Altered Carbon is the only TV series that I know of that primarily and extensively deals with the transhumanist narrative of digitising, storing, and transferring human consciousness as a way of achieving immortality – and it’s a pretty gripping story if you have a little patience in the beginning whilst the universe is being fleshed out, in order to truly get immersed into the plot and connect with the characters. The story raises questions on human nature, identity loss in a changing, posthuman world, depersonalisation, and the necropolitical implications of a transhumanist future reliant upon biotechnology. The show is based on the eponymous cyberpunk novel by Richard K. Morgan, to which I will also refer to for further contextual information about the conceptual universe portrayed.
According to one of its founding fathers, Nick Bostrom, transhumanism is defined as “the intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities”. At the same time, it’s also “The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.”
Bostrom adds: “Transhumanists hold that we should seek to develop and make available human enhancement options in the same way and for the same reasons that we try to develop and make available options for therapeutic medical treatments: in order to protect and expand life, health, cognition, emotional well-being, and other states or attributes that individuals may desire in order to improve their lives.”
The foundation of transhumanist beliefs and endeavours is built upon the principles of individual autonomy in selecting methods to enhance the body and mind, as well as ethical responsibilities when it comes to optimising living conditions and capabilities. Despite acknowledging potential health risks associated with such technologies, John Harris, bioethicist, advocates for scientific and technological advancements as a means to create a better society, and emphasises the importance of individuals taking responsibility for their actions.
Enhancement is thus a central belief of transhumanism, which seeks to advance humanity beyond its current natural state. There are many arguments pro and against the transhumanist movement. It has received criticism from opponents who are referred to as “bioconservatives,” including Francis Fukuyama who labelled transhumanism as “the most dangerous idea in the world.” The critiques revolve around the potential for misusing enhancement techniques, which has led to questions about the future of humanity and the accessibility and ethical considerations of these advancements. The opposing arguments state that transhumanist ideas pose dangers in terms of social-political and metaphysical implications. The social-political concerns revolve around the uncertainty of the equal distribution of radical technologies, while the metaphysical dangers involve the impact of these technologies on human identity and meaning. Both types of danger share a common fear, that transhumanism will lead to the end of humanity as we currently know it. As a result, people wonder if a science fiction-like future is possible or desirable, utopian or dystopian, and if we will evolve into something problematically different. Some bioethicists consider that our society is already incapable of morally monitoring its technological progress. There are also worries regarding the abuse of power and discrimination within this scenario. At the same time, our civilization has already made significant progress, but it still struggles to fully embrace or comprehend its own progress. If preceded by an enhancement in morals, transhumanist advancements are generally desirable, as people have always had an interest in improvement, from aesthetic to cognitive and biological. Genetic engineering would be taking such incentives many steps further, however, thus the concept is met with reasonable hesitation and polarising views. Is it against human nature or in alignment with its characteristic of seeking self-improvement?
The concept of transhumanism has been intertwined with the science fiction genre since its inception. William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (1984), a foundational text within the cyberpunk genre, features the character of Molly, a skilled assassin whose body has been technologically enhanced for increased efficiency and durability. Molly’s enhancements include surgically inserted glasses that seal her eye sockets and retractable scalpel blades beneath her nails. Apart from the belief that the human body can be enhanced and strengthened, transhumanism notably explores the potential of preserving consciousness and transferring it to a new body when the original body deteriorates due to age, illness, or weakness. According to Max More, a philosopher and futurist, despite diverging in opinions regarding other aspects, all transhumanists are in agreement that it is advantageous and achievable to utilise technology to overcome the biological limitations of death and aging. The pursuit of infinite life and youth is essential to the transhumanist mission, as the possibilities afforded by psychological, cognitive, and other enhancements will be constrained by a body that inevitably deteriorates and perishes. The dedication to hyperlongevity constitutes the central theme in the futuristic universe of Altered Carbon, where it’s called ‘Stack technology’, whilst ‘re-sleeving’ is the process through which consciousness is transferred from one body to another through the Stack devices (Bodies being referred to as ‘Sleeves’ throughout the book and the show).
In Altered Carbon, people are able to transcend and enhance their human physicality due to technology that not only stores their consciousness but can even be instantly transferred to bodies in faraway places i.e. other planets. For most citizens, human consciousness is recorded via the cortical stack which is implanted at the base of the skull when they are one year old. When someone dies, if they can afford it and if they haven’t been charged with serious crimes, they can have their stack uploaded, or ‘re-sleeved’ into other bodies; otherwise, their stack gets shelved. Death with no chance of resurrection is only guaranteed by irreversibly damaging the stack. That is, unless they can afford to have a D.H.F backup, which is a perfect duplicate of a person’s mind that gets regularly updated through a process known as ‘Needlecasting’ and can be stored in a safe place. Placing a duplicate consciousness in another body, known as ‘Double sleeving’ is also possible, but illegal and can lead to a death condemnation. Some people have ‘religious coding’ on their stacks, which theoretically means they cannot be revived, but this can be and is often bypassed by their relatives.
