A Very Kind Conversation Between a Cyborg and Some Biohackers
The Cyborg Jillian Weise in conversation with
Berkelly Gonzalez, Cobalt Barnett, Hylyx Hyx, Jacob Boss and Ryan O’Shea
& with help excerpting the transcript from Sandra Beasley
Introduction by Jillian Weise
It is 2:16 a.m. on a Tuesday and my leg is beeping and buzzing because I forgot to plug it in last night. I am a cyborg and when I call myself a cyborg I mean it. I talk about being cyborgs with Alice Wong and Ashley Shew on the Disability Visibility Podcast (Episode #66). Cyborgs can be any disabled person whose body is technology.
The New York Times published my essays on cyborg identity: “Going Cyborg” and “The Dawn of the Tryborg.” I made up the word “tryborg”—a portmanteau, a word that combines the meaning of two other words—to name the nondisabled colonizers of cyborgs. Tryborgs speak about us and without us. Tryborgs include the transhumanist evangelizers Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk. And the theorist Donna Haraway, whom I critique in the essay “Common Cyborg,” published in the anthology Disability Visibility edited by Alice Wong. Tryborgs are typically white. And tryborgs have no idea what actual cyborgs, disabled and Deaf people, are doing or writing or designing. We know about them. But they do not know much of anything about us.
How to communicate with these tryborgs? Not just communicate, but form the kinds of communities – those of interdependence, mutual aid, collective access – Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes in Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice? How to bring tryborgs closer to us without abnegating ourselves?
The following transcript is a conversation with a group of biohackers who reached out to me after I criticized DEF CON’s lack of disabled/Deaf speakers. So I thought they would be tryborgs; I had some apprehension about meeting with them. I present this transcript in collaboration with them.
The transcript has been excerpted from a 27-page long conversation. I pause here to acknowledge the Deaf pride conventions of complete transcripts. I worry that I dishonor those conventions by proceeding with the excerpt. Why proceed? Why excerpt? For love of us cyborgs and cripborgs and Deaf and deaf and disabled and mad and neurodivergent and sick folks. For a bridge. For a ramp. To the front door. Of the future.
What is this future?
I don’t know, exactly, but I invite you into community with the people in this transcript. They are known as “Grinders,” and they comprise a subculture of biohackers. They ask us to join them and imagine disability justice inside biohacking. Here are two definitions they provide for terms that name their group identity—
“Biohacking is a catch-all term inclusive of everything from implanted medical device network security to yoga, body modification and piercing, at-home genetic research, and experimental diets. Biohackers often conduct their work outside of major institutions. They may use maker space inspired community bio labs.
Grinding is a punk and D.I.Y. inspired subgroup of biohacking focused on using currently available technologies for body and sensory modification, art, piercing, and functional devices such as implantable near field communication chips and magnets.”
How does this alliance between cyborgs/tryborgs, disabled people/biohackers work? Join us for the conversation in this transcript. And the next meetings are on October 18, 5:00 pm (Eastern). Link to the meeting here https://biohack.me/
Transcription Notes Composed Collectively
Link to complete transcript [PDF]
This meeting was prompted by members of the Grinder community, a subculture of biohacking, reading the writing of the cyborg Jillian Weise. The Grinders planned a group discussion of Weise’s “Common Cyborg” essay, and Grinder Berkelly Gonzalez reached out to Weise on email to invite her to be part of their conversation. The meeting happened to take place at the same time as Weise had drawn attention from the wider biohacking community when she asked, on twitter, during the virtual meeting of the Biohacking Village at DEF CON, “Are any speakers disabled? Are any speakers Deaf? Are any speakers neurodivergent?”
Attendees included Grinders Berkelly Gonzalez, Cobalt Barnett, Hylyx Hyx, religious studies researcher Jacob Boss, transhumanist and host of the Future Grind podcast Ryan O’Shea, and The Cyborg Jillian Weise. Weise appears under the name Tipsy Tullivan, a heteronym, in captions.
