Tag Archives: enhancement

Laboratory of the Self: Description and Syllabus

Laboratory of the Self
Quinn Norton
Monday, 2:30pm – 5:25pm
Location: Somewhere at ITP…
Office Hours: Usually Tuesday, 2-3

Course Description

This course will explore the relationship between the body and the self, both in theory and in hands-on application. We’ll begin by learning the basic physiology that links perception to memory and action. How does your mind and body react when you get a coffee, or see a text on your phone? How do you get from there to drinking the coffee or replying to a friend? The process of perception, cognition, and action underlies how we relate to the world, and ultimately, who we believe we are.
The first half of the class culminates in a midterm self-monitoring project. Examples of projects include monitoring heart rates, glucose levels, or music and mood. Students will report on what the data they’ve collected tells them about their body and their understanding of their individual self.
The second half of the class examines the history and state-of-the-art of human modification, from both a technical perspective, and how the practice of body modification has changed society. We’ll discuss ancient changes, and the latest and greatest cybernetic advances, along with bio-ethics and a bit of cyborgian philosophy. For the final projects, students will engage in a self modification project, which will be presented at the end of the term. By the end of the class the student will have a basic understanding how their own perceptions and memory are formed, how this gives rise to their sense of self– and how to change it.


There will be examples, but I will be looking for students to designs projects that are really about themselves. Technical complexity takes a backseat; design for personal insight. You will have a couple weeks to think of ideas, and the chance to discuss them in class, or with me privately.
Both the monitoring and modification projects have the option of privacy and can be presented only to myself if they cover sensitive material.


Missing class will affect your grade. If you’re ill, please stay home, but consider Skyping in. If you know you will have to miss a session let me know in advance.


projects: 60%,
class participation 20%,
reading response 20%.

Class blog

We will have a blog as a place for people to share their thoughts on the reading and their projects publicly. Blogging is optional for those wishing to work more privately. But reading the blog is required.

Reading and Reading Response

Reading will be a mix of offline and print. You must email me or post to the class blog a brief response after every reading. Not required for the coloring book, though I will run though quick verbal checks on it in class.


Week One: The Only Animal That has to Find Itself

Introductions to the topic, and each other, & setting up the first project.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapters one, two, three
Reinventing Ourselves, Andy Clark

Week Two: The Substrate of Sensory-Motor Experience, part 1

Anatomy of the Neuron, Sympathetic and Parasympathetic responses, Ramon Y Cajal and the Neuron Doctrine, Basics of the physiology of sense, Styles of the major neurotransmitters, A little on how psychoactive drugs work, Neurological and psychological homeostasis, Addiction.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapters seven, eight, nine
Except of Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
A Sixth Sense for a Wired World, Quinn Norton

Week Three: The Substrate of Sensory-Motor Experience, part 2

Discuss the reading responses, lobes and locations, thalamus: the great receptionist in our heads, describing the sensory-motor loop,  the various homunculi, the homunculi we’re missing, our six and seventh sense, The strange path of the olfactory bulb, the stranger case of toxoplasmosis, comparative brains across evolution, the corpus collosum, Alien Hand syndrome, grey vs white matter, association areas, TMS, the pain circuit and P, fun with P, why I hate the term ‘lizard brain’, finalizing quantitative self projects.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapters ten, eleven, twelve
Better Than Well: The perfect voice, Carl Elliott

Week Four: The Substrate of Sensory-Motor Experience, part 3

Memory formation, the reliability of memory, dreams as a paradigm for the problems of neuroscience, EMDR, Association, Emotion and Motivation,CBT, Gourmand’s syndrome, Demyelination (MS), Spinal response variation in mammals, circadian rhythms, sleep in mood and memory, No talking but singing, inner speech, emotions.
A Colorful Introduction to the Anatomy of the Human Brain: A Brain and Psychology Coloring Book, chapter four
‪Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky – Stress, Neurodegeneration And Individual Differences‬ (Optional)
Sixth Meditation, Rene Descartes
“I sing the body electric” Walt Whitman
I have not the words, Quinn Norton

Week Five: The History of Our Selves

Dualism vs materialism, Whitman v Descartes cage match, the drift of childrearing, the disruption of feminism, gender in the modern age vs gender in history.