According to the film’s lore, the cortical stacks were made of alien metal and developed by technologically advanced creatures from another planet, who were also capable of manipulating human consciousness. The initial purpose of the devices was interstellar travel: human consciousness was downloaded and transmitted to Sleeves from distant planets through ‘Needlecasting’. After the non-terrestrial civilisation left Earth, human scientists reverse-engineered and refined the technology and created a system that allowed (some) people to constantly upgrade between bodies to preserve youth and health. Since this constitutes a regulated technology, there is a predictable ethical concern as wealthy citizens tend to be able to possess multiple bodies, travel across planets, and have a real-time copy of their consciousness stored in a safe place, whilst the poor might either get stuck in unhealthy, old, deteriorating bodies or live a fleeting existence.
An interesting aspect to note is that the book that the TV show is based on presents a wider variety of options that people have after death when it comes to re-sleeving, based on their budgets, such as clone replacements (the most expensive option), organic bodies, synthetic bodies, or the cheapest option, which is existing as a disembodied presence in a virtual reality setting. This summons up further questions about identity and reasons for existential crisis; for instance, the book characters who transfer their consciousness into synthetic bodies feel detached from their humanity, as they are no longer constrained by the limitations of human biology and they become increasingly removed from the physical sensations and emotions of their organic counterparts. Even more so, the ones who end up existing in digital form feel isolated, cut off from the real world, and deprived of sensory experience, although their disembodied cybernetic existence also has the advantage of not being limited by the constraints of physical bodies and the physical world. Their existence is, however, dependent on corporations and their host servers.
Awakening from a state of suspended animation after hundreds of years and multiple previous instances of re-sleeving, Kovacs, a former military rebel, is re-sleeved and hired by a wealthy man called Laurens Bancroft to investigate his own murder. Bancroft is also the oldest ‘Meth ’alive – The term ‘Meth’ is derived from the Biblical figure Methuselah and refers to the citizens who have lived for many lifespans. The narrative explores questions about identity, human nature, ephemerality, societal issues, religion, and the philosophical implications and ethical issues of a flawed system in which only a certain category of people has access to immortality. Identity loss is one of the themes the show delves into, including through Kovacs, who, after being re-sleeved multiple times into different bodies with different abilities and limits due to the nature of his high-risk job (as an envoy and assassin), starts to feel depersonalised, or detached from his own identity.
The Envoys, aka “super soldiers”, underwent meticulous preparation for the process of re-sleeving, encompassing both technical instruction and psychological recalibration. As Falconer’s philosophical teachings honed their unique capabilities, these warriors developed an array of skills such as super hearing and anticipatory reflexes, as exemplified by Kovacs. Their abilities, including precise enemy tracking through ‘spatial awareness’, immunity to sleeve-sickness, manipulation of constructs, and enhanced intuition, made them efficient in their purpose. Well-versed in adapting to cutting-edge technology, including being trained to use the Cortical Stack and to needlecast to off-world locations, they could swiftly transpose their consciousness into new sleeves for immediate off-world combat engagement, effectively bypassing Sleeve Sickness. Despite this proficiency and the frequency of his re-sleeving, Kovacs is not impervious to the inherent trauma of body transmigration. He still finds it jarring to look into a mirror and see a stranger staring back at him. He does adapt to it, however, through the training that strengthens his mind – as the following excerpt from Morgan’s cyberpunk novel describes:
“Then, like a shift in focus, you feel yourself float rapidly behind the mask and adhere to its inside with a shock that’s almost tactile. It’s as if someone’s cut an umbilical cord, only instead of separating the two of you, it’s the otherness that has been severed and now you’re just looking at your reflection in a mirror.”
In the slightly dystopian cyberpunk world of Altered Carbon, bodies become actual commodities, and are no longer closely interlinked with one’s identity. The storage of bodies in units akin to products gives rise to two ethical issues: one pertaining to the treatment of the human body and the other being of an economic nature, concerning class. Firstly, the fabric of the narrative offers a prism through which to explore the enigmatic interfaces of identity, corporeality, and artificial intelligence. The transgressive spectacle of re-sleeving presents an existential enigma. What is the essence of our humanity when bodies are as interchangeable as garments? Is identity not linked to the flesh in any significant way?