The meeting begins 15 minutes into the conversation when Weise asked the group to record for archive and access. Everyone consented. Due to a glitch, the video recording lacks audio. Captions are Google AI and include such errors as misinterpreting “crip time” for “Crypt time.” Weise offered to transcribe with agreement that biohacking community would rotate labor of future meetings. Weise is not licensed in transcription, so this is a good faith effort. The transcript corrects the Google AI and relies on the collective memory of those in attendance for Google AI gaps and errors in captions.
Image Descriptions of the Google Meet Composed Individually
The Cyborg Jillian Weise appears in a square on Google Meet. She is a white woman with reddish-brown long hair sitting on a beige chair. She is wearing a black short sleeve tee-shirt that reads “The Future Is Accessible.” Behind her, there is a window with the blinds open and green leaves outside.
Berkelly is a woman in her mid 20s with dark brown hair wearing a blue button up short sleeved shirt and a headset with light pink headphone cushions. She is sitting at a desk in a bedroom and is taking notes throughout the video.
Jacob Boss appears in a square on Google Meet. He is a white man with wavy medium-length brown hair seated in a black office chair. He is wearing an orange tank top. Behind him there is a green wall with a small white board attached to the wall.
Cobalt and Hylyx appear in the same video square. Cobalt is a white androgynous person in their 30s, with short blue hair and a lower lip piercing. They are wearing a plain dark grey t-shirt and sometimes wear black-framed eyeglasses. Hylyx is a white nonbinary person with a pink floofy mohawk and a bridge piercing. Due to technical problems, their square is sometimes absent, Hylyx is sometimes missing, and the background changes between a pink-and-black floral wall with a hanging green plant, the inside of a passenger car, and the blue-and-silver interior of an RV.
Ryan O’Shea appears in a square on Google Meet. He is a white man wearing an olive green t-shirt and sits in front of a wooden accent wall.
06:24 Jillian Weise: First of all, you don’t identify as transhumanist but more biohacker or—
06:58 Berkelly Gonzalez: Yeah, I think transhumanist is a very loaded political term and because of that I’m not really interested in getting involved in it [laughs] I guess.
07:06 Jillian Weise: Okay.
07:07 Berkelly Gonzalez: and I’m sorry. Can you—what was the—
07:14 Jillian Weise: Yeah. What do you want as a biohacker? You’re like no, I don’t really want infrared. So like, since you don’t—
07:20 Berkelly Gonzalez: Yeah, um, you know, that’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about. I used to have, you know, the magnet implants in my fingers and those were really cool. I liked them when I had them. I’d probably get them again but—expansion of the senses is cool—but like for something like infrared I guess if you could turn it off, like that would be cool. But I don’t see that being a possibility so—
07:54 Jillian Weise: Yeah.
07:56 Berkelly Gonzalez: I don’t really know. I enjoy this community. I enjoy all the people that I’ve met in it, but I don’t necessarily know, currently, what I want from it.
08:10 Jillian Weise: Now I love that [pause] I love that you brought up cool, like it’s cool. Right? But I’m also hearing limitations and capabilities. Those are loaded terms. […] What are your limitations? That’s why when I started the meeting I did an access check. Not with, like, how will this limit you? But here’s the space. We get to do with it whatever we want. What do we want? I mean, this is a terrible paraphrase, but you get what I’m saying? The cool part is what I want in on. That’s what I want in on. The cool part. And since I haven’t met you all before today I’ve just done it myself, by saying, “Well, I’ll call them ‘tryborgs’ because that’s cool and snarky and takes my point-of-view that there’s a difference between someone who augments to be—for pleasure—right? And me saying, like, I’m a disabled person and it is pleasurable …
09:33 Ryan O’Shea: Getting back real quick. So when you said what we individually want from being participants in the biohacking community—I think the best way I would phrase it is—I want myself and also everyone else to have the ability to—
09:48 Jillian Weise: Ability.
