In recent seasons, the show Black Mirror has played around with what a digital afterlife might be like, but a new Netflix series takes the concept to the next level.
Altered Carbon is set in the year 2384, where people of Earth (and colonized planets beyond) can upload their consciousness into a new “sleeve” body, one whose quality is determined by wealth. The sum total of one’s personality, memories, and abilities boils down to a cortical stack (think: poker chips) inconveniently located in the back of the neck. The stack can hypothetically be “resleeved” until the end of days–but once it’s destroyed, its owner is dead forever.
The series, which premiered last month, follows Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), a former political operative gone rogue, who is resleeved 250 years after his latest death in order to help solve the murder of a wealthy man (James Purefoy) who is still alive. (If that all sounds complicated, we haven’t even gotten to AI hotels, needle-casting, and double-sleeving.) Altered Carbon is a hard sci-fi marvel of world building, and a virtual repository for the dangers of technology not yet invented, but creator Laeta Kalogridis is more interested in what the show has to say about present-day Earth and its inhabitants.
“Our consistent ability to use things in ways that are terrible to our planet, the other species that live on the planet with us, and to our own species, our track record is abysmal,” Kalogridis says.
In other words, it’s not technology that’s the problem–it’s us.
Kalogridis has a history of working on projects that deal with humans misusing future technology in horrible ways. She was an executive producer on Avatar, and she cowrote Terminator Genysis. Later this year will see the release of Alita: Battle Angel, a cyberpunk thriller whose screenplay Kalogridis cowrote with James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez. Her specialty is amping up the human element in stories about cyberized beings. Recently, Kalogridis spoke with Fast Company about why the futuristic tech of Altered Carbon is meant to serve as a warning to those of us still stuck here in the present.
“Currently, it’s possible to hide your identity when interacting with people via social media, either through anonymity or false face,” Kalogridis says. “It’s over-simplifying to say ‘sock puppet’ because that’s only one aspect of it, but pretending to be something that you’re not. Or refusing to actually be who you are–where people can see it–those two things are tied intimately to the idea of identity, and our show concretizes the idea that you can hop between physical bodies as easily as you shed and take on identities on the internet. I particularly find the idea of identity being informed by your physical body as very interesting and something we currently take for granted in the same way we took for granted a kind of life before smartphones. Once those arrived, life shifted radically, and I see the potential for hiding your identity and, to some degree, fracture yourself as part of the cautionary tale of our story. It’s metaphorically related to what people do with their identity online.”
The Quest to Live Forever
“The way that we as a species usually define ‘God’ across cultures is that God doesn’t die,” Kalogridis says. “So I’m aware both of the historical and what I consider the psychological underpinning of our desire for that within a species, and also very aware of the place where it currently connects with real technological possibility. When Elon Musk is talking about Neural Lace and Neuralink, it’s something that is within, I believe, our lifetimes going to be possible to augment your body in some way that will allow your consciousness potentially to survive beyond your physical body, to be downloaded somewhere. And the one safeguard where life is concerned against the absolute worst members of our species has always been that sooner or later they will die. I find it very concerning that we might create a society in which the worst of us would not. You should always write your nightmares, and that’s my nightmare.”
Why Living Forever Would Be Disastrous For Society
“There is a biological rite of passage that allows children to become adults, and part of that is the handing off between parent and child,” Kalogridis says. “One of the things we find so terrifying about a child who dies before a parent, which you see in Altered Carbon with Isaac [Antonio Marziale], is he’s never been allowed to grow up by his father. He’s never been allowed to become a man. Bancroft [Purfoy] coming as he does from the 21st century, has a specific kind of dated moral compass that doesn’t really belong in the time he’s in. That’s another part of it, the way that we evolve, our sort of idea of social norms and mores evolves. But these people never die. That evolution is going to be profoundly impacted. So as a parent I felt like it was an important thing to say, using Bancroft and Isaac as an example, there is a biological rite of passage to how a child becomes an adult, and meths [people like Bancroft who are wealthy enough to live forever] in our show have interrupted it to the detriment of their entire society. It’s a profoundly selfish thing to do. You have to make room for the next generation, and what that ultimately means is you need to pass, you need to move, you need to be gone.”
Bonus: Why Altered Carbon Is Set So Far in the Future
Fast Company asked Kalogridis about when the show’s technology was supposed to have been developed. Her entire answer is included here, simply to give readers an idea of how much thought goes into the little details of a series like this one.
“We pushed the timeline of when humans make themselves into the singularity about 50 years further than where it’s currently predicted. I felt like setting it in Day After Tomorrow wouldn’t give us enough distance, specifically in terms of–this is gonna sound so nuts–how you colonize other planets,” she says. “You’re gonna have to have some sort of colony ship and terraforming in order for that to work. If you’re gonna get outside our system, you’re just gonna need x number of light-years in order to feasibly get to those planets, unless somebody discovers wormhole technology. You really need a couple hundred years to make that work. This is really just a sad and nerdy answer, but I wanted populated planets in the settled world, not just, like, Mars, and that meant we had to push it all forward. I also wanted to buy us enough time to be able to posit the discovery of elder civilizations on Mars, so that meant they had to be far enough ahead that we had mounted manned missions to Mars and that those astronauts had found these archeological finds, which allowed us to develop stack technology. This is the kind of thing TV writers spend time thinking about.”