Better Than Well, Chapter 2: The True Self
Oxford Uehiro Center: Neuropunditry
“Bring them on, the power plants”, Dale Pendell

Week Six: Self monitoring projects + More History of the Self

Social construction of self, history and perspectives on depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia, authenticity as moral right, fMRI studies, Class presentations and discussion, setting up the second project

Becoming Dragon, Micha Cárdenas
Chapter 5, Better than well

Week Seven: Self monitoring projects

Midterm presentations
Coffee and tea chapters from Pharmako/Dynamis, Section Excitantia by Dale Pendell
Surviving in an Alien Environment: Human + Christ as Medieval Natural-Born Cyborg

Week Eight: History of modification

How we’ve modified ourselves, and the shifting baseline of wellness and rights. Caffeine, tobacco, our many camp followers, literacy and memory, vaccination.
Nature: Professor’s little helper
If steroids are cheating, why isn’t LASIK? William Saletan
The Brain on the Stand, Jeffrey Rosen

Week Nine: Bioethics of Enhancement

Policies that affect how we choose to modify, neurolaw and its problems, sports and its triumphs, cognitive enhancers and academia, the social role of medicalization, the redefinition of well.
Kanye West, Media Cyborg, Robin Sloan
The Body Without Memory: An Interview with Stelarc, Mark Fernandes

Week Ten: High Weirdness Pt 1: Body modders, artists, drugs and DIY + Media and Politics

The artists, body modders, and edge cases, modern primitives, portrayal of enhancement in the media
Better than Well, Chap. 9, Carl Elliott
Transhumanism, Francis Fukuyama

Week Eleven: High Weirdness Pt 2: Medical Frontiers

Research on brain computer interface, drug delivery, implantables, optogenetics, gene therapy, transhumanists, extropians
Better than Well, Conclusion, The tyranny of happiness, Carl Elliott

Week Twelve: Self modification projects

Class presentations and discussion

50 years of cyborgs: I have not the words.


(This is a post for Tim Maly’s #50cyborgs project, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the word cyborg entering the language. He starts the project here, and collects it here.

For a sense of place to my moment, I will tell you I am on a wireless keyboard, swinging on a homemade swing on the first floor in the three story high living room of the person that would be my it’s complicated on Facebook if I had a Facebook.

My computer itself is on the second floor. As I type these words into the air I have no way of knowing for sure that they are not ephemeral, nothing to confirm my progress and therefore distract me from my thoughts. I strongly suspect that for all the weirdness of the moment, they are (in fact) among the least ephemeral words penned by mankind, the majority of which are lost to the vagaries of mulberry bark and vellum, then paper, then pre-web computing.

We are sitting in a maker/artist community in a converted factory in Oakland called the Vulcan, one of the many ground zeros for the Maker movement. We are positively surrounded by burners and recently returned from Burning Man ourselves, where we spent a week in the desert pouring our own and our society’s resources into a weeklong art festival and dance party, which is meant to vanish without a trace shortly after Labor Day.

He (the Facebook “it’s complicated”) is playing an xbox game where little cartoon zombies trundle into his yard trying to eat his brain while he quickly plants transgenic killer plants (with eyes) that do things like shoot giant peas at them. It’s called Plants vs Zombies. It’s very popular right now, taping into the historical moment’s zeitgeist of anxieties. After all, in an automated society that consumes knowledge workers, what’s a better symbol than a shambling soulless throng that wants to eat your mind and make you irrevocably one of them? As for the transgenic killer plants on the perfectly manicured American backyard lawn as tower defense, that’s so rife with cultural suggestion I get dizzy at the thought of looking too closely. And, to be honest, a touch nauseous.

So in a way, I feel whatever I can tell you about the extraordinariness of the cyborg might be a bit mooted by the strangeness of our present moment. If we’ve learned anything in the last 50 years, it’s definitely that there’s more that one way to skin the culture’s collective cat.)

