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Altered Carbon: An Introduction of What’s to Come

If you weren’t already aware, Altered Carbon just showed up on Netflix – and it’s definitely worth your time. Now, I wouldn’t recommend sitting down and binge-watching the entire show in one sitting because, while it’s an amazing piece of storytelling with a variety of characters (all of whom have their own personalities and flaws that lead to some beautiful character development), several engaging story arcs, and a healthy dose of political intrigue and mystery thrown in for good measure, there’s a lot to digest throughout those ten hours and it’s probably best taken in chunks. I’m terrible at listening to my own advice, though, so I watched it all in one sitting – purely for your benefit, I assure you. Because here’s the deal: this show has a lot of stuff to talk about, and if you’re like me you hate waiting for someone else to catch up with you so you can squeal about that amazing thing that happened last night. So I took that burden off of you and placed it on myself.

I know. I’m selfless. Really. Just call me Poe. 😉

Oh. Before we begin, this is important: there are NO plot spoilers in this article, because I totally get that most of you haven’t seen the show yet. No sense of ruining it before you even start. But, I am going to leave the comments open for whatever you want to discuss, whenever you want to discuss it. Just tag your comment with the word “SPOILERS” at the beginning to spare those that haven’t made it as far as you have yet.

Deal? Great. Here we go.

First and foremost, let’s talk about the thing that makes Altered Carbon and its science fiction predecessors unique and engaging. The Tech. Like any good futuristic sci-fi, Altered Carbon introduces a lot of neat new technology in an advanced human society, the main pieces of which are called Stacks – a type of memory chip in the back of the neck that allows someone to record (and subsequently insert or copy) a human’s memories and consciousness. This idea comes with a lot of potential as well as implications – almost all of which have been covered in different mediums over the years. Usually in one of three basic variations (again, no plot spoilers here. Just what science fiction has already introduced in the past):

The First Variation of Alternate Consciousness is probably the most common in modern media. This is the idea that a human consciousness or mind can be connected to an off-site or mobile receptacle as long as it’s still attached to the original human-flesh-and-blood body through some sort of link or code. Think Surrogates or Pacific Rim. The actual, physical brain is still inside its body, but the connected mind is being projected into an alternative, controllable receptacle. It’s probably the variation most common in movies, books, and games, because it also happens to be the variation that we’re closest to achieving already. We’ve already started toying with preliminary versions of this technology with virtual reality, after all.

(Don’t think I’m right about that last part? Tell me about it in the comments. Or wait for the next article that’s all about Variation One.)

The Second Variation of Alternate Consciousness is a little more advanced, but still quite common in Science Fiction works. Here, human consciousness can be programmed, stored, and created (like software) but must have a flesh-and-blood body (or a synthetic body similar enough to a human’s body) for the consciousness to take. Dollhouse and Total Recall are good older examples of this, but it’s also important to note that this is the closest of the three variations to what appears in Altered Carbon, and thus offers more in the way of ingenuity and versatility than Variation One (but is easier to adapt and swallow than Variation Three). Because of the close tie-in with the tech in Altered Carbon, we’re going to be talking about this variation a lot in future articles.

Variation Three is one of the hardest consciousness-to-alternate-receptacles concepts out there, possibly because once a story arc takes to it, the characters tend to become decidedly less relatable for the observer. In Variation Three, a human consciousness can be saved, programmed, stored, or even manufactured, and then uploaded into literally any hard drive with enough processing power – whether it’s humanoid or not. Does a human mind in a computer even still count as human? Would we even need flesh-and-bone bodies anymore if we developed technology to this point? There are so many exciting and terrifying implications to this conceived technology, not the least of which is that it blurs the lines between what is human and what is computer (and we’re not even talking about manufactured Artificial Intelligence here).

That article’s going to be a blast. You should already be looking forward to it.

So there you go. This is the adventure I want to take with you over a series of three articles – each of which will deal with a different variation of alternate consciousness as found in science fiction. Any thoughts? Which variation do you think would be the most beneficial to humans? The most deadly? Is there one that I’m missing? The idea is on the table. Let’s run with it. We’ll talk about the implications and potential of uploaded or alternate consciousness, and, when applicable, how Altered Carbon addresses the issues that come with the advancements. There are going to be a lot of hypotheticals and a lot of deep questions flying around.

It’s going to be awesome.

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