Laeta Kalogridis, the show’s writer and executive producer states: “Our worst instincts as human beings have to do with our carelessness with natural resources, and when the body itself becomes just one more of those resources, how will we treat it? Will we treat it with such indifference and with such depersonalisation that it becomes more like a very fancy car than a repository of the self?” Kalogridis counters the claim of gratuitous nudity by highlighting the show’s use of nudity to underscore how advanced technology alters individuals’ connections with their bodies, which are no longer a reflection of their authentic identities. Depending on an individual’s wealth, their sleeve may not even be their original body or a real human body, as synthetic sleeves are also available. In a world where bodies can be replaced and synthetic sleeves are available, nudity becomes a less significant concern.
The act of re-sleeving also brings forth a profound existential crisis, one that transcends the individual and infiltrates their interpersonal relationships. When someone dies and is re-sleeved in a different body, this also becomes a shock for those close to them, taking a lot of time for adjustment at they grapple with cognitive dissonance, wondering about the different face and body they will have to learn to love and associate with the person they knew. At the same time, as mentioned, being resurrected can be a daunting experience; moreover, for some characters – cyber security expert Irene Elliot for instance, knowing someone else will inhabit your body, induces feelings much more painful than mere uncanny discomfort:
“The shock of waking up inside someone else’s body for the first time is nothing compared to the sense of rage and betrayal you feel knowing that someone, somewhere, is walking inside you. It’s like the discovery of infidelity, but at the intimacy range of rape. And like both those violations, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
As an ordinary citizen, Elliot didn’t get trained to be detached like the Envoys, so she feels traumatised and her state of depersonalisation is extreme as she yearns for the familiarity of past realities, connections, and appearances. Elliot seems to be in a perpetual state of feeling like an uncanny ‘other’ – she describes, for instance, how her act of love-making with her husband felt to her like he was committing infidelity. Whilst being able to understand her feelings on some level, due to his background, Kovacs can’t fully relate to her struggles, and remains speechless.
Kovacs has reconciled with the premise of their changing, posthuman world, adopting a Humean view on personality as well, holding the view that he must embrace the fluidity of his identity and the influence of and links with technologies to maintain indefinite continuity.
“As a child I’d believed there was an essential person, a sort of core personality around which the surface factors could evolve and change without damaging the integrity of who you were. Later, I started to see that this was an error of perception caused by the metaphors we were used to framing ourselves in. What we thought of as personality was no more than the passing shape of one of the waves in front of me. Or, slowing it down to more human speed, the shape of a sand dune. Form in response to stimulus. Wind, gravity, upbringing. Gene blueprinting. All subject to erosion and change. The only way to beat that was to go on stack forever.”
His trainer also emphasised that the life of an Envoy relies on the realisation that there is nothing but flux:
“For all that we have done, as a civilization, as individuals, the universe is not stable, nor is any single thing within it. Stars consume themselves, the universe itself rushes apart, and we ourselves are composed of matter in constant flux. Colonies of cells in temporary alliance, replicating, and decaying, and housed within, an incandescent cloud of electrical impulse and precariously stacked carbon code memory. This is reality, this is self-knowledge, and the perception of it will, of course, make you dizzy. All and anything you achieve as Envoys must be based on the understanding that there is nothing but flux. Anything you wish to even perceive as an Envoy, let alone create or achieve, must be carved out of that flux.”
The Envoys in Altered Carbon are portrayed as the most advanced soldiers who have undergone technological, chemical, and steroid modifications to become highly efficient killing machines. This aligns with the transhumanist concept, but with a negative connotation.
Kovacs raises concerns about the legality of experimental enhancements. He elaborates that Envoy soldiers are devoid of emotions and possess a primal killing instinct that resembles that of animals more than humans. All their evolved violence control instincts are eradicated and replaced with a conscious intention to cause harm. An Envoy soldier is essentially reconstructed – an artificial creation designed by humans, which can have disastrous consequences if it spirals out of control, as Kovacs had to restrain himself from attacking Curtis. The cornerstone of one’s ethical principles is founded on their emotional connections with those in their vicinity. In order to develop a robust sense of morality, it is crucial for individuals to be able to empathise with one another. The Envoys can be altered to achieve varying levels of effectiveness and adaptability based on necessity. However, this modification impairs their ethical judgement and renders them incapable of empathy or concern for others. This is why they make such dependable and proficient assassins.
