There was a third PegLeg made for Titus, but he ultimately decided against it. He says he’s going to wait for a smaller version before he goes under the knife. “I don’t want to be an early adopter,” Titus says. “The idea of having something that large under my skin just doesn’t sound too thrilling to me.”
A few weeks after the procedure, Laufer visited WIRED’s office to demo the device. His thigh was still covered in bruises, but he said it was no longer painful to the touch. When we connected to the PegLeg network, I saw that the future of the internet looks a lot like the past.
The PegLeg serves a barebones interface. When you connect to the server, it displays a short greeting. “Welcome to the first iteration of the next generation of digital communications, where even our bodies are nodes on the decentralized network,” it reads. “Please have fun, chat with people, and feel free to share any files you may like.” When I scrolled down, I found a widget to upload and browse files stored on the implant. Below that was a basic chat room open to anyone connected to the device.
The simple, text-heavy interface reminded me of the bulletin board systems of yesteryear, but with the added strangeness of knowing the network was generated in Laufer’s leg. Laufer and I used his PegLeg to chat (purely for the novelty of it, since we could also just talk), and I downloaded a 1981 issue of Omni magazine stored on his hard drive. This issue features “Johnny Mnemonic,” a short story by William Gibson about a courier who stores other people’s data in his head, which Laufer says had a big influence on him.
“To see technology progress in ways that Gibson predicted with a lot of fidelity is really cool,” Laufer says. “The only thing better is to be the ones bringing it into existence.”
It is a very weird feeling to use a person’s leg as a chat server, especially when it seems superfluous. Plenty of devices perform the same function as the PegLeg, no leg slicing requiring. So why implant the thing at all? It’s a question biohackers get asked a lot. Titus says that in many cases it boils down to exercising bodily autonomy and personal expression—he sees implants as not so different from a tattoo or piercing. But Laufer says his decision was more politically motivated.
To Laufer, mesh networks are a way to undermine the profit-seeking, censorship, and surveillance enabled by centralized internet infrastructure. “The internet is easy to shut down, easy to surveil, and easy to manipulate because of its centralized infrastructure,” Laufer says. With mesh networks, “It becomes free again.”
As long as you’re in close proximity, you can swap files without using a third party like Google or Dropbox to host the file. Internet service providers can’t intervene to censor you. Remove the wireless charger, and the PegLeg network disappears without a trace.
Laufer envisions activists or others with sensitive information using the device to carry data safely across borders. Like the titular hero in “Johnny Mnemonic,” this could turn anyone with a PegLeg into a data mule smuggling encrypted files. There’s no hardware to be confiscated—unless of course law enforcement officers extracted the device from the person’s leg. But can they do that?