The early vision of the cyborg was about man changing himself in preparation for his rocket age. It was about “the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space,” according to Wikipedia, right now. Man would add to and modify the body to make the impossible doable, to ease the way into an environment of extreme hostility. It was all bionic arms and lungs and artificial exo and edo skeletons, powered jump suits and then brain computer interfaces as we went on talking about it. But the Space age was DOA, it never really made the changes we’d dreamed up, and by the time my post-moon generation was growing up in the 70s and 80s, it was all looking like a wash.

But a cyborg revolution was happening the same year Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the term. A hostile environment was being tamed by a newly and artificially capable people. It escaped notice and critique though, because the modified weren’t men, and then environment wasn’t space. The modified were women, and the environment was men. The women of the 60s were the first to modify and control their uteruses. (Yes, menfolk, you can be a pretty brutal environment.)

Two years before the We Will Go to the Moon speech, Enovid, the first birth control pill, hit the market. The IUD came into its own in 1968 with the copper T, the year before we landed on the moon. While the Jetsons were giving us a space future to look at, the heirs of Margaret Sanger were quietly destroying the social institution it portrayed. And for all the attention and resources the Space Race consumed, and it consumed a world, the world was changed by the women freed from the tyranny of biology and no longer (as) subject to the whims of men.

Over 100 million women worldwide are probably using an IUD right now, though it’s really hard to count that kind of thing. Each is mechanically modified to invisibly control biology with near perfect success. It’s the most popular form of reversible birth control, though the number of women using IUDs is still smaller than the number of women sterilized, made forever into unmothers-to-be by surgery that otherwise leaves them strong, healthy, and invisibly different. Last citation I could find estimated 138 million women sterilized in the developing world, millions more in the OECD. Yet millions more are using pills, sponges, creams, gewgaws, doodads and even female condoms to exist in a world full of fucking and no particular desire to shoulder an equal burden of childrearing afterwards.

And then, in the last 50 years, women got seriously uppity. “Cyborgs not only disrupt orderly power structures and fixed interests but also signify a challenge to settled politics, which assumes that binary oppositions or identities are natural distinctions.” – ripped from context, but you can google it with the quotes intact. What single bit of technology has changed society more in so short a time? She looks so innocently fuckable, but what cyborgs were so quickly ubiquitous, and so invisible?

I don’t think we’ll ever notice the age of cyborgs, because we do these things one at a time. We roll them out in small ways, and increment them across society. We quietly piece together a know-everything machine, make its connections invisible, then put it in a small box we built as a talk-to-anyone-machine, and carry it around with us. (The first and ultimate prosthetic of the species being community, and so our most powerful magics will always be incantations to one another.) We hand out drugs to everyone that make them more ready for capitalism as a warm, tasty beverage. While we talk about powersuits and armies of robots, we get into metal boxes next to explosion chambers and extend our proprioception to their edges. We do this so that we can then hurtle down ribbons of death we’ve built all around the landscape at speeds not naturally found very often this side of celestial interaction. We call this commuting and consider it one of the most boring things humans do.

An Aside

(Despite all my cyborgian features and posthuman ways, my augmented senses and depleted neurotransmitters, my postmodern sexuality and self-conscious interaction with my environment, I still have to remove the waste of bacteria from my mouth by scraping it off with a soft brush and a thin string. I still have to remember to pull the string below the gumline on both sides of each tooth everyday of my life. I’m king of annoyed that I can have a phone with GPS and even an interface to countless mechanical turks, I can have a Northpaw and I can control my fertility, I can fly anywhere in hours with money I don’t have on a plastic card and be merely contracting rather than earning or stealing, but I have to scrape my teeth in an ever losing battle to keep them, still. I mean, seriously, WTF?)

It seems like the discussion of cyborgs in the time since 1960, echoing the discussion of robotics, bounced between news of DARPA and DARPA-like Sci-fi projects none of us will ever really see and Critiques on how We’d All Been Cyborgs, Really, Since We First Picked Up Sticks. I want a middle ground. I want to say there are inflection points where the scale of things changes the nature of what they do. And my fucking smartphone is not a stick, even if it uses the same neural infrastructure in me. I want to say I will beat you with a stick if you say it is, which is funny and you know I’m joking because despite the fact that I am talking to you I am not even in the same room as you. So you know that at my worst, I would have to use the phone to call you and make stick slapping noises.

