Altered Carbon Cont: Alternate Consciousness Variation One

Altered Carbon Cont: Alternate Consciousness Variation One

If you weren’t here last time, I watched the entirety of Altered Carbon and now I’m talking about the three main variations of human-consciousness-placed-in-alternate-receptacles shown in Science Fiction. I know. It sounds ambitious, doesn’t it? You should probably read the original article to get an idea of where we’re going with this, because this week we’re talking about Variation One. And, once again, while there are no major plot spoilers in this article, I am welcoming any and all discussion points (spoilers included) in the comments. So you can discuss the insanity that I’m about to spew onto this page, or you can discuss the much cleaner, deeper story of Altered Carbon. Your choice.

If you didn’t remember, Variation One of Alternate Consciousness is the idea that a human consciousness or mind can be connected to an off-site or mobile receptacle—with the prerequisite that the consciousness is still somehow attached to the original human-flesh-and-blood body through some sort of link or code.

I like this variation because it’s only a few steps above the virtual reality that we already have. It’s more of an interactive videogame system than a true uploaded consciousness, because it’s a projection rather than a duplication. As such, there’s no real blurring between what’s human and what’s not. There’s no immortality here—a human is alive for as long as his or her body is alive, and the consciousness dies with the body. In religious or metaphorical terms, you’re never removing the soul from its original body, and you never have to stop taking care of that original body in order to exist. Your humanity is still tied to that living organism you originally found yourself in and you have to remember to feed and water it periodically.

For the sake of this article, let’s discuss a world where the majority of humans have access to these receptacles. Mechanical constructs that they can control from the safety of their own homes, much like the 2009 movies, Surrogates. In a practical sense, there aren’t really a lot of overall negatives to this technology (and yes, I realize that the entire movie is based around disproving that, but hear me out anyway). On a base level, there’s no real fear of bodily harm or accidental death anymore. Teleportation is possible within whatever range your consciousness coding can reach (assuming that you have an available receptacle at your destination). Everything happens in real time and thus your mind continues to age with your human body (which is not really possible in variations two and three, which we will discuss in the future). It’s actually not too different from living a normal life. A lot of benefits, less risk.

My favorite thing about this type of technology, though? Customization options. Anyone that’s played an MMO in the last decade can tell you how much we love to customize our characters before sending them out into the world. Surrogates didn’t have anything like this, but I can guarantee you that virtually no one would have a construct that looked like their natural bodies—I don’t care if you look like Bruce Willis or not. Elves, aliens, dragon people, real life Furries—in a world where every person has their own walking, talking avatar (ooh! Avatar is another version of this, too. It also came out in 2009. Weird.) that can be customized and switched out with relative ease, you’d better believe that I’m going to have fairy wings and silver skin. And I’m sure as hell going to search for other people who decided to dress their avatar up in a similar fashion. It’s like a real-world-but-still-not-THE-real-world Tinder.

Speaking of Tinder–something you’ll notice about all three variations of Alternative Consciousness is that, at one point or another, the technology is going to be used and designed or upgraded specifically for sex. Because that’s going to happen anytime you put more emphasis on upgrading and customizing a body than you do a mind. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you can design a mechanical construct with heightened sensitivity, flexibility, and a design that you and your partner both find appealing (maybe even with removable parts)—there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t use that to their full potential. Because why would I want to do it au-natural when I just bought the Honeymoon Sweetheart upgrade and expansion pack? In this world, I’m willing to bet that unplanned pregnancies each year would drop nearly to zero.

But, while unwanted pregnancy rates would drop significantly, this particular variation still requires the continuation of human reproduction, which is arguably unnecessary in the other two. If you can back up or download your consciousness, if you can survive without a human body and thus achieve some sort of immortality, as with the other variations in this series, then there’s arguably no reason to create future generations of flesh-and-blood humans. In fact, without death, overpopulation is basically inevitable and reproduction might be counter-intuitive. But in this version, the soul dies with the body. There’s no coming back or extending the life beyond normal means. There’s no creating a new mind with new ideas and implanting it into a smaller cyborg version of you. Life must continue. Humanity in its most basic form must continue. And that’s why this variation of alternative consciousness keeps us “human.”  We might be able to project our minds into machines for days or weeks, but ultimately that natural body must be maintained and new ones have to be created. The certainty of death is still real and imminent. The need to create and teach the next generation is a driving force for survival. And thus, through continual generations, culture and ideas continue to evolve and grow—keeping us more stringently tied to the humanity that we begin to lose in other variations. And that’s beautiful.

Out of the three variations, I stand by the idea that we are closest to achieving Variation One. Hell, I’ve been told that anyone that plays Second Life has basically already achieved this. It’s attainable, believable, and not that far out of the realm of what we currently understand. Thus, it’s arguably the most boring of the three variations, and has the least amount of room for terrible, terrible side effects to humanity and society as a whole.

We’ll discuss Variation Two next time, but tell me what you think so far. Do you think this version of alternative consciousness is attainable? Any positives or negatives that I didn’t cover here? And, do you think that it has any advantages or disadvantages over the technology we see in Altered Carbon (which we are going to discuss in greater detail next time with Variation Two)? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. I look forward to your input.

Tahani Nelson is a “Geek of All Trades.” She’s dabbled in pretty much everything, but holds a special place in her heart (and schedule) for video and tabletop games. Other interests include attending Renaissance Faires and Cons in full dress, practicing calligraphy, writing fantasy novels, discussing comparative philosophy and morality, and apparently listening with a blank smile on her face anytime someone tries to convince her that Magic: The Gathering is as much fun as D&D.

