Manifesting the Cyborg via Techno-Body Modification: From Human Computer Interaction to Integration

Date of Award

August 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Information Studies


Bryan Semaan

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


For decades, the greater field of human-computer interaction (HCI) has been concerned with designing for the end user—that is, people who use technology. Whereas designers traditionally develop external artifacts used by people, recent advancements in technology design, more specifically, with the development of wearable technologies such as Fitbit, have begun to blur the lines between the end user and the technology. This shift becomes even more profound when we consider technologies that move beyond wearables, or, technologies that are designed for and embedded in the body—through a practice I dub techno-body modification. Whereas the design and uses of wearable technologies have been explored, the practices associated within the design and uses of devices to be embedded in the human body have not, and this dissertation seeks to address this gap. Through an ethnographic study comprised of more than 900 hours in the field as a participant observer with a biohacker collective—GrinderTech—who practice techno-body modification, this project seeks to explore the design practices and underlying motivations for techno-body modification over a two-year period as GrinderTech shifts from a biohacker collective to a biotech startup, rebranded as Omni Labs. I argue that when the body becomes a site of technology design through the act of techno-body modification, design practices emerge as contradictory. On the one hand, design practices can be viewed as a conscious effort to reject social productions of power, labor, and value, while simultaneously also re-enforcing normative social productions of power, labor, and value. GrinderTech (pseudonym) was founded in 2013 by a group of self-described engineers, biologists, and technology enthusiasts, who formed the organization through a desire for action, interested in moving from the idea of embedded implants to the reality of embedded technology. GrinderTech designs, develops, and implants devices inspired from cyberpunk and other science fiction genres. They employ body modification artists to implant their devices, operating wholly outside the formal medical and regulatory system. Self-described cyborgs, GrinderTech members design, produce, and embed these devices in an effort to be more than human, to move beyond their perceived limitations of humanity through their identity work as cyborgs. To members of GrinderTech, the term cyborg is not simply an abstract concept; it is an active part of their identity that they engage with and perform through their daily, lived experiences. GrinderTech member’s cyborg identities are contradictory and constantly in flux. On the one hand, as described in Chapter 4, GrinderTech members rhetorically position their work as intersectional and breaking down boundaries between race, gender, and dis/ability. Yet at the same time, as described through my personal experience, they constantly also engage in a technomasculine dynamic. Further, as discussed in Chapter 5, GrinderTech members are at once, at an individual level, hackers working against formal instructions and regulations, while at the same time, at an organizational level, working towards acceptance by these very institutions and regulations. Finally, I discuss techno-body modification from two perspectives: at the individual level and at the societal level. To frame this exploration, I introduce the concept of human-computer integration. Drawing on new and historical materialism, I define integration as an entanglement, not as a simple symbiotic relationship or intertwining of two separate things, but rather as a merging of matter and other where each element lacks an independent existence. I argue that GrinderTech/Omni Labs member’s cyborg identities are constantly in flux, deeply impacted by the social unconscious of both the present and historical moments that shape and produce the performance. As GrinderTech begins to rebrand themselves from a biohacker collective to a biotech startup we see contradictions emerge. These contradictions between the early motivations and later directions of GrinderTech/Omni Labs become apparent as they begin to enter a capitalist system that, at an individual level, they actively fight against. I find that GrinderTech members and their emergent cyborg identities are paradoxical integrations—becoming bodies that are neither human nor machine, neither hacker nor capitalist; they are both one and the other.


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