We need new language to talk about the shit we don’t see. Cyborg is a start, but it was coined by the very forces of big phallic rocket male domination that cyborgs were about to fuck up in the darkened alleys of the collection consciousness. Like, that day. We need language that lets us talk about the terrorism of little changes. Be they good or bad, they are terrible in aggregate.

Also 50 years on, we need another word, one that describes the inverse of the cyborg, to describe what we are filling the world with. What I mean by inverse is this:

In 2006 in a NATO report I found the description of a particular anti-coalition IED encountered in the field in Iraq. It works like this: the insurgent digs out a hole in the wall, and plants a grenade sans pin there. (S)He (When the hell is English going to get a gender neutral pronoun to match our newly gender neutral roles, damnit?) Anyway, s(he) pastes an anti-coalition propaganda poster on top of it. When the American soldier comes along and tears down the poster, (s)he pulls the lever. There are many booby traps, what makes this one of interest is that part of its mechanism is a specific frame of mind in its victim. This is a device augmented with an organism. It’s not just, or even mainly incorporating the mind of its creator from the moment of its creation, but the mind of the victim in the moment of its function.

But we don’t have a word for organically augmented machinery, even though they are fast filling the new and vacated niches of the environment. It’s there when an API calls up Mechanical Turk, it’s there when Google uses the soft, human touches of links to create meaningful relationships for an otherwise indifferent server farm to traverse. It was noticed even in 1968, next door temporally to the copper T, by Alan Kay: “The user at the console is considered to be inside a process description which in turn is interior to the FLEX system and environment.” It turned out we didn’t always have to obviously merge with our machines to become cyborgs, and the reverse holds. They don’t have to merge with us to become something more, something augmented beyond what they could have possible hoped to contain within their endogenous mechanics. They can just use us, too. But how do we talk about it without sounding mad when we have to reuse language meant for other things?

We have not the words.


With many thanks to @genmon, @mala, @sgtkeso, and @tezcatlipoca for their eyes, ears, and minds.

Age of Excessions Interlude: Biology, or the Drugs Win the Drug War.

Understanding what the Venter Institute really did today

The short answer is that they created a wholly synthetic genome and put it in a yeast cell. This goes towards creating a minimal cell; figuring out how little DNA you need to make a barebones organism. This leaves lots of extra possible genetic space to making that minimal cell do stuff we want, whether it be pee out biofuels or Prozac, eat Gulf of Mexico oil, or glow in the presence of melamine, cancer, or anger. With a minimal and reusable platform, doing any of these things just becomes a coding problem. And not even a novel coding problem, because we already have Nature to reverse engineer from. Nature uses the same platform, and at some point or another has already solved all these problems.

It’s techno-exciting, but fundamentally, it’s the next level of fine-grained resolution on the control of our environment, which has been our species’ trick from the beginning. Venter and his cohort are trying to replace petroleum, (and control the replacement, and pretty much rule the world as a result) and others are trying to create complex cancer fighting biologics. Some sweet, wonderful people from the nicer parts of biomed are even trying to figure out how to make a cheap suite of biologic drugs to treat the horrible helminthic NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases) that are destroying the lives of about 1.5 billion of the world’s poor. This task will be made vastly simpler with a platform like the minimal cell, at least in theory.

But there’s a paradox built into our tendency to seek more environmental control. The more control we have, the more unpredictable our world becomes. This is because all the other humans with their unpredictable and hidden desires can now also control our environment.

While biopunditry is talking about biofuel, cancer treatment, and growing extinct mammoths, I wanted to bring the implications of this work out of the towers of ivory and industry and down to earth.

Today, we lost the drug war. Oh, it will run around for a while, unaware that it is dead, but we have decisively lost.

