to travel for a year, I met some other cyborgs that further expanded my definition of what it means to be a cyborg—and my knowledge of human sexuality.

Kurt* was an engineer working on a project to revolutionize the vibrator industry. Initially I was interested in writing about the product, but after a few email exchanges and phone conversations, I became far more interested in him.

When I saw Kurt IRL for the first time, walking toward me in the dusty gravel outside of a Silicon Valley warehouse, I was instantly and unexpectedly smitten. He showed me his laboratory, his graveyard of vibrators that he'd hacked apart, and an artificial vagina that looked like it had been through the wringer. He gave me a prototype, and I tested it out that night, imagining it was his hand pressing it into me.

The dynamics of our relationship changed after that. He was now, after all the agent of my recent orgasmic bliss, and he knew it. The more time we spent together, the more undeniable the sexual tension between us became. He told me he thought we were part of the same karass.

Kurt knew more about female orgasms than any man I'd ever met before—and most women. If typical male sexual insecurity stems from an inability to satisfy, a lack of understanding of how to give, Kurt's technological application had made him almost godlike in his abilities.

Though he didn't have any physical modifications, I'd consider him a cyborg. He was a genius, and using technology to enhance his life—and the lives of thousands of others through his inventions—made him more than simply human. Those who draw the maps detailing new ways for us to experience our physical bodies forever expand the boundaries of human capabilities. It's mechanically-driven evolution, and every time we harness it in a new way, we cease to become the same human race we were before.

One night I asked him if, given the option, he would choose to live forever on the internet if it meant he had to relinquish his body today. He'd ditch it, he said, because most sexual pleasure was mental anyway.

A few months later, I found myself on a bus from Madrid to Barcelona traveling to meet Chip*, an old friend I'd once recruited for a science blog network I was managing. I had a massive crush on his avatar back then; I loved his British snark and was intrigued by the strangeness of one of his life's goals: getting an RFID chip implanted in his skin. At first, I didn't really get the appeal. Did he really think it was worth the pain just to be able to cruise through the London Underground without taking out his wallet?

Then one day, Chip told me his ears were wasted. He was only a few years older than me, so I thought he was exaggerating in that self-deprecating way that Brits do. But it turned out he was actually quite deaf.

I had a massive crush on his avatar back then

Chip's fascination with the world of human enhancements came into focus for me after that. For him, it wasn't merely a bonus if the biological advances of science fiction succeeded, it was a major quality of life issue if they didn't.

I've never thought of him as disadvantaged. In a way, I'd even consider him lucky—in losing a sense, he gained a very pressing and visceral drive to push technology forward, not only to take back what nature had removed, but to replace it with something better than the original.

Perhaps it is true what they say about other senses being heightened after you lose one, because his attentiveness as a lover was superhuman.

***

When I came back to Brooklyn, Case had some new enhancements: a programmable microchip in his hand and a titanium shoulder. We began seeing each other more regularly, getting more intimate. One night, after prowling around Manhattan and popping a designer drug that had fallen out of his cell phone battery when he accidentally dropped it, we were drinking beer in bed and laughing as the sun rose.

"What's that thing?" he asked, pointing to Kurt's innocent-looking creation (also known to my friends as the Maglev of vibrators) on my night stand.

"Guess," I challenged.

He picked it up and gasped, then dropped it like it was on fire. The motor operated by spinning around a powerful magnetic core; Case's finger magnets were being pulled into it. I asked him if he was OK. He hovered his hand over the device, cupping its magnetic field. I picked it up and removed the core. He placed my finger flush against one of his implants and instructed me to slowly move it closer. I felt the metal in his fingertips attempting to liberate themselves from their fleshy encapsulation. We quickly figured out that if the device was turned on and directed at me, he could tolerate the interaction. The more I came, the less he noticed it.

Fifty years ago, that would be barely-fathomable sci-fi. Today, it's just my sex life.

Since I last saw him, Chip has figured out how to hack his hearing aids to pick up Wi-Fi signals. Kurt has moved on from orgasmic enhancement and is working on a bionic eye. Case is still recklessly breaking bones and abusing his body at a rate that pretty much guarantees he'll have to continue his mechanical transformation in order to maintain his quality of life.

I don't anticipate any of them ever moving out to the middle of the woods to live a tech-free life any time soon, or ever. Maybe that's what truly makes a present-day cyborg—not only having the awareness that you and your physical human body are forever intertwined with technology, but embracing it, doing everything that you can to creatively push it forward. For the good of civilization, or simply because you can. Whatever the end game, there is nothing more attractive to me than that impulse.

I look forward to facing whatever the future has in store for humanity, and to my own cyborgification. I'll forever treasure my time with the cyborgs I have known, and look forward to adventures with the ones I have yet to meet. And if World War III goes down in my lifetime, I'll know who to call.

*Names have been changed.

Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.

Image: David Keen