Upgrade Day

Chipping parties are the latest trend among Scandinavia’s tech community. Could these biohackers and transhumanists be coming to implant a workplace near you?

Words: Holly Young
Illustration: Lisa Tegtmeier

A typical “chipping party” follows a simple format, Swedish biohacker Hannes Sjöblad explains. It begins with an introductory talk about what it means to be chipped — Sjöblad is keen to ensure everyone is making an informed decision — then beers are served, guests chat and start lining up. A professional piercer is hired for the event to insert the microchips, around the size of a grain of rice, usually slipping them under the skin between thumb and index finger. Only a few seconds of pain, assures Sjöblad, and it’s over.

The chipping parties started small. The first, back in 2014, was no more than a garage party — Sjöblad, a few online friends and a piercer got together one night in Stockholm. Since these early days of struggling to amass more than 10 people in one room, interest has spread. “I’ve been invited to arrange implant parties on five continents, across 20 countries, for hundreds of people,” says Sjöblad. “I am just overwhelmed by the pent-up interest… thousands of people have been walking around just waiting to get an implant.”

While chipping parties first emerged from online pockets of transhumanists and biohacker enthusiasts, the practice has now made tentative steps into the workplace. Although he also conducts them for independent groups, Sjöblad’s chipping parties are now largely associated with Epicenter, a Swedish start-up hub where he works as chief disruption officer. Epicenter’s offices are designed to respond to Near-field communication (NFC)-enabled microchips, the same technology used in contactless bank cards. Employees can use their implanted chips to access their building, book conference rooms, or use the printers. On the official opening of the building, the developer’s chief executive was chipped live on stage. Getting an implant has become so popular among employees at Epicenter, that hundreds have now paid to be chipped at regular parties hosted in the company offices.

The appeal of being chipped ranges from the practical to the philosophical. “Some people are attracted by the convenience of it; no longer having to carry extra swipe cards or keys,” says Sjöblad. In Sweden, the chips can also be used to access gyms, homes, and even the national rail service. For some, the appeal runs deeper: “Others want to embrace the future.” For many, the communal format of the parties adds another dimension. “Being chipped is an emotional thing — there is pain, bleeding, the concept of putting a foreign object in your body. And the core point of the implant party is that you are not doing this by yourself, you are doing it with others… These people become digital siblings. We jokingly call the day not your birthday but your ‘upgrade day’. Some people get together on the anniversary to celebrate.”

Embracing technology into the flesh becomes more complex when that body is in the workplace. Chipping itself, often associated with surveillance or tracking animals, sits uneasily in the context of the power dynamics between employer and employee. The enthusiasm to take it up voluntarily is, on the one hand, validating, but on the other makes it more unnerving.

On YouTube, you can watch footage from a chipping party at Wisconsin- based company Three Square Market, where employees wear “I’ve been chipped!” T-shirts. This evident enthusiasm demonstrates a degree of workplace loyalty seemingly out of step with today’s move towards more fragmented, freelance working. Might we end up with cliques of chipped employees shunning the unchipped in the canteen, or being unconsciously favoured by managers? Sjöblad doesn’t think so and points out that just as jobs are today seldom for life, the chip doesn’t need to be either. “It’s not that big a deal. It’s easy to get removed. It’s not like a tattoo.”

Criticisms of chipping parties have come both from religious groups and illuminati conspiracists. But even the more serious criticisms regarding privacy are, says Sjöblad, riven with misunderstandings. The chips are passive devices; “No data is collected and you cannot use the implant to track location. It will log that you came at nine and left at five, just like it does for anyone with a badge.” Epicenter also clearly states that it does not include the chipping in any work policies, and emphasises that it takes place voluntarily and at the employees own financial cost (roughly €100). The parties are hosted in the Epicenter building, but usually run by the Swedish Association of Biohackers, of which Sjöblad is the founder.

“Getting chipped is becoming less of a gimmick here in Sweden,” says Ben Libberton, science communicator at MAX IV Laboratory in Lund. Engagement with chipping tech is much wider than the workplace, which could be explained by Sweden’s relatively high trust in institutions, as well as the fact that more and more locations and services are chip enabled. “In terms of the security aspects, lots of people think it is just like any other card,” says Libberton. “At the moment, they are probably right — it’s not as bad as your mobile phone and the data that is being transmitted from there.”

Chipping parties are just one small aspect of a widening integration of tech into the workplace: from sensors to monitor whether employees are at their desks, their breathing rate, or how often and in what tone they speak to colleagues, to AI management systems that map their digital communications. While these individual bits of technology are not necessarily particularly new or radical, their potential to creepingly alter the relationship and expectations between worker and employer is.

Chipping itself, often associated with surveillance or tracking animals, sits uneasily in the context of the power dynamics between employer and employee.

Data protection issues, which extend into our relationship with technology as consumers and citizens, are arguably more pernicious in the workplace. One of the most high-profile cases of biometric monitoring took place in 2017 — it concerned Amazon’s patenting of wristbands that could monitor the exact location of employees and their real-time hand movements, then use vibrations to nudge them in a different direction if they were failing to work as expected. The ability to gain, and potentially abuse, an ever more granular picture of employee output and activity suggests we could easily sleepwalk into the age of digital sweatshops, what Guardian journalist John Harris calls “Stasi capitalism”.

Yet technology clearly also has the potential for positive impact in the workplace. In 2015, Stanford University and wellness tech firm Spire approached LinkedIn about doing a study with their employees on a new product. The Spire tracker, a small pebble-sized device, allows users to track sleep, stress, activity, heart rate and respiratory patterns. For Michael Susi, Spire’s global wellness manager, it seemed a great fit for LinkedIn. “The culture in the company is that they want employees to do whatever it is they need to take care of themselves,” he says. Meditation, fitness classes, and occasional massages are available in LinkedIn offices.