You know what’s a lot easier than all the high minded business about environment, or life extension, or even the scary doomsday 12 Monkeys scenarios? Growing simpler molecule drugs. I don’t mean like aspirin, I mean like heroin and cocaine, THC and hallucinogens. They already grow in plants thoroughly studied, and people are motivated and not at all risk averse about getting those sequences somewhere they can use them. Cooking meth is hard and dangerous science compared to the ability to get a starter of a minimal cell that poops heroin and feeding it growth medium in your closet. We may have lost the drug war, but not as badly as the drug lords have.

It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it.

What synthbio is inventing right now is the true Bittorrent for things. It’s a platform for generating and sharing materials just this side of geology, since nearly everything but rocks is made by life. Right now you can think of it has having an interface so bad only a few people in the world can actually use it, and our hope for being in control is that the interface stays bad as long as possible. In the history of technology, that has rarely worked in the long term.

Craig Venter is not, despite his press, the smartest guy on the planet. He is not savant like, leaps and bounds in front of everyone and everything else. He isn’t the only one working on this. He’s maybe slightly in front, but probably not. If he is, it’s by inches. This is perhaps his Trinity, or the proof of concept right before it. It’s momentous, but it won’t stay contained.

This is on the scale of nukes, but not for long. Nukes are hard to build, requiring mind-boggling equipment and leave a kind of scent where ever they go. They can only really be used for magawatt power generation, and blowing shit up. Bio can be used for nearly anything you, me, or Charlie Stross can dream up. Imagine trying to stop proliferation if the atomic material centrifuges literally grew on trees and the fissile material floated freely through the air, and tended to show up in great amounts on bread you left out too long.

When you think of this, you can think of seeing a dodo someday, or Jurassic Park, or even taking a drug that a doctor grew just for you. But keep in mind the strangeness of the human imagination and the strength of human desires. A thousand weird Somas are coming, too.

The Age of Excessions

Part One: The question and the answer.

While this essay represents bits of 18 years of thinking and observing human institutions responding to the various forces I’ve encountered (primary in technology and medicine) I was prompted to write it in response to a question a man asked me last summer at a conference on the future. His question, roughly put, was this: How do you tell what institutions are about to get disrupted? My answer, equally paraphrased was this: any part of an institution that was there to facilitate information is going to go away in favor of the internet. This answer was both too general in that I never really explained what facilitating information meant or how the internet would destroy it, and too specific, because I only talked about the internet, as if it were the only technological force looming over these institutions.

What follows is a longer reply to the question about the fates of institutions, past, present, and future. I believe we are entering an age where these disruptions come at a speed we’ve never dealt with before. It’s bountiful in destruction and utopianism. It’s a stochastic time, with too much of everything. These changes so severe they break social institutions before new institutions can evolve. These changes are so many, it’s the defining characteristic of the age: an age of excessions.

An excession is something that exceeds the current frame of reference, and therefore wrecks it. I’ve stolen the word from the illimitable writer and thinker Iaim M. Banks, but it’s not my intention to attribute my definition to him. For my purposes an excession doesn’t have to just come from outside the frame of reference, like the WWII troops that landed on Micronesian islands bearing Cargo. They can also arise internally, like puberty. As a matter of fact, laying aside the occasional meteorite, hurricane, or well armed British explorer, almost all do arise from colliding forces inside humanity. But they all feel like the weather, an unpredictable thing outside our comprehension or control that tends to smack us around without warning. Many excessions arise from colliding forces of social power structures and technological progress. One of the reasons that so many excessions are so surprising is that politicians and technologists usually think they are where the really important stuff is, their worlds providing the invisible climate to each other. There are other spheres that provide more invisible climate, but even trying to talk about these two is confusing enough to start with. Technology and politics are incredibly compelling, and looking closely at either will convince anyone that they’ve found the cornerstone to history, stories of progress that really explain what’s going on, and what they can’t explain was random chance or the hidden variables- more weather. If a political thinker looks at the history of New York in the mid-century they uncover Robert Moses as an explanation of everything. A technologist looks at the same story and sees the inevitable result of advances in building materials and automobile engineering. Arguing who really has history figured out between the two is like arguing nature and nurture in children- turns out to be incoherent and not as interesting as you think. I will try very hard not to do that.

