Hey, Fellow Geeks. Welcome back. If you’re new to the party, you’ve stumbled right into the middle of a multi-article discussion. Specifically, I recently binge-watched Altered Carbon for your benefit, and now we’re discussing the technology the show is based around. (i.e., immortality through a recorded/uploadable memory stack implanted when a human hits 1 year old). More specifically, I’ve been discussing the different ways that idea has been used in science fiction, and the benefits or implications of each. If you haven’t already, you should probably check out The Introduction Article and The First Variation Article, because we’re about to talk about Variation Two (which is what most closely resembles the tech found in Altered Carbon). This will make a lot more sense if you look at what we’ve dug through already.
Same rules as the previous articles. There are no major plot spoilers for Altered Carbon in the article itself, but comments are free reign. I’ve seen the entire thing and will happily discuss whatever you want in the comments, just leave a spoiler tag at the beginning to warn off newbies.
In case you forgot, Variation Two is the idea that human consciousness can be programmed, stored, and (in some mediums) even created from scratch, then uploaded into a flesh-and-blood brain (or a synthetic brain that closely resembles a humanoid one) and body, thus making a software copy of a human (despite similar but different hardware).
This is the main premise of Altered Carbon, but the concept has shown up in several different media before now—think Total Recall, Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love Series, Dollhouse and the end of Chappie when Yolandi dies (Don’t look at me like that. I promised you no spoilers for Altered Carbon, not movies that have been out for 2 years).
Now. There are two main things that make this particular tech in Altered Carbon different from other mediums. The first one is absolutely mind blowing to me (this is a minor spoiler but does not affect the overall story line of Altered Carbon. I promise.): In Altered Carbon the technology for uploading consciousness (called a Stack) is implanted into every human when they hit one year old. One. Year. Old. In almost all other versions of Variation Two, people choose to have their memories uploaded or backed up or reprogrammed or whatever (or it’s done for them because of special circumstances) as an adult. But this is a universe where every single human is aware that there’s a save file of their entire life hanging out on the back of their neck pretty much as soon as they’re old enough to understand what “me” means.
Do you know how crazy that is? The insanity of giving that knowledge to children? Think about to your own childhood. Your teenage years. If you’re anything like me, you did some terrifying and death-defying shit during your younger and crazy days, and you had already conceptualized the reality of death. What kind of crazy shit would you have done differently if you knew that you could just be uploaded into a new sleeve the minute your body died? I don’t understand how anyone in this universe is still in their birth sleeve after the age of, like, 14.
Actually, I guess I kind of do. Partly because 1) I assume new bodies are expensive 2) the show specifically points out that if you re-sleeve too many times in bodies that aren’t clones of your original body, you begin to go a bit crazy and 3) (mostly 3) you remember every death you experience from birth to now. Can you even digest the implications of that? Our relatively-fragile human minds bend in on themselves like taffy when introduced to significant trauma—trauma that, usually, is not the perfectly clear recollection of your own death. Sometimes multiple deaths. I don’t know how anyone in this universe gets re-sleeved after death more than one time without suffering from severe PTSD. It’s insane!
*Takes deep breath to calm down*
Okay, while those were my two biggest surprises brought up by Altered Carbon, (both of which I think they could have addressed more thoroughly) I’m not going to let them stop me from recognizing that the series was still a fantastic look at science fiction and the metaphysical ramifications of a society that has essentially achieved immortality. In fact, it covered relatively minor things like “what happens (juridically, psychologically, logistically) if someone uploads two versions of themselves into different bodies?” to major questions like “if someone’s original body dies and they upload their memories into a new one, what happens to the original soul? Is there one? What happens to those who don’t ever re-sleeve? Can the two groups ever meet again? What are the moral/religious implications of this technology?” And it works through these deep and heavy questions in an entertaining and thoughtful matter. It’s… really impressive, actually.
Immortality, of course, comes with its own drawbacks. There are thousands of books, movies, and philosophers that can discuss the implications of immortality itself at a higher level than I am capable of, but I was just thinking about the logistics of it. We have overpopulation problems when people die off after 100 years or so. What is it going to look like when some people can live for millenia? And imagine the family trees you’d have to record going forward just to make sure your offspring don’t reproduce with their cousins. Potentially, your hundreds of offspring and their thousands of cousins. Family reunions would be a nighmare.
Actually, in a family tree would you record information about the original consciousness of your offspring or the information on the physical bodies that supplied DNA to your children? If you’re not using clones of yourself, then any new sleeve used to procreate would have an entirely different genetic code (and subsequent offspring) that’s not actually related to the original you at all. So (again, unless you’re using your clone or your original body) your children and grandchildren aren’t related to you or to each other. Gah. The incestual implications of that made me shudder even before I finished writing the sentence. And that would happen. Probably a lot. Eew. Actually– is it “eew?” Does it count as incest if the genes and bodies are completely different? I don’t know. Does it freak you out if a stepfather kisses his stepdaughter? Do you think it still will if your family tree measures in the the thousands of living relatives? Get down into that comment section and tell me.
The Devolution of our Ideals
As I think about it, the devolution of our ideals and progress as society would, in many ways, be more certain than any further advancements we could expect after we hit this level of technology. So much of what we’ve created and done is because we are currently pressed to make something worthwhile in a limited time frame. We get one chance. A finite amount of time to succeed at something. Our inventions and political uprisings are the result of pressure to change something while we still can. With immortality, however, we would have the option and ability to do so much more than we can now, but… we wouldn’t. We’d always be able to say that we can do that later. Change it tomorrow. Truly fundamental scientific advances often take a lifetime or more to complete, but if your lifetime is a thousand years, who’s going to ever actually notice the change?
Even beyond scientific and material growth, a huge part of what changes a society in its beliefs and morals is that, eventually, the people holding on to outdated and archaic thought processes eventually die. We grow and evolve as cultures only as knowledge gets passed on to new generations, and then left to those generations. Arguably, while the immortality offered by this technology would give us the chance to be and do more than we ever have been or done before, it would more likely result in stagnation born of procrastination and a literal impossibility of letting go of the past. With the stagnation of ideas and entire lifetimes that can be devoted to pleasure, I can only imagine that we would degress into fulfilling only our most base and primal needs. The bodies of the poor would become little more than toys and entertainment. Because at this point, they’d be literally replaceable, right?
What do you think? I know I’ve painted a pretty dark picture of Variation Two in this article. (And we haven’t even begun to talk about Variation Three). But there are bound to be some benefits to the idea that I’ve overlooked. (Like new career path for those who love to work out! I would literally pay someone to take my body for a few months and make it not filled with carbs and jiggly parts). Or maybe there are even more negative things that I didn’t touch on (like the spoiler-heavy ones that are brought up in the show.) Let me know in the comments below. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.
Oh, and don’t forget to check in next time for the final installment of this series. Variation Three is as amazing as it is terrifying. We’re going to have fun.
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.