Our implants, our selves

Do you remember the last time you had a splinter? Do you remember how you discovered it? In all likelihood, you probably noticed it long after it was implanted. In fact, its initial intrusion beneath your epidermis most likely went unnoticed until it worked its way deeper into your body. At this point, some impromptu topical surgery was called for. A sewing needle, a lighter, a little rubbing alcohol... if only it were always so easy to excise an implant.

Over the last half-century, we've grown accustomed to the idea of inserting new components into our systems. Drug delivery devices, pet and property tracking systems, morphological augmentation, deeply-embedded hearing aids, cerebral measuring devices - the list goes on. With the arrival of the implant comes a new level of technological self-mastery, a new level of integration of man and man-made, and, above all, a new level of paranoia about the permeability of the once-inviolate self.

Society's acceptance of implants can be explained, in part, by the benefits people see in them. Many immediately see implants as a sinister method of controlling the populace, but implants can provide helpful coordination, like tracking lost dogs or assisting with office communication. These perceived benefits, however, may desensitize the public to how invasive implant technology can really be.

Instead of that wood splinter, imagine a very small titanium cylinder lodged just under your skin. Inside the cylinder is a chemical payload. Once implanted, the titanium splinter delivers a continuous microdose of said payload. You can hardly tell the device is there. And you cannot refuse your dosage, because the needle is a part of you.

This is not science fiction - it's the product of a commercial venture based on so-called "osmotic technology." Your titanium friend subcutaneously delivers peptides, proteins and other bioactive macromolecules up to one year after insertion.

Carpe diem
Norplant is a contraceptive implant that became commercially available in the United States in February, 1991, after its approval by the Food and Drug Administration. It consists of six matchstick-sized silicone capsules that are inserted in a woman's upper arm, releasing progestin over the course of five years. It must be inserted and removed by a trained medical professional. Because it works automatically, is easy to monitor, and cannot be removed without medical assistance, Norplant lends itself to coercive use. Legislators quickly seized upon its population control benefits; bills involving Norplant have been introduced in more than a dozen states. Had the measures passed, they would have required women convicted of child abuse or drug use during pregnancy to have Norplant implanted. Even the conservative American Medical Association came out in 1992 against such proposals and others that would pay women on welfare to use Norplant.

Stories about chips in the head have for years been dismissed with a smirk and a roll of the eyes. But such tales are becoming increasingly credible. For example, many pet owners have had their animals injected with a very small microchip implant that responds to an external scanner, allowing a lost pet to be quickly identified even if it has lost its collar. The owner of the property - in this case the pet - is able to coordinate it for purposes of tracking.

In a similar vein, a "ubiquitous computing" project at the Xerox research center in Palo Alto, California requires researchers to wear specially coded badges that are monitored by a central computer. The computer can locate individuals, track them and coordinate communications. Ultimately, this technology could shrink so that the "badge" would become injectable, like the pet's owner-friendly tracking device.

The Xerox experiment hasn't yet gotten under our collective skins, but NASA is developing implantable sensors that "must also overcome the significant hurdles of miniaturization and long-term biocompatibility for chronic use." Their motto is "Sensors 2000 - Sensors for the Next Millennium." Your tax dollars hard at work, developing government-grade implants.

Where have you been? That's all right, son, we know where you've been.
Even seemingly innocent devices hint at more nefarious things to come. The FDA recently approved a brain probe to relieve the tremors of the 1.5 million Americans with Parkinson's disease. Designed by the Medtronic Corporation, the Activa system provides "deep brain stimulation" by drilling through the skull and implanting in the brain an electrode that emits electric shocks.

Even the once-divine act of restoring eyesight to the blind might soon be achieved with ocular implants that receive video signals, which are then translated into brain waves. The California Institute of Technology and the Rockwell International Science Center created a chip that mimics the retina, as have a group at Berkeley and a Wheaton, Illinois company, Optobionics, which has patented a retinal implant.

There may not be a coherent plot to control the human population with implants, but governments, especially our own, have done all they can to give us good reason to stay paranoid. While implants become increasingly common and accepted throughout society, the government admits involvement in secret human experiments that impress even hard-core conspiracy theorists. A CIA study in the 1950s used LSD on unsuspecting "volunteers" to establish chemical control, and the Clinton Administration has admitted past government involvement in "dosing" people with radiation to determine long-term effects. Gulf War vets, who report being injected without explanation, have come down with strange diseases. Among them was Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who accused the Army of implanting a chip in his buttocks. And alien abduction stories, with their recurrent theme of nasal implants, simply refuse to go away.

