There’s a new health trend that has gone viral. People from all around the world* have started raving about it. The possibilities seem — without sounding cliched — limitless.
You see, hacking isn’t just for computers. Now, you can hack your body. Live forever. See in the dark. Open doors with only a wave of your hand.
Make yourself into something more than human.
This is the promise of biohacking.
What is Biohacking?
Biohacking is a broad term that covers a huge range of activities, but generally speaking it is the idea that applying systems-thinking to human biology — i.e. treating people like computers — has the potential to make enormous strides in health and wellbeing. The idea is that you can take something like diet, and use a systems-thinking approach to optimize your diet and make yourself better than you otherwise could be.
Sounds good so far.
Basically, the theory goes, if we can control what we put into our body — whether that’s food, sleep, supplements, computer chips etc — we can make ourselves better than ever before. Want to speed through social interactions? Install a computer chip into your finger that can tell both you and your acquaintance everything about each other from a simple handshake. Want to feel more awake? Optimize your sleep cycle with some fancy inputs** and optimize your life!
All of this begs the question, why isn’t everyone doing it already?
Types Of Biohacking
If you look around the internet, there are, broadly speaking, two groups of biohackers:
- Rogues — The rogues are a fascinating group. These are mostly very smart people with degrees in biology and computing or something similar, who have set up their own labs in their garages or sheds. They are irritated with the tight government regulation around things like advanced medications, and think that the best way to solve this is to develop home-grown products without all that boring safety testing.
- Mages — The mages are much more boring. These are silicon valley nerds who are great at computers and have decided to branch out into health. The basic idea is that anyone can become an expert in human health given a bit of time and the ability to use Google Scholar. This means that optimizing your life is only a few hours on WebMD, some supplements, and a prescription for modafinil away!
Can you see the problem yet?
Let’s look at some examples.
Probably the most famous recent example of a rogue is Aaron Traywick, who took the interesting step of dropping his pants in front of a live audience to inject himself with a homemade herpes vaccine.
When I say home-made, I definitely don’t mean it was actually made in a house. This was the effort of a number of very smart people putting together a plausible theory about how they might be able to eliminate herpes. It was tested a number of times in mice, and initial results seemed to indicate that it was at least safe.
The problem, of course, is that it might very well not be.
Rogues are the arrogant experimenters of the biohacking world. The thing about regulations — as long, boring, and stifling as they often are — is that they are usually made for a reason. Injecting yourself with an untested vaccine is so incredibly stupid that I don’t know where to start. Even if it’s not an elaborate form of suicide — which it very well might be — you still run the risk of creating a new, virulent form of the disease that we have no protection against. There are innumerable other risks. It’s just wildly unsafe.
And this is becoming more and more common. In Australia, the wonderfully self-named Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow implanted a chip in his hand to make catching the train easier. The thing about chips, as anyone who owns a pet might know, is that they can migrate. What you put in your hand might one day end up bumping around the skin of your arm, or even somewhere less pleasant. Experimenting on yourself isn’t a problem except when it encourages others to do stupid things in your stead, as a famous biohacker has recently discovered to his chagrin.
Mages are, as I mentioned, a lot more boring. They basically do three things, and pretend it’s a magical new way of thinking:
- Basic lifestyle advice
- Supplements and alternative medicine
- Prescription medication
So, for example, you have this guy who’s taken a basic sleep hygiene guide, started exercising more, eating better, and gets healthier. Not really surprising at all, right? Except, of course, he’s also using a wide variety of prescription medications, bogus supplements, and pseudoscientific psychology to make it all seem that much more biohack-y.
The bottom line is that exercise, sleep, and good food + magic works exactly as well as exercise, sleep, and good food without the magic. Adding expensive supplements and liver-damaging prescription medications to your basic health advice is both dangerous and pointless, because you’ll probably get the exact same results with the basic health advice itself.
And looking at other mage biohackers gives you the same story. Want to biohack your body? Combine basic posture improvement and nutrition advice with naturalistic nonsense like drinking ‘raw water’! Looking at biohacking your physical, mental and spiritual health? Do some more exercise, eat better, and also start on a largely-discredited diet, take some magical supplements, and reconnect with God! And lastly, my favourite, biohack your life by doing these basic things that your GP has probably told you to do a thousand times in the last year alone!
The pattern is as boring as it is predictable.
Mage biohackers are virtually indistinguishable from the average naturopath or unaccredited nutritionist out there. They’ve spent a few weeks reading edgy-sounding articles on the internet, and feel like they know enough about human health to create a medical revolution. The sad thing is that they usually end up giving out very basic health advice that turns a lot of people off because it is mixed in with insane nonsense like taking a large handful of liver-destroying pills morning and night.
The bottom line is actually pretty simple:
Biohacking is just medicine/alternative medicine rebranded.
Whether it’s libertarians chafing against regulations that stop them from testing their homegrown drugs on willing idiots, or bulletproof coffee-drinking computer nerds trying to sell their own line of supplements, biohacking is just the same old stuff with a different name. It’s a bit like the term ‘superfood’ — totally meaningless.
Biohacking is just another way for people to sell you on things that have been around for decades. There are already plenty of people looking into herpes vaccines and CRISPR technology. They’re called ‘medical scientists’ and they have massive labs and enormous amounts of funding dedicated to finding the best ways to improve human life. There are doctors around the world who know infinitely more about the body than most self-described biohackers, and can tell you exactly why taking a daily cocktail of lithium, modafinil, and 15 supplements is a great way to end your life at 40.
If you want to improve your health, see a doctor. Exercise more. Eat better. Improve your sleep hygiene.
Just don’t believe the hype.
Biohacking is nothing new.
*Just kidding, it’s like 99% white guys who live in California