More than 400 employees volunteered to wear the Spire tracker over the weeks of the study. Susi, who also participated, noticed his breathing pattern was markedly different every second Monday morning, and that he could recognise his stress was linked to the series of one-on-ones on that day. The tracker alerts users when their breathing changes — sometimes suggesting that they may want to take a minute to meditate.

“I didn’t really recognise it on my own, but the data allowed me to see,” says Susi, who responded to his discoveries by making adjustments to his workload that day. “The tech allowed employees to see where they were stressed, or when they were holding their breath while writing emails.” At the end of the study, employees reported a noticeable decrease in stress levels at work.

As technology and products on the market develop, so do the opportunities for employers to gain a deeper insight into the activity of their organisations.
London-based company Status Today has created an AI product that offers management an “X-ray into the inner workings” of their company, breaking down activity by geography, role or team. The tool offers the ability to build up a map and history of employee engagement and communication patterns, arguing this can help inform operational strategy. Boston-based start-up Humanyze has created employee ID badges with inbuilt biometric monitoring capabilities. The badges can track movements and interactions between employees around the office, and pick up data on the length of conversations and even their tone of voice. The “people analytics” it generates can apparently measure how often workers are disrupted and even dominated in conversations. It can reportedly also track latency — the amount of time between interactions among “top collaborators” on a team.

In these instances, the intended use, rather than the tech itself, is crucial. “If some big corporations have sensors that check things like chair occupancy so they can understand how many hot desks they need, fine,” says Anna Scott, head of content at the Open Data Institute. “But it is obviously awful if that tech is starting to be used to keep employees digitally chained to their desk.”

Transparency about how data is used and unpressured consent from employees is pivotal. In the case of Spire, Susi says LinkedIn did not see anything aside from aggregated, anonymous data, and it was communicated clearly to staff that all individual data was kept between Spire and the employee. Meanwhile, at The Daily Telegraph offices, employees complained after discovering sensors had been fitted underneath their desks, monitoring how often they got up and moved around, allegedly without their consent.

While the introduction of GDPR laws has been positive for data protection, Paul Bernal, a lecturer specialising in internet human rights and privacy at the University of East Anglia, argues that the issue of consent often remains problematically vague. “Legally, according to GDPR, they should tell you what data is being collected and what it is used for,” he says. “But in practice, they are likely to give you a set of terms and conditions which you will skim and sign. It will look like you have consented to everything, but in practice you won’t know what is going on.”

Part of the issue is that organisations don’t always know themselves what they are going to use the data for. “Once you have a system in place the possibilities for misuse are enormous, as are the temptations for ‘function creep’,” says Bernal. As the technology, which initially required consent, is expanded and normalised, the issue of consent becomes foggier. “The chip that got you through the security door one year, then gets used the next to turn on your computer and log in by the time you reach your desk. We say we are going to monitor people’s movements to work out efficiency, but we don’t know how that might be used in the future. They don’t know if it will be used to monitor people on disciplinary [cases], for example.”

“Are we treating them as human beings, with respect and working on the basis of trust, or are we seeing them as cogs in the machine?”

Martin Tisné, managing director at Luminate, a global philanthropic body to empower collaboration between individuals and organisations, argues that the use of AI tools in hiring practices and management could lead to employees needing wider protection. “Part of what needs to happen is that there is a read across between the work on data rights and, in the case of the UK, the employment equalities act,” he says. “You aren’t allowed to discriminate on the basis of age, but you could have algorithms targeting job ads towards a certain age bracket online.”

In a recent article arguing for a Bill of Data Rights, Tisné also discussed the algorithmically generated risk scores being used in bail decisions in the US. “A parallel example in the workplace could be a boss looking at employees that have taken more days off,” he wrote. “But it might be that the employee has an ill child. In these cases, you need empathy and to look at the individual case — and algorithms are really bad at doing this.” Because algorithms usually consolidate existing biases in society, more nuanced and robust protections are needed for workers. “With GDPR, people have a right to challenge if there is an automated decision-making process that is made about them,” says Tisné. “But this is very rarely exercised.”

“In some ways, this is very old-fashioned stuff but manifesting in a new age,” says Bernal. While the potential for increasing convenience for employees, streamlining processes and maximising efficiency may sound positive, it must go hand in hand with a wide and nuanced conversation about how we want to treat workers. “Are we treating them as human beings, with respect and working on the basis of trust, or are we seeing them as cogs in the machine?” asks Bernal. “We are driving towards an efficiency trap. Sometimes I go for a walk while at work and stare at the sky to help me think. It helps me to do what I do. We should not be treated as automatons controlled by our employers. We should be able to have a private life while we work.”

While chipping parties may not become commonplace at work with immediate effect, fears of tech being normalised in a blink — or the voluntary suddenly becoming the compulsory — are reasonable. According to Sjöblad, one of the biggest divides in society today is digital: those who fear technology and its progression, and those who embrace its possibilities. For him, chipping at least is not a sign of submission to control, but taking the power of that technology into one’s own hands. “I want people to understand this technology, so the authorities can’t use it against us,” he says. “If any company would make it compulsory, or there is a drive to implant criminals, trust me, I will be on the barricades against that with all my force.”

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This original article appears in Weapons of Reason’s sixth issue: AI, which is available to buy now or subscribe to the final three issues (including AI).

Weapons of Reason is a publishing project to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world by Human After All design agency in London.