The greatest institutions meet one of history’s poltergeists

In the 1980s the nascent social force of the internet entered a world of unprecedented consolidations. Nation-states, corporations, and even religions were larger and more coherent than at any other time in history. Partly that was the first order effect of rising population levels, but it was came from the need for cohesion in scaled up societies. We were not merely millions of Americans together, we were part of the capitalist faction of humanity, employees of megacorporations, and citizens of a government so sprawling it couldn’t be held in the mind. One of the benefits of the project that both consolidated and segmented the world is that we could substitute categories for people, something the modern mind needed desperately.

The 19th and 20th centuries had done something disturbing to humanity; it had made us aware of there being so many more people than we could ever know or form opinions of. Even if you managed to spend your life in in the village of your birth and not know more than 150 people (and fewer of us could manage that) you now had more and more a sense of the oppressive other. There were millions of people out there, then billions, a crush of humanity that the social human mind couldn’t take in. Being able to make simple statements like ‘capitalists are like me, communists are evil’ was a way of managing the terrible weight of the unknowable other. Capitalism itself was an attempt to scale social institutions to keep up with populations, as was socialism. They were the organizational systems humans desperately latched onto to deal with the sudden logistical problems of there being so damn many of us.

We often think of this process of happening slowly, but if you were to extend the history of humanity back to the founding of civilization at 12,000 years, or reasonably even to the beginning of our speciation around 200,000 years ago, the last 200-300 years suddenly looks like what it is- the adaptation of human institutions at a breakneck pace. For the first time changes routinely lapped generations. The elders couldn’t even recognize the world they’d always been meant to comment on. Their roles of wisdom were stunted: the world they knew so much about was gone.

The internet (and here I include the greater telephony it’s part of) was about accelerate and rearrange everything it touched, creating and collapsing scaling problems in institutions like a mad poltergeist of history. Not necessarily via the usually discussed channels, like blogging, but by rendering obsolete the mass infrastructure of information wherever the net arrived. The middle layer of communication and cultural cohesion that had once been the largest, richest, most articulate part of the economy and culture was rendered obsolete without even the courtesy of being dismantled. Overnight, the conduits not only ceased to be conduits, they became barriers, without ever changing their behavior. Tt was as if the world had spun 180 degrees around them. People don’t handle this sort of thing well. In fact, they kind of go crazy.

Next: The first time you ever heard of the RIAA

Regarding the senses, and a Northpaw update

There is no more powerful teacher about the nature of human senses than the migraine. Within the headache’s state senses are heightened to the point of vicious permeating pain. Light stabs you, smells choke you, sounds can hit you with the force of a shovel. It is an argument whether you are sensing more or filtering less- I am with the latter camp.

Once, about 30 minutes post Imitrex during the worst of my migraine seasons the pain passed enough for me to process the sensory data incoming. I was walking along a one-way street in Cambridge with Aaron. I started telling him what each type of car was as it came up behind us, based on the sound of its engine and suspension. I could have guessed that some people can distinguish cars by sound, people *really* into cars, but I had no idea I was one of them. I found my new ability unsettling, as much for wondering what other canons of knowledge my brain wasn’t telling me about as for the oppression of unexpected information. At dinner I heard all the adjacent conversations simultaneously. I repeated snippets back to Aaron. I wanted to convey how entirely strange this experience was, but that was hopeless- describing senses themselves, rather than their integrated gestalt, is nearly impossible.

I found this to be true as well with the magnet. To this day I have still never found a way of explaining what it was like: electrical, oscillatory, a pure sensation, ‘like putting your hand in an ultrasonic cleaner’, sharp but not painful, tangy, metallic, synthetic, fluctuating, warm, tugging. I feel that I’m a good writer, in particular I’ve been told more than once that I have a gift for explanation. Explaining a sense, just the sense, stumps me.

