Altered Carbon: A Tale of Identity, Immortality and Transhumanism

Feb 18, 2019 · 6 min read

*Includes spoilers*

RA.AZ on Flickr

I recently finished watching the Netflix series Altered Carbon. It’s a sci-fi show that takes place 300+ years in the future, where people’s bodies can be switched and living forever is a reality.

People’s consciousness and memories are stored in devices called stacks. These stacks can be implanted into bodies (either physical or synthetic) called sleeves.

Takeshi Kovacs, a man who was part of the uprising against this new world, is awakened from prison after 250 years by a wealthy man named Laurens Bancroft, who wants Kovacs to solve his murder. Anyone can live forever — but only if their stack is not destroyed. Some people avoid real death by making clones of themselves or backing up their consciousness in satellites.

Aside from the intriguing plot and compelling main character, what really stood out to me was the transhumanist thread that weaved its way throughout the entire story.

Almost immediately, you see the real mental and emotional consequences resleeving has on people.

One character, Ava Elliot, was once a woman but is cross-sleeved and put into the body of a man after she dies. She’s distressed to find out she’s come back as a man. This creates a surprising and interesting reunion for her and her husband, Vernon.

Something like resleeving also raises ethical concerns. Characters don’t have any choice when it comes to which body they’ll be brought back in — unless they’re rich or have some degree of influence like Bancroft.

I myself wondered how I’d react to such a shocking and potentially traumatizing event. It would be hard to conceive of yourself in another body, as our bodies are so closely tied to our identity.

Characters being resleeved into other bodies made me really think about identity and how we self-identify.

Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

John Locke thought of personal identity as being grounded in consciousness, not on the substance of the soul or body.

“Personal Identity depends on Consciousness not on Substance” ― John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

If our consciousness is made up of our thoughts and memories, then our self-identity is found in that — not in our bodies, which may change or grow while we remain the same, as Locke argues.

Although Kovacs is resurrected, he is not in the same body he was hundreds of years ago.

When he wakes up, he is understandbly distraught, disoriented and in complete shock. After some things have been explained to him, Kovacs eventually adjusts to his new sleeve. His appearance has changed dramatically but he is still the same person with the same consciousness, as you see through his flashbacks and memories.

And with that consciousness, he carries demons.

“Humanity has spread to the stars. We set out like ancient seafarers to explore the limitless ocean of space. But no matter how far we venture into the unknown, the worst monsters are those we bring with us.” -Takeshi Kovacs

Being in another body comes with some surprising and unexpected implications for Kovacs and the people around him. There’s no doubt that being resleeved into another body creates problems for people. Even though people’s consciousness remains the same, they and others don’t see themselves as being the same — at least initially.

Although Locke says the self is found within consciousness, I think having that consciousness put into another body would make anyone question their identity.

The characters in Altered Carbon are all either distraught or angry with the initial change but adjust fairly quickly. But that’s part of what makes the idea of resleeving so terrifying. These characters have become so used to this world, this way of living, that for the most part it’s just become commonplace to them or becomes a normal part of their world.

However, not all characters are okay with being resleeved. Some characters choose religious coding, which means that a person has made it clear that they do not want to be put into another body once they die.

Issues of identity are not the only concerns that come with the use of stacks and sleeves. Since some characters are rich enough to clone themselves or back themselves up, living forever is both a blessing and a curse.

With clones and backups comes the issue of immortality. Kristin Ortega, a cop that eventually teams up with Kovacs, resurrects her sweet, kindly grandmother into the body of a rough-looking male for All Hallows Eve.

This upsets Kristin’s Neo-Catholic mother, who herself has chosen religious coding and believes humans should not be brought back to life after death. Although her grandmother is happy to be back, she tells Kristin that she doesn’t want to be brought back again and that Kristin just has to accept death.

Photo by Nicolas Gras on Unsplash

Along with other characters, Kovacs clones himself at one point (which creates a bit of an ethical and personal dilemma, as you can imagine).

A lot of these characters have lived so long that they’ve been corrupted by power and greed. They’re either bored with their many lives or embittered by them. Kovac’s sister, Reileen, is a good example of a character who’s been both corrupted and embittered by life throughout the centuries.

“The danger of living too many times: you forget to fear death.” -Takeshi Kovacs

Overall, Altered Carbon explores transhumanism very well. As defined by English Oxford Living Dictionaries, transhumanism is the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.

I would argue that we are already transhumanist with the use of bionic devices such as pacemakers and cochlear implants. These are amazing pieces of technology that have allowed us to live longer and better lives.

Similarly, technological advancements help improve the lives of the characters in Altered Carbon.

A character is severely injured, for example, and receives a bionic replacement for her lost limb. This greatly enhances her strength and fighting ability but it comes with a price. She severely injures and kills people with it. At one point, she even damages the hospital bed she’s lying in because she grips it so hard in anger.

This illustrated to me that if we aren’t careful, technological advancements can give us too much power and take away our humanity.

In the same way, the devices and technologies we use are further extensions of ourselves. They take us beyond our human capabilities. We aren’t limited by physical limitations.

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

You see how humans interact with their technology-laden environment in Altered Carbon, how improvements in technology have made their lives easier but also much harder…

They’re wracked with guilt, hang-ups about the past and bitterness about what their world’s become. They’re deeply conflicted. They’re tied to the nostalgia and pain of their past. And a lot of their problems arise out of how technology has been used.

Altered Carbon is a thought-provoking show that serves as a cautionary tale about how far transhumanism can go, about the risk of forgetting our humanity and ultimately, our mortality.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.


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A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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