09:50 Ryan O’Shea: Yes. If not ability, I don’t—
09:51 Jillian Weise: Can you use—
09:52 Ryan O’Shea: I don’t know what—I don’t know what synonym to use there. Ability, capability, kind of mean the same thing.
09:56 Jillian Weise: Yeah, find one. No, not ability and not capability. Capacity?
10:00 Ryan O’Shea: Capacity to self-direct what they want to become rather than to be defined by what biology or existing society, the box that that puts them into. So for me—
10:15 Jillian Weise: Wait, no. I need to go crip time on this. I really do. Can you repeat what you just said?
10:20 Ryan O’Shea: Slightly rephrasing it’s maybe making more clearer. From the biohacking community, I want to advocate for the creation of technology and the creation of a system that—I was almost going to use the word enable, but I feel like you would object.
10:39 Jillian Weise: Thank you. Thanks for not using it.
10:42 Ryan O’Shea: Create the capacity—
10:44 Jillian Weise: Provides?
10:45 Ryan O’Shea: Yeah, provide the capacity for individuals to self-direct their own evolution, using that term loosely, in a way that is not predefined by their biology or societal concepts.
11:03 Jillian Weise: Okay. That’s a bit … Can we stop for some crip time? I actually need 30 seconds and it’s gonna be awkward for everyone and we’re just gonna stare at each other, but it’s fine. It’s great. Okay? In fact, it’s even cool. Okay …
11:14 [Pause for crip time]
30:55 Ryan O’Shea: Yeah, there is a conception I think of society for people who are tangentially aware of the biohacking community but not deeply familiar with it and that’s in some ways like you said a new manifestation and not a natural continuation of fights that have been waged for decades and centuries by the transgender community and people fighting for their own reproductive health and people fighting to modify their bodies for religious reasons. And I don’t know if this is where I’m confused on it. I don’t know if that is … perhaps the media who covers this industry is not making that clear or perhaps it’s myself not even recognizing that that mood does exist in the biohacking community and I’m just not aware of it. But I can say personally for me that I do see what’s happening today in biohacking as a continuation of those, you know, bodily autonomy fights that have been happening forever. And I definitely do not want to have, you know, white guys implanting RFIDs and magnets be the focus of the conversation. I think it is helpful in a way that we could rally around together. The idea of the importance of bodily autonomy and fight for that common goal rather than fight for who is the community who is fighting for bodily autonomy. I don’t know if that makes sense or not.
32:16 Jacob Boss: I am, I just want to add that—
32:28 Jillian Weise: Am I glitchy?
32:29 Jacob Boss: Ryan?
32:30 Ryan O’Shea: We can’t hear you right now.
32:34 Jillian Weise: Oh, now I can see better I think.
32:36 Berkelly Gonzalez: Could you repeat your last statement?
32:41 Jacob Boss: Would it be fair to characterize you, very briefly, as representing a kind of libertarian biohacking and transhumanism focused on autonomy.
32:49 Ryan O’Shea: That would probably be fair. I definitely, on the political spectrum, am left libertarian, slightly left, far libertarian. Yes.
32:55 Jacob Boss: I only bring it up in order to add a little more variety, add some more spice to the different perspectives that are available, that enormous kaleidoscope of perspectives are available in biohacking. I was just watching Josiah’s stream an hour or two ago, injecting experimental COVID vaccine and one of the things that he said was he wants biohacking to be thought of in the same way that comedy and art, well he wants science to be thought of in the same way that comedy and art are, where people are always asking questions. Like is this art? Is this comedy? Is this science?
33:35 Jillian Weise: Mmm-hmmm.