4 Comments

  1. This type of alternate consciousness is the core concept of my second favorite book, and third favorite Anime.
    The book is Ready Player One, is probably the most achievable form of VR/AC. The biggest issues with it that I can think of, would be the same issues that come up with current generation video games. Lack of physical activity, isolationism, addiction, social anxiety.
    This form of VR is just a bit more advanced than what we currently have. You were VR goggles and gloves, you’re still looking at a screen, hearing through earbuds, it’s not 100% immersion. That being said, sign me up!

    The anime and manga, is Sword Art Online. This one treads a fine line between the first and second forms of Alternate Consciousness that you talk about, but is closer to the first. This technology is quite a bit further out than RPO. It is 100% immersion. You see, hear, feel, smell, and taste what is in the simulation. SAO goes over the worst case scenario when it comes to this technology. The trapping of players inside the simulation. Again, sign me up.

    1. Author

      Ready Player One and Sword Art Online are both really good examples of this variation. I didn’t bring up Ready Player One because I want to cover that story line and technology it brings up in its own article after the upcoming movie hits theaters. And I chose not to bring up SA:O because, while the original idea was a concept with Variation One’s parameters, the actual story line takes place in Variation Two in that the consciousness can’t readily return to its original body (though, admittedly, because of forced outside influence rather than a lack of desire or technology.) However, since the mind dies with the body in that scenario, I think it does kind of fit in this variation, too. Interesting concept. We didn’t even entertain the idea of people’s minds being locked into their Variation One receptacles because of outside forces! That’s a good point and makes this variation way more dangerous than the article above implies. Do you think it would be possible?

      It’s interesting that you bring up lack of physical activity with this variation. I 100% agree that that would be a huge issue if the technology became readily available. However, while almost everyone equates lack of exercise with obesity (and video games DO play a part in that current epidemic), I wonder if, with this particular technology, we wouldn’t be more prone to atrophy than weight gain. A lot of eating is because of the pleasure one gets from it. But, in a world where we are able to experience that pleasure (possibly even more than we do with our regular, un-enhanced tongues) with our mechanical duplicate, I think people would be LESS likely to come out of their fantasy world to eat mundane food. Just a guess on my part, though.

      Isolationism is interesting because this variation actually seems to allow us to communicate and connect with nearly anyone at anytime without leaving our own home. At the very least we’re able to connect with as many people (albeit surrogates of the actual consciousness) as we do in our regular day-to-day life. If EVERYONE is walking around in body-double does it count as isolation? This isn’t artificial intelligence– in this scenario, every time you say hi to someone or buy a pack of gum, you are still interacting with a human mind, no matter the receptacle. But that’s true with the current internet, too. Do we consider it isolation if you don’t leave your room for 3 days but talk with more than 200 people on Facebook or through an online game? There are a handful of people I’ve “met” exclusively through online games, and I know more about them than I do my co-workers. It’s interesting to note that that is still a version of isolationism and it begs the question: Do humans truly need human connections? Physical contact with another human being? Or are emotional and intellectual connections enough to sustain life?

      1. I really doubt being locked in, unless it is exactly like SAO in that disconnecting the helmet releases enough microwave radiation to fry the brain, will ever be an issue with Variation 1. Even if we advance the technology to the point of 100% immersion, IE where all 5 senses are 100% controlled or stimulated by the simulation, it would still just be electrical signals sent into the brain, and the brains own electrical signals read by the machine. We would not actually leave our bodies, and ending the simulation would be as simple as removing the interface. Our consciousness doesn’t actually leave our bodies. It’s not until you get to variation two that this would be an issue.
        We are currently making strides in this kind of interface. Right now they are working on operating computers via thought alone, to help paralysis patients. There is a noninvasive way, through EEG electrodes, and some teams have been experimenting with placing a wire mesh in parts of the brain to get more detailed readings to improve the technology. That’s only a Brain to Computer interface though. Computer to Brain interface technology is still in its infancy. That involves either neuromodulation with electrical fields, or direct nerve or neuron electrical stimulation. So far no one that I’ve heard of is studying this with gaming or virtual reality in mind, but then again no one was considering controlling technology with EEGs back in 1912 when they were testing the first EEGs on animals.

        I was just thinking of potential issues with them that society at large is likely to raise a ruckus about. Basically, think of the children type issues.

        As for lack of exercise, you’re probably right there, especially if we can get to the 100% immersion level. Obesity won’t be a problem for people that can afford this technology. Why would anyone bother with spending more money than absolutely necessary for to sustain yourself, when you can just jump online and go eat at a virtual 4-star restaurant, or mountain of BBQ Ribs, whenever you want with no cost or consequences. So if they make a 100% immersion technology, it’d have to have electric muscle stimulation or as you said, atrophy would be a major problem.

        Like you, I’ve made deeper connections with people I only know online, than I have with people I work with 40+ hours a week or went to school with for 4+ years. Personally, I don’t think of it as isolation. I’ve spent entire evenings having deeper, more meaningful conversations with people on the other side of the globe that have had more of an effect on me than most face to face conversations I’ve had.
        That being said, I do still crave human contact. Granted, I am a very small sample size, but until we get to the point that virtual reality feels real, I think most people will still need actual physical contact.


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