The Biological is Political: Biohacking as Tech-Natural Activism

by Sophia Handler

Flowers_04 by Sam Griffith
It is coded deeply in human beings to strive towards becoming better versions of ourselves. This is a part of our evolutionary strategy that helps us survive, thrive, and move forward as a species. Though today, different kinds of authorities prompt us to engage in the process of becoming better in a certain way. This basically involves constantly working to become better citizens (better fitted for participating in the production and consumption society, that is). But what if we could engage in our own and collective health in a different, more nourishing way? In a disruptive, off-the-grid, anti-capitalist way? The expanding movement of DIY biology—or biohacking—might allow us to do so. But the term remains biased. With this article, I stress the need for a more nuanced picture of biohacking. I argue that biohacking is affecting every one of us, with or without our consent, and I present the activistic possibilities in taking the practice in your own hands.

The term ‘biohacking’ emerged in the programmer and computer engineering community that took hold around San Francisco in the 2000s. Quickly, it gained popularity among those working in Silicon Valley. The term was adopted by computer scientist turned ‘lifestyle expert’ Dave Asprey, and spread to his growing community of followers. Asprey founded the company BulletproofÔ, and he also runs a podcast, where he preaches about biohacking and promotes questionable, often expensive health products. On the pretext of biohacking, large groups and communities have formed among his peers: often wealthy folks, preoccupied with either improving normal human abilities, optimizing their performance, avoiding cancer, modifying their genes, or achieving immortality. People in these communities have adopted the language of both the tech industry and market economics, in order to describe their practice—for example, addressing personal KPIs. They usually also focus on individual performance and gadgets, keeping the concept associated with both economics and the tech industry, as well as with individualism, superior masculinity, and even neoliberalism. Because these kinds of communities are still dominating the field of biohacking, the term is misinterpreted by many. This has long prevented womxn and minority groups from accessing the tools that biohacking has to offer. But as long as we stay away from biohacking, it allows the wealthy, masculine, and performance-oriented communities to keep dominating the field. We must acknowledge that biohacking is definitely not the privileged hobby that some of its famous figures have tried to make it out to be. It is far from an exclusive practice. It happens every day, everywhere, with all kinds of intentions. And it’s not necessarily being practiced by ourselves as much as it’s forced upon us by governments and oppressors. 

If at any point in your life you have used contact lenses, a hearing aid, a brace, a painkiller, or a form of contraception, had your tonsils removed, had botox, had gender reassignment surgery, hormone therapy, used a wheelchair, counted how many steps you took, how many calories you ate, or tracked your run with an app, you are a biohacker. You have at least tried on your own body what it means to hack it. I’d dare say that biohacking is no longer something that can be avoided. Society messes with our biology; it controls our resting opportunities, makes us uphold certain postures, nudges us towards specific foods and medicines, and lets chemicals permeate us through the soil, our clothing, and care products. It's important to become aware of this in order to take the hacking back into our own hands. 

Even with our broadening collective knowledge about technology and computer science, few talk about how we learn to decode ourselves, and the enormous amounts of data our bodies produce every day. Activistic biohacking means learning how to access the necessary knowledge of our bodies. We must seek the knowledge that is hidden from us, and we must make sure that this knowledge can flow freely between as many as possible. By learning how our bodies work, and how they work best, we can regain strength to resist living lives that break us, our communities, and our planet down. Instead, we can start living in ways that are more sustainable for everything and everyone.

For activistic biohackers, the body is not a separated being. It is part of a network, consisting of all living structures on the planet, from our fellow humans to the bacteria living in our gut. The body is not a private sphere, but a portal to accessing and affecting this network. Therefore, it is important that the practice of biohacking does not remain reserved to the privileged few. It should be an open, continuous practice for everyone. This means that far more womxn and minority groups need to take a deep dive into their own biology. 

Biohacking is an internal form of activism that involves optimizing the collective human experience by means of your own body. You may start by looking into how certain kinds of food make you feel, how you exercise, how often you get tensions, aches or anxiety, what happens in your body when you prioritize rest, or when you choose to follow a certain circadian rhythm (not necessarily the socially accepted one). Many biohackers also work with food supplements, investigating how they affect mood, energy, or cognitive abilities. It can be a good idea to get your body tested for potential food allergies and intolerances, as well as getting a status on its current levels of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and hormones, and the functionality of your organs and gut. If your doctor won’t help you with running the tests (if you can’t come up with an urgent reason for it, they probably won’t), test kits are available online from different private labs. In a feminist tech utopia, getting this kind of basic information would be free and accessible for all—but as we all know, we’re far from there yet. We can only keep demanding access to it in as many ways as possible.

 Biohackers also keep in mind that bodies are different. In the West, we rely on a reductionist healthcare system that—unlike much older, more holistic and usually oppressed systems—is designed to provide everyone with the same, standardized kind of treatment. This default system isn’t capable of dealing with the variety of bodies actually present. At best, Western medicine is not tailored to your particular body (especially if you’re non-cis, non-male, neurodivergent, vegan, of non-western origin, or have higher/lower weight than average), and at worst, it works and discriminates against your body entirely. Furthermore, colonization of indigenous sciences and the reduction of healthcare to an expert field have made people not working in healthcare more or less biological illiterates, and for us, it is especially important to seek greater knowledge of how we work, as well as of the methods used on us, in order to be prepared when having to navigate the system. The Westernization of healthcare has succeeded in reducing health and wellbeing to a personal responsibility, creating a society favoring the fit, independent, and capable body over the ones that require more time, support, or alternative approaches. Moreover, this healthcare system forms strong bonds with Big Pharma, leading to a tradition of treating symptoms, not causes. For these reasons, biohacking is concerned with spreading knowledge of the biotechnological tools used as well as their alternatives. The main goal is for everybody to get access to causal treatment, as well as the kind of treatment that suits their particular body best. 

 If you have experienced discrimination or devaluation based on your body, biohacking can be a powerful way to support yourself and take back your bodily agency. Moving forward from the private as political, we now must see that our biology too is not as individual as we think. It consists of many variables coming together, and it is very much a space for political influence. Biohacking then becomes a useful strategy in rebelling against political injustices. Certain hacks can feel like incredible tools in your everyday struggle against climate change, racism, capitalism, sexism, and other forms of systematic oppression. My favorite example involves optimizing sleep: rejecting the pace of modern society to live more in sync with your own body by getting enough and proper rest automatically means living more sustainably, since as long as you rest, you are not consuming. 

Biohacking helps us raise awareness both of our past selves as humans living in close connection with nature, and as our present and future selves as tech-natural cyborgs. It does not seek to separate us from neither the body nor nature, but rather to help us approach it. It is a way of taking action that focuses on getting one's own part of the larger network to work effectively, in order to facilitate better connection as a whole. By coming together as biohackers, we resist the oppressive systems that operate above us, as well as any individualized responsibility of our bodies. We open the way to accessible health-improving tools for everyone. We challenge the norms imposed by the standardized healthcare system, and we reshape them to fit the constantly changing and unique needs of each individual body.

 Healing, knowledge, and understanding of the human body is not a privilege, but a human right. The body remains our most invaluable and accessible weapon, and we shouldn't be afraid to hack it in the name of resistance and justice—whatever that looks like, and in whatever way that makes sense to us. We must let biohacking help us turn away from society as we know it, towards nature, technology, and each other, to find new communities able to support us in the process of improving our own, our collective, and our planet’s wellbeing.