33:36 Jacob Boss: And so that’s, that’s another perspective. Also, I see a lot of people coming to – I’ve been traveling the grinder biohacking transhumanism circuit for a few years. I see a lot of people coming there for healing. And I know that there are disabled people in the community who haven’t claimed that identity or don’t claim the identity in those spaces or who do claim the identity in those spaces, but may not travel the circuit. They may only exist at certain nodes, so the—
34:07 Jillian Weise: Wait a minute because, because, since there are people in the community not claiming, they’re not here with us for this conversation. And I completely agree that that’s their choice, It’s their autonomy to claim or to not claim, but it takes a certain amount of people claiming the identity for other people to feel okay claiming the identity. And I, especially in a group of biohackers, I mean, there for sure are disabled biohackers who are not claiming yet. How do we invite them in? You know, make it, I don’t know, “cool,” to go back to Berkelly’s adjective which I really like. It’s cool to both claim and be disabled and be disabled biohacker. Like how do we make that cool? You know. What is cool though? Like acceptable, right, like but beyond acceptable, like a party you want to be at, you know? [Pause.] Do you have speculation, Jacob, about why? Why people in biohacking don’t claim?
35:40 Jacob Boss: The folks in Pittsburgh were the ones who were coming forward and it was the most, it was a—it was an incredible experience being there. It was the most trans-led to disabled-biohacker-led conversation that I had ever been part of while traveling the circuit. It was amazing. So so incredible. The energy was extraordinary.
[Pause.] Speculation. I don’t know. Part of it, I’m sure, has to do with the fix-it approach.
Like so, for example, I only get sort of brief reprieve from my chronic pain over the last
12 years or so, but I don’t really tend to talk about it very much. And I mask it really well.
36:48 Jillian Weise: [Nodding.] Masking.
36:50 Jacob Boss: And in a lot of these spaces, pain is something to be cured.
36:59 Jillian Weise: Ahhh.
37:02 Jacob Boss: So it’s kind of like, “What have you got for me?” If you watch biohacking YouTube streams, for example, and people are talking, you’ll see commenters streaming in saying, “Can you fix me? Can you heal me? Can you help me?” And that is, that is one of the ways in which the public thinks about, experiences people doing this work, as potentially people who can relieve their pain or their suffering.
37:30 Jillian Weise: Of course. Of course. I mean, I think there’s two things going on and then I have another question for you. Okay, there’s a lot going on. But my mind is going to—like—a lot of times it’s difficult because people don’t either feel disabled enough or feel like chronic pain is outside the spectrum of disability, and it’s not like … whatever … you know, so they’re not gonna use the word because the word has politics with it, about which, my opinion is, I’m not a gatekeeper. I’m not a bouncer. So if anyone feels disabled, welcome and come on in. Okay so that’s one thing and then the second is, um, is about pain like a biohacker as a kind of medical industrial complex. Except the really cool one. Not yet licensed one. Do you know what I mean? So there’s something going on there …
45:05 Cobalt Barnett: That’s one of the things—
45:08 Jillian Weise: The like, elimination thing, because that’s maybe just not accurate at all. But there is just a little bit of it, right, in the space of “cure” and this, you know, “overcome,” and “enhanced ability.” Right?
45:30 Cobalt Barnett: Yeah. I wanted to break here in just because it’s been such a relief to me to be in the Slack channel that everybody kind of, that this group has sort of gelled in and around. Because there’s none of that. And when somebody does come in from outside and kind of brings in a perspective, I’m thinking of—I’m thinking of Bubbles—for people who know what’s going on in this Slack lately. Somebody comes in—
45:55 Jacob Boss: like a young newcomer
45:57 Cobalt Barnett: perspectives that are really not aligned to that where it seems like yeah, a young person with a lot of sort of conservative orthodoxy in their background comes into this space and it’s been very—it’s been very—relieving to watch that person kind of get caught and, and uplifted in the ways they need to be and not shit on but also guided in the right way to just not be a jerk to other people. It’s been nice to see that and I’m happy that we have a community that’s able to do that. That said, going out into the wider, sort of, technical augmentation listservs, and seeing that not be there has been a disappointment. And has made me more appreciative of what there is in the Slack community. So I think that, as a point of connection, we might be onto a good route here. Also, I missed a huge amount of the conversation. I’m so sorry my internet cut out and I actually had to kind of drive down the mountain and get back to where there’s a signal.
