Fast Forward

In the 21st century, self-improvement has gone high-tech. 

By Killian Czuba | February 7, 2017
Tim Cannon

Tim Cannon, a self-described cyborg, implanted magnets in his fingers in 2011. He is shown here in 2013 magnetically holding a piece of a headphone.

Ole Spata/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

Kara Platoni. We Have the Technology. Basic Books, 2015. 304 pp. $28.

On a recent flight to Philadelphia the man across the aisle from me in economy class was wearing an Oculus Rift the way one might casually wear an eye mask. I mention the economy seating because these science fiction–worthy experiences are no longer a wealthy person’s plaything: you can purchase a cardboard version of a virtual-reality headset on Amazon for $15. Consider, too, the likelihood of humans reaching Mars in our lifetime and, here on Earth, mass access to self-driving cars (hello, Tesla and Uber). There is a general sense of mystery, excitement, and unease about the effects of future technologies on our economy, health care, and basic social interactions, and so we are hungry for information about the futures these technologies might bring.

Kara Platoni’s We Have the Technology is an accessible, general introduction to many of the enhancements available today. Platoni’s approach to technology revolves around hacking, a term often used to describe a quick-and-dirty fix to a problem. The term, when applied to enhancing humans, as Platoni does, is better known as biohacking, and it takes on a more creative flavor, sometimes referring to rigorous lab research and at other times maintaining a Wild West or MacGyver approach to exploration.

Platoni breaks down biohacking into two groups: soft and hard. Soft describes the hacking of our “social and cultural forces,” such as the search for a new basic taste. (The jury is still out on whether or not there is such a thing.) Hard describes technological hacks, such as virtual reality or cybernetic implants. She oscillates between the two categories in chapters devoted to different types of perception, beginning with the five basic senses: taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch. From there she moves on to metasensory perceptions: time, pain, emotion. Platoni finishes with the big guns: virtual reality, augmented reality, and some entirely new senses. (Have you ever wanted to sense magnetic fields? If so, consider inserting magnets into your fingertips.) The benefit to this method of reportage is that readers get to taste a little bit of everything. The sacrifice is in greater depth of insight.

The book is by no means shallow, but readers who already have a general understanding of any of these fields are unlikely to find new information. A more significant drawback is the book’s outdatedness in its chapters on hard hacking. Platoni mentions, for example, Google’s Project Glass, which has already come and gone, a victim of poor political timing with its potential—courtesy of incorporated cameras—for privacy infringement. With the pace of tech development, this behind-the-times reportage is practically unavoidable in a printed book.

With that outdatedness in mind, the book does stand out in the chapters exploring basic sensory and metasensory perceptions, such as “Smell,” “Taste,” and “Time.” These sections benefit from a rich history of scientific and philosophical study, and many of the experiments described are easily carried out by the average reader. (You may not have the resources—or need—to get a bespoke bionic eye, but you can certainly experience the memory jolts of a scent from childhood or experiment with fat, calcium, and kokumi—the new basic-taste contenders that might one day accompany salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.)

“Time” is by far the most existentially compelling chapter. A large portion of it focuses on the Long Now Foundation’s 10,000 Year Clock, currently under construction in Texas. Once finished, the timepiece will function for 10,000 years without requiring human intervention. It’s being built, says Platoni, as “a monument—and a challenge to—the human perception of time.” The concept of time has been notoriously difficult to pin down, and Platoni does a wonderful job relaying her conversations with experts on the subject, such as neuroscientist Dean Buonomano:

“What is time to begin with?” asks Buonomano. The answer, he thinks, is that time is a measure of how much the world around us changes. . . . [He] argues that there is no counter or master timing area [in the brain], but rather a dynamic process that’s distributed throughout many parts.

These early chapters address the ways our experiences influence our perceptions, especially when—as with the concept of time—neuroscience might not have the answers we’re looking for. For example, smells may be experienced as good or bad (or simply recognizable) depending on life circumstances. The smell of fish will more likely be pleasant if you grew up by the sea with a fisherman grandfather and unpleasant if your commute to work involves walking past the dumpster of a seafood restaurant. One of the added difficulties in, say, nailing down a new basic flavor is the chicken-or-egg language barrier: do we need to have a name for something for it to become distinct enough to recognize?

The segments on augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) are fascinating for the ways the technologies are being applied—such as in the use of virtual combat to better prepare soldiers for real-life fighting and as therapy to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder. These uses of AR and VR prompt profound psychological and philosophical questions: Can we use them to empathize with each other? Can we ever truly feel as if we are inhabiting another’s body? The answer to both questions appears to be a resounding “yes.” In fact, as Platoni experiences firsthand, these tools can currently be used to empathize with animals. Presumably, with the first-person point of view provided by VR, you could learn to empathize with anything: a feral cat, a rock in a stream, your coffee mug.

However, chapters that should seem fresh and even revolutionary often feel like yesterday’s news. The Oculus Rift VR headset has been covered in popular media for years, and with the advent of Pokémon Go everyone has access to AR through the smartphone in their pocket (though the game is, of course, oriented to mass-market appeal rather than world-changing empathy). The author means to offer glimpses into our future, but that future has largely arrived and in some cases has already passed. (Platoni does acknowledge some of this in the last few pages of the book: at the time of publication the Apple Watch had just been released, and a Brown University research team had unveiled a “wireless brain-machine interface,” a device that can detect some kinds of brain activity and relay it to a computer without cumbersome cables.)

That said, the book’s later chapters can still be a fun and engaging resource for people not regularly exposed to tech news. And there is still plenty of room for writers to pursue the study of soft biohacking and of our linguistic and cultural relationships to technology. These areas are more philosophical and contemplative in nature, just as engaging as descriptions of flashy new technologies, and more forgiving to publication deadlines.

Biohacking is one answer to the question humans have often asked and which Platoni returns to on the book’s last page: nature is great, but couldn’t it be more so? What do we want from our bodies, our lives? What are we chasing? Heck, if you could have a superpower, what would it be, and could we make that happen? These are exciting questions, coupling our increasingly sophisticated technologies with promise and optimism rather than alarm. There is a reason why Star Trek is back and popular with a whole new audience. It’s part nostalgia, part aspiration. We see a world that used to be fantasy but that we now see as a distinct possibility. Enjoy this book for the questions it prompts you to ask, and view these advancements not with fear but with wonder.