With Norplant or a pacemaker, we know exactly who is doing the implanting. But when we don't know who the implanters are, the best we can hope for is to recognize the forms that implants might take.

Dogtags and dogma
They range in size from the macroscopic to the cellular, where snippets of DNA can be introduced into the body. Even thoughts can be implants, products of the media or inherited as basic human beliefs. Whether DNA, dogtags or dogma, the basic relationships between implanter and implantee come in at least three types: symbiotic, therapeutic, and in the worst case, dangerously invasive.

Viruses, which are essentially fragments of rampant DNA that invade the body, use rapid replication to attack our bodies' defenses. The AIDS virus uses the body's T-cell mechanism to generate copies of itself, making it an implant that can create more implants, with the side effect of destroying the host's immune system.

Gene therapy involves removing a cell from a patient and infecting it with a virus that has been altered by the addition of a gene meant to perform a specific function in the body. The altered cell is implanted into the patient, along with the added gene that will then execute its new function. This is a therapeutic implant at both the cellular and genetic levels.

One could think of cancer as a breakdown in the body's coordination and control mechanisms in response to some foreign intrusion, be it chemical, biological, electrical or even stress-related. Perhaps cancer is a final act of rebellion against an intruder.

Mitochondria, the furnaces in our cells that convert food such as glucose sugars to energy, are also implants in a sense. At a cellular level, microbiologists argue that the mitochondrial DNA, which is actually alien to the nuclear DNA of the cell, essentially piggybacks along, reproducing as the cell develops and divides. Unlike the better-known DNA of the nucleus, which is a unique mix of our parents' genetic codes, the DNA in the sub-cellular mitochondria comes from our mothers and very gradually mutates over tens of thousands of years. In fact, regardless of who we are as individuals, all humans have essentially the same mitochondrial DNA as each other, traceable to a single female progenitor who lived about 200,000 years ago.

Like AIDS and cancer, mitochondrial DNA is very much a symbiotic implant, a permanent visitor that enables cells to generate biochemical energy. One could argue that we are in fact giant colonies of symbiotic genes, composed of our genes and the alien mitochondrial genes.

In several areas, from government to research science to basic human biology, there is increasing evidence of methods and motivations for developing implants, both good and bad. We could just chalk this up to fusion paranoia - in which everything is conspiratorially linked to everything else - and say there is no connection. Or, at the other extreme, we could say that our bodies are experimental vessels used not only by us, but also by external agencies for a variety of purposes.

Black box in your brain
At the University of Southern California, Theodore Berger leads a research group at The Human Brain Project. The goal is to build a synthetic chip that blends with the brain's synapses. The chip itself is a black box. Its internal "wiring" is learned, so that the given inputs and outputs correspond to existing brain patterns that the researchers are trying to mimic. In a way, they are trying to build a brain part that, once implanted, could be used for augmentation, repair, or control.

This project goes beyond any other form of implant technology we have seen so far. Other implants, like contraception, addressed biochemistry. Neuronal implants like Berger's black box directly address the control of human behavior. It reduces human brain activity to digital information, suitable for programming. Eventually, these researchers could learn which synaptic patterns correspond to meaningful human events, and the implants they build could interfere with and supplant our thoughts, memories and feelings.

The continuum of implants, from cellular to macroscopic, has a common theme: Coordination and control. Mitochondrial DNA helps regulate cellular metabolic functions. Cancer is the breakdown of cellular messaging and control. Implanted identification tags help track wayward pets and, one day, perhaps employees. And silicon neural units like the ones in Berger's USC project will someday replace worn-out patterns of thinking with new and more acceptable patterns of thought. To what end?

Put all these technologies and methods together and you get possibilities that are no less intriguing than frightening. Would it be possible to develop genetic "markers" that could be used for tracking, just like a pet implant? And what about genetic sequences that could express themselves as neuronal groups? These groups could perhaps respond to particular input-output patterns, catalogued by official agencies or unofficial individuals, overt and covert.

