Dave Asprey, who describes himself as the “world’s first professional biohacker”, is best known as the inventor of Bulletproof coffee, which involves putting butter in your coffee in order to enhance your energy and focus, so you won’t get distracted or exhausted by people constantly asking what the hell you’re doing putting butter in your coffee.
But as he told one interviewer recently, buttery coffee – if you’ll pardon this confusing mental image – is only the tip of the iceberg. Asprey also has his own stem cells injected into his face and genitals, freezes himself in a home cryotherapy chamber, and bathes in infrared light. The point, he explains, is to use “science, biology, and self-experimentation to take control of and upgrade your body, your mind, and your life”.
Which prompted Edith Zimmerman, writing on The Cut, to ask a pertinent question: why? She conceded that the same might be asked of her exercise routine. “What are we doing? And why? Am I afraid of death? Of ageing? Am I avoiding the present, always thinking of how good it’s going to be, soon?”
It’s a good question, and there’s a clue to the deeper issue in Asprey’s use of the word “upgrade”. Speaking to Guardian Weekend last year, the millionaire biohacker Serge Faguet – who takes 60 supplements a day, and won’t have kids because they’re “not a good return on investment” – used identical language: “Ultimately, the real value is being able to upgrade yourself.” But what does that even mean? Upgrading, like “optimisation”, is one of those words implying a sort of all-round “betterness”, or generally increased efficiency.
But there’s no such thing as general betterness or efficiency. You’re always improving at something specific, usually at the expense of something else, whether you acknowledge it or not. For biohackers, that often seems to mean living longer – Asprey’s aiming for 180 – but that’s not a very satisfying answer. Live longer for what? To spend more time biohacking?
There’s a cynical reading of all this, in which the ultimate beneficiary is always and only The Man: while the super-wealthy might biohack for fun, for most of us the main effect of boosting energy and focus, or learning how to sleep more efficiently, is to become a better cog in the corporate machine. (See also “productivity”, another idea that masquerades as an end in itself, when in fact it’s always productivity for some goal – frequently your employer’s bottom line.)
I don’t think that’s universally true, though. If you care about your work, time with your family, or the local volunteering project you’re involved with, it makes perfect sense to want to do it with more energy, even sometimes more efficiently. And personally I’d rather like to live a few decades more than my official life expectancy. Rather, the point is to know – or at least to ask – why you’re doing it: because there’s always a “why”, whether it’s your own or not.
To adapt a timeworn adage, it would be terrible to spend your life upgrading your climbing gear, only to reach the summit and realise you’d been scaling the wrong mountain.
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