Altered Carbon: Is the Netflix Sci-fi Predictive?

At L+ Magazine we like to keep up on the latest tech but also the latest movies and shows. As many anticipated the release of this show, it occurred to me that people might want to talk about some of the themes and technology in the series. The series has been heavily thought through. Some of the conversations about how religion, death acceptance, aging, and other tech like flying cars is addressed. Without revealing too much for those not up to date on viewing it, here is a brief review of the show and how it may spark ideas for innovation in the future. Spoiler alert, stop reading now if you have not gotten past episode 1.

So the show begins with a “sleeve” being prepped for it’s return to consciousness. A “sleeve” is the wet-ware of a human without the mind. Now, this violent re-entry to the land of the living is a bit technically questionable. A small disk is inserted into a slot in the back of the neck called the “cortical stack”. This insert is owned by a human and holds a personality, memories, and mannerisms of it’s owner. This is an interesting twist on digital mind uploading that we have all heard before. It appears that in another 250 years death for the most part will be completely optional unless your cortical stack is damaged or destroyed. The rich have more options than do the poor and aging, it appears, is still part of the human experience. Not all “sleeves” are young. A 7 year old girl, who is issued a sleeve after her release from some sort of juvenile detention, has her cortical stack inserted into the skin of a 60+ year old woman. This sleeve is state issued and her mother is told she can buy an upgrade if it does not suit her.
There was really the feeling that the mother could not afford an upgrade and that the rich vs. poor theme would be playing out later in the show. This assumption turns out to be correct in later episodes. It may have some validity in this context, but the rich have always paid for technological advancement, and everyone else gets a better version of it later.
Our hero, Takeshi Kovacs, is released from a 250 years prison sentence, to solve the murder of Laurens Bancroft. This has a very “Demolition Man” ( 1993, with Sylvester Stallone) feeling to it. The twist is Bancroft is alive and well in another sleeve, but fears the killer will succeed on another attempt. He is being proactive by hiring Kovacs, who is an “Envoy” soldier and the last of his kind. Envoys were trained to adapt quickly to new sleeves. Apparently regular people being reanimated have a tough time with adapting and could well go insane if “re-sleeved” too often. A soldier with his training and
psychospiritual conditioning could be Bancroft’s only hope at solving his murder and preventing a more successful attempt later. Bancroft is no angel, and he regularly pays sex workers to get beat to a pulp by him, but in a consensual manner, Of course he will pay for a new sleeve for them once he beats them to death. It appears the rich get bored easily when they live for centuries and this sort of thing is a form of entertainment.

Many themes run through the series. Some choose a natural birth ( ground birth) versus a re-sleeving. Some also choose religious programming for their consciousness, and a religion called Neo-Catholicism is chosen by some. These humans choose a ground birth, natural aging and natural death as they believe in the human soul, a God and an afterlife. In one scene Detective Kristin Ortega is talking with her Neo-Catholic mother, and they talk of the priest’s sermon at Sunday mass and his promise of God’s miracles. Kristin promptly points out that the real miracle is that “we don’t have to die anymore, that is the real miracle”. The mom does not have a good rebuttal to that comment and Kristin seems to have won the debate.

The Altered Carbon world of the future is filled with virtual and sleeved sex workers, AI hotels, flying cars, biotech machines and amazing cityscapes.

One rich woman even downloads the coritical stack of a murderer and a rapist into the sleeve of a snake for amusement. She admits she knows it is illegal to upload a human into an animal, but the “rules don’t really apply to the rich” and so she does it anyway for fun.

This series does not account for the development of the human social and psychological evolution that may occur in the future. It paints a very dystopian picture of the human primitive psyche, and the fact that we are just highly evolved “monkeys” after all. I believe that this may be a warning to all humanity that we need to evolve socially, morally, and psychologically  before such tech comes to pass. With the power of angels or gods and no  moral advancement the results of such tech could be devastating. As a species we must develop our moral structure as well as our technological creations. Both are equally important for the survival of our species. It is up to us to ultimately decide our fate.  


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