I have the least useful, most common, barely present, probably most boring form of synesthesia there is. Every so often I taste colors. I don’t taste something and see the color, I don’t taste and associate the color, I just taste the color. It’s useless to ask me what, say, red tastes like. It’s not hot or sweet or anything like that, it tastes like red. It’s an awareness of an element of red in my food, on parr with sweet or hot rather than suggestive of them. That’s what tasting a color means. It happens to me once a year at most. It used to happen more, but it’s declined as I’ve gotten older. It was so natural, so clearly part of the food, that for most of my life I didn’t believe it was synesthesia. Everyone had to taste those occasional colors, they were just there. Come on. It was finally a pharmacist friend in Las Vegas that pinned it down. I had a drink that was pink, and tasted pink. That was unusual, tasted colors rarely matched visual colors, and it amused me a great deal. I handed it to my friend and said “Taste this! It tastes pink!” He said “Ok…” dragging out the k long enough to make it a 15 cent word at least. He tasted it, and told me I was a synesthete.

I suspect all new senses are somewhat synesthetic. You are leveraging an existing sensory infrastructure, running something new on old roads into associative areas of the brain. I ‘felt’ electricity, right now I ‘feel’ north on the left of my left ankle. Feel is touch, but touch is not a state of awareness. When it’s working as a sense my awareness is not the buzzing, it’s the awareness of north from the buzzing Northpaw. I make it dance around by spinning my office chair. Sometimes it doesn’t keep up. I believe I get nauseous and dizzy much quicker wearing the Northpaw than I do spinning my office chair without it. Right now I can feel it buzzing, and I can feel north. The Northpaw gives you a recombinant sense.

Here is the thing about a new sense: calibration in a bitch, because experiencing it subjectively is kind of the point. That a new sense is unreliable goes with the territory – all your senses are unreliable. Senses not about accuracy, but they kind of require that you think they are about accuracy. Senses are integrative. They create the world that you inhabit- but it’s important to understand that they create a world you can inhabit rather than the whole of, or even a slice of, the objective truth of your environment. This is one of the many reasons people make terrible eye witnesses.

What lets you process a new sense isn’t that it’s right, wrong, precise, superpowerful, or pathological, it’s that integration. What you need from a new sense is consistency, or it becomes part of the noise you are filtering all the time. You need to train and force yourself to rely on it just enough that it gets plugged into the continual associative process of creating the useful fiction you spend your days wrapped in. Integration and consistency means far more to us than accuracy.

The Northpaw is not always, in fact not usually, integrated into my perception. That was never really a problem with the magnet, so this is a bit of uncharted territory for me. Admittedly it’s only been three weeks since I first put one on, so it might actually be coming along nicely thankyouverymuch. I can say it’s begun to uproot and reassemble DC in my mind, which I’m thankful for. The two spacial maps were distressing, and at one point got me lost more than I was without the Northpaw. That is past, though I can’t say I never get lost. It hasn’t done that for me. The experience is similar to the magnet in that it’s been more realigning of reality than useful. It tells me more about how the world works rather than giving me immediately practical information. Grids aren’t quite so griddy anymore. As a native of LA, that’s actually quite an insight into the nature of the city.

My Northpaw article is due soon, but I hope to keep on with my study and reporting on it. I think there is more to learn from this little thing. (No idea what I’m talking about? See all entries on the Northpaw.)

Northpaw, end of first week.

No problem getting it through TSA. I even had my story ready, and it turned out to be entirely unneeded.

The Northpaw doesn’t work well when tilted. It’s unstable while driving, or a few other similar conditions. This seems reasonable for a compass, but it can be disorienting. I have now worn it in two cities, DC and SF, and I hope to add NY to the mix. As soon as I figure out where I’m living. My DC house flooded while I was in SF, and my life is pretty disrupted at the moment.

Since returning to DC I have found out that my mental spacial map of DC swapped north for west. I have found out that my idea of north isn’t quite what I thought it was. My mental north seems to be less a cardinal direction as the dominant direction, the top, the most important thing. I wonder if north is simply, from any direction, where Ada or the Pacific Ocean are. The map I have of DC is pretty hard, and turns out to be difficult and disorienting to dislodge. Much of my experience of the Northpaw is more about disrupting a mythical sense than augmenting life with a new one. I am trying to let the Northpaw win, but it’s slow going.