Does anyone have the motive to actually carry out research to intrude on the thought processes and memories that guide behavior? Well, yes, the United States government. In fact, they've already done some nifty work with a little help from biochemistry.

The name's Bond - James ohmyfuckinggodImturningintoalizard Bond
In 1953, CIA director Allen Dulles approved a program code-named MKULTRA, a clandestine search for a drug that could alter human behavior and perhaps develop a strategic human weapon: the lone assassin. MKULTRA was made public more than 20 years later through a number of Freedom of Information Act requests. The centerpiece of MKULTRA was LSD.

Why did the CIA spend so much time and money on MKULTRA? Its quest was the ultimate implant, namely, a chemically induced thought complex that would govern behavior through human remote control. Many bizarre projects resulted from this effort, including LSD-enhanced behavior modification. But overall, MKULTRA is an example of how valuable coordination and control can be to a government agency.

Implants as artifacts tend to be the physical evidence needed to prove a greater conspiracy. But what happens when the implant doesn't leave physical evidence?

It is common practice to directly manipulate the behavior of groups without a physical intrusion, simply by using an underlying cultural road map of the symbolic systems that guide their behavior and beliefs. This map reveals significant points of behavioral influence and allows the implanting agency to intrude directly at the level of semantics. Best of all, there's no easily traceable evidence.

For example, advertisers have long vied for control of a person's behavior with a rhyme, a jingle, a catchy phrase - all symbolic implants. But, as the work of Carl Jung and others has demonstrated, some symbols are more powerful than others.

Oh to be Jung again
Jung talked about personality complexes as composites of symbols and orientations stored in our personal unconscious. These symbols and orientations combine to form a cluster, or constellation, which can largely determine behavior. These complexes are autonomous, possess their own driving force, and can be very powerful in controlling thoughts and behavior. Boosting product consumption, influencing self-image, accepting religious "mysteries," and even justifying horrors like ethnic "cleansing": all become possible through skillful manipulation of an individual's personal complexes.

Jung said, "A person does not have a complex; a complex has him." In therapy he aimed to free a person from the tyranny that bad complexes had over the patient's life, as if the complex were a behavioral implant at the psychological level that needed to be extracted.

Jung came to believe that complexes must come from something other than early childhood experiences. He called this deeper source of symbols, fears and beliefs the collective unconscious. Unlike the personal unconscious, which depends on individual experiences, the collective unconscious is a reservoir of what Jung called primordial images inherited from man's ancestral past, including human, prehuman and animal. These images predispose us to respond to the world in the same ways our ancestors did.

Jung populated the collective unconscious with archetypes, concepts shared by all human kind: birth, rebirth, death, power, magic, the hero, the child, the trickster, God, the demon, the wise old man or the earth mother. These archetypes are used to explain why disparate cultures that have had no actual contact have somehow developed similar myths and legends.

The implication of this idea - that control need not be exercised just on individuals, but through mass archetypal manipulation - has global ramifications.

According to Richard Knoll's The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung, Jung himself used the religious archetypes of redemption to distinguish the Aryans of Europe from Semitic cultures. Based on this distinction, only Aryans were capable of receiving redemption, an early example of archetype manipulation and a Jungian contribution to the emergent Nazism. Add to it the work of Dr. Berger with silicon neuronal groups. If each archetype is supported by some configuration of neurons, then perhaps they could be mapped, allowing an archetype to be manipulated by a brain implant. Jung wrote that archetypes are "forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action." If an implant could fill those forms with content, or even create a synthetic archetype, then the future of large-scale control is quite bright.

Implants themselves are not news. Our recognition of them, however, is. We now see a new, complicated mindfuck of a possibility - implants can affect our perception of reality, and this casts a shadow of doubt over what we think we know about anything.

In 1619, Rene Descartes introduced an argument for doubt based on the fact that two plus three equal five: "If there is an omnipotent God, he could presumably cause me to go wrong every time I count two and three; if on the other hand, there is no God, then I owe my origins not to a powerful and intelligent creator but to some random series of imperfect causes, and in this case there is even less reason to suppose my basic intuitions about mathematics are reliable."

This extreme doubt of divine or other external control yields the first fundamental truth in the Cartesian quest for knowledge - the existence of the thinking subject: "Cogito ergo sum. I am thinking, therefore I exist."

Was this thought implanted?

—Bill Luciw