55:08 Cobalt Barnett: I do, I do want to have a word for treat—for dealing with sort of the physical reality, for example, the thing that Ryan raised of, you know, a slice of the visual spectrum that you do, or do not, perceive. I want to have a word where we can talk about, you know, having a wider range or more narrow range of the spectrum that’s available to a sense, a sensorium, you know, not necessarily a human but any sensing thing whether it’s a physical sensor outside a human body. Whether it is a human body. Of perceiving, you know, I want to be able to talk about that in a way that’s very unambiguous. Doesn’t use words that could be implied to give subject valuation.
55:55 Jillian Weise: I got it, I think.
55:58 Cobalt Barnett: I want to have that vocabulary because I want to be able to talk about physics without making people fear that I am talking about value.
56:04 Jillian Weise: Okay, I got it. I figured it out. I’m so glad you brought us back around to this question because I didn’t know the answer earlier. And it’s because of its opposite—less. And it’s because disabled people have been considered “less than” for so long.
01:10:26 Ryan O’Shea: So I will ask you, Jillian, then, what are – most of us, the rest of us are in this Slack channel. We’re in the biohacking community. I would like to hear if perhaps maybe there’s no answer whatsoever which is totally fine. Did you have any perceptions of the biohacking community coming into this call that perhaps change? Or what are your takeaways from this conversation? I certainly know what mine are. I learned a lot. I don’t know if you had anything as well?
01:10:52 Jillian Weise: Yeah, of course I did. I think it’s hard for me to summarize. I’ll probably know the answer tomorrow, but the really big takeaway is [pause] that like I thought I just needed to get on the phone with Ray Kurzweil to say like, “Hey, you used to work with disabled people. One of your first inventions was for the Blind like what has happened? What’s happened? What’s going on?” And I think that’s hierarchy in my own, whatever, cognition, like I don’t actually need Kurzweil. I don’t need him. But he is a symbol or a totem, I’m not sure. For me, the Singularity. Biohacking, transhumanism, which is a much more diverse community that doesn’t get the same, doesn’t get nearly the same—obviously—level of fame, right? So I think it’s really helpful for me to kind of question my assumptions about why on Earth I thought there was a figurehead. And what now? I also really just … Berkelly’s conversation about the magnets … like I would have an entire conversation just about that, Berkelly, like the choice to put magnets in your fingertips, the choice to take them out, and then the choice that you might engage them again. I mean, to me, that’s very in line with Crip orgs because there are so many of us who use a wheelchair and then sometimes don’t and then sometimes do and then sometimes don’t. Prefer a cane. You know? I mean like this identity that one’s identity isn’t static but is in flex and flux – and obviously, gender fluid, they write – but also in like whatever. This is where you’re choosing it, Berkelly, for this time period but not for this other one?
01:13:00 Berkelly Gonzalez: I do think I have to clarify. The choice to remove my magnets was more practical. They … the coding on them failed and they stopped working. So I removed them rather than [pause] something having to do with sort of identity or anything beyond the fact that they stopped working and were potentially harmful to keep in me.
01:13:37 Jillian Weise: Okay.
01:13:40 Berkelly Gonzalez: Yeah.
01:13:42 Jillian Weise: Yeah. [Pause.] There’s a corollary there for sure, but I’m just not making it because I am fixating on the words “they stopped working,” which totally makes sense to me when you’re talking about choice and magnets but I’m not, I would need to think it out …
01:14:11 Berkelly Gonzalez: Of course.
01:14:15 Jillian Weise: But I appreciate that because I would not have known.
The Cyborg Jillian Weise is a poet, video artist and disability rights activist. Her books include The Amputee’s Guide to Sex, The Colony, The Book of Goodbyes and Cyborg Detective. She produced A Kim Deal Party, which is ongoing, on crip time, and only accessible to fellow disabled people. If you are disabled, you are invited. Direct message Jillian, or her Assistant Amy Gaeta, for the link.
For more check out Episode 66 from the Disability Visibility podcast on cyborgs with Jillian Weise and Ashley Shew
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