The one part that is broadening my horizons is how the Northpaw corrects the extreme smoothing we do to get along. Straight things aren’t as straight as we perceive them. Skory told me that in the time he was wearing this Northpaw he found that hiking trails are much more twisted that he thought they were. I find roads, paths, and bit of buildings drift in ways usually too subtle to notice. Not always, but just enough to be unsettling. I am beginning to wonder how much maps are myths we tell ourselves about man’s mastery of nature.

The fact that it goes wrong quite a bit is making it hard to integrate as a sensory experience. Whatever is happening with plane of inclination or possible software or hardware glitches, there’s also those times when something is just mucking with the magnetic field. Riding on the subway, both the BART and the Metro, is very magnetically unstable. And it’s not the Northpaw- if I put my hand compass on the floor, it goes crazy as well. I plan to try re-calibrating it by circling the compass with a rare earth magnet and seeing if that helps me find the proper locations for the buzzers- a non trivial task.

In LeDroit Park a man on a moped stopped me while I was on my bike and asked me about the anklet. He was clearly interested. I explained the concept behind the Northpaw and my project, and his eyes and smile grew. I pointed to north. He was nearly giddy. People love this thing, though I occasionally get comments that it looks like I’m under house arrest. Still, this idea of widening perception consistently fascinates people.

The Northpaw, Day 1: A new sense I didn’t know I didn’t have.

The magnetic implant had a magical quality to it. A long journey ending in a moment of bloodletting in a ritualistic setting, surrounded by cryptically ornamented people, and suddenly I had the full force of an entirely new sensation. I could see a new thing in the world. I practiced, but there was still something of the etherial to the situation, enhanced by the ritual with which it all began. The loss was just as otherworldly. One day without an apparent precipitating event my finger grew swollen and angry. It turned black and painful and I developed a fever, and as quickly as it had come, the new sense was gone. All I had left was the apparent the anger of the gods at my hubristic magic, to be satisfied only by a weeklong course of Cipro.

I was very sad. A dear friend gave me a hug and said “There, there. We’ll get you another new sense.”

The Northpaw feels a lot more like technology than magic. It’s based on the Feelspace, a project by the Cognitive Psychology department of Universität Osnabrück in Germany. It works by a series of mild buzzers hooked to an electronic compass and arrayed along a belt. the buzzers signal north to the wearer. The wearer gets used to it. They just begin to always know where they are, and have perfect direction sense. The Northpaw, a kit under development by some friends at Noisebridge, does this in an anklet.

I am an extremely alpha tester of the Northpaw. We’ve run into some hardware problems, software problems, and problems caused by the size of my ankle and the direction of the zipper on my strap. We’ve fiddled, by which I mean Adam Skory has fiddled, while I watched and offered to make tea. I have served my universal purpose though- exposing flaws by suddenly having everything fall apart the second I touch it. (This is no criticism of Skory’s work. This happens with major corporations and large governmental computer systems as well. I’m just amazing at breaking things.)

After some trial I figured it was almost working right, good enough to take home and try to calibrate later. Calibration in this case is moving the motors slightly on the strip to make sure that they are actually in the right place for north on the small circumference offered by my ankle. I’ve always had a good native sense of direction, so I felt I could tell when the Northpaw was off.

I got out my compass and wandered around. Yes, I have a great sense of direction. It’s just wrong most of the time. I get around by what I have realized is extreme smoothing. It wanders well off the cardinal directions, and then gets yanked back by points of reference. I also hold an independent compass in my head for buildings I know that defines north as whatever I think of as the top of the building and has not much relationship to the cardinal directions.

The Northpaw isn’t perfect, but so far it’s better than I turn out to be. I am still in the alarming newness phase of awareness, figuring out how much I was wrong about things I didn’t know I thought about.

I will blog the experience as I go, and will be writing an article for h+ magazine summing up my time of augmentation.