The TV series also explores the moral and ethical ramifications of the concept of “humanity” through navigating the dialectical relationship between artificial intelligence and humanity, whilst blurring the lines of demarcation in their affective responses. Those identified as human commit atrocious acts of violence against others, while the AI characters display greater empathy and compassion than their human counterparts. This inversion disrupts the binary conception of human and non-human, forcing us to reassess the nuanced relationship between consciousness, empathy, and humanity. It conjures the posthumanist question: Can AI be more ‘human’ than humans themselves? Despite possessing immense power, logical reasoning, sentience- arguably, and the potential for autonomous growth, in Altered Carbon there remains a divide between AIs and humans, marked by cortical stacks and the natural birth process.
In Morgan’s futuristic setting, humanity has evolved into a transhuman race that is largely immune to current biological threats. In times of war, a unique type of digital virus is produced and deployed, the destructive consequences of which Takeshi has observed in Rawling 4851. Owing to the virus’s catastrophic effects, possession or distribution of it is prohibited by UN law, and private individuals who violate this regulation may face anything from extended detention to complete erasure. Notwithstanding this, those in positions of authority are still capable of owning and utilising these viruses.
As mentioned, the Envoys’ enhancements have a profound effect on their capacity for empathy and compassion towards others. Takeshi, too, may experience combat-related trauma due to the gruesome imagery he witnessed during the war, as depicted in the detailed account of Jimmy de Soto. Additionally, the book explores themes of torture, with Takeshi’s consciousness being transferred to a disfigured female sleeve, offering insights into the way human bodies are perceived and treated in Altered Carbon. The sleeve, a site of profound personal identity, sometimes becomes an object of mutilation, further highlighting the extent of dehumanisation and commodification of the body in this dystopian universe.
The Roman Catholics were the ones who most notably refused to have their cortical stacks re-sleeved. This was because of their belief in the notion of the soul – the existence of the soul after death and the fact that the soul cannot be transferred into a new ‘sleeve’ due to its divine source. The concept of ‘soul ’ is often one of the main concerns in cyberpunk worlds (that have merged with AI) that touch upon the issue of shattered identity. Since ancient times, humankind has had an inclination towards worshipping something immortal and holy, as well as associating themselves with holiness in their quest of exploring the condition of being. In highly advanced technological worlds, this becomes less prevalent, but not non-existent, as faith is still there in times of need as long as people don’t feel fulfilled by life as it is, even – or especially- in a cyberpunk future where the disenchanted want to feel protected and long for a different type of immortality beyond the material world. In a world of AI, cyborgs, half-human machines, and mutated selves, it makes sense to have worries about the loss of ‘soul’ as the ineffable essence of being, a holy concept that exists independently from the mind. In Altered Carbon, religious activists are handing out leaflets answering the rhetorical question “Can a machine save your soul?” with a vehement ‘NO!!!!’ In a posthuman narrative, man has evolved into a new stage of being at the expense of soul by focusing on enhancing the mind and the body. This seems to be a warning for transhumanist narratives in general: The sanctity of human personhood and corporeal embodiment appears at risk of being supplanted by an era of depersonalisation and divergence from a more esoteric view on identity.
This is a polarising debate as those who equate the embodied human mind with soul or negate the existence of soul will side with science and make technology their only religion, considering faith in god to be an outdated delusion. For someone who feels confined within the natural, scientific world without any deep faith in spiritual transcendence, the cyberpunk premise is a dream come true – a form of salvation. Through scientific and technological devices and by enhancing and reshaping his body and mind, man provides for himself the chance for eternal life, an image of a “heaven on earth” for some. Even those who have lived their lives influenced by faith in god might cower at the uncertainty of death and, when faced with the fear of the nothingness beyond, choose to transfer their consciousness into a new body.
In its opening monologue, Altered Carbon establishes a differentiation between an individual and their physical form: “Your body is not who you are. You shed it like a snake sheds its skin. Leave it, forgotten, behind you.” . The fictional universe delves into the potential benefits and drawbacks of surpassing the restrictions of the human body. While it portrays the freedom that arises from enhancing or transcending one’s physical form, it also delves into the challenges of establishing power dynamics in a society of immortal beings.
The tv series portrays cyborgs in accordance with Haraway’s definition and delves into questions concerning individuality, humanity, and self-determination. As a hybrid entity, the cyborg represents a figure that contains internal contradictions and pluralities. The concept of the cyborg also highlights the ambiguity “between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines.” (Haraway, 1991).
According to Kim Toffoletti, the posthuman body is a complex concept that exists in the space between human and non-human, a fusion of natural and technological components. As a result, questions arise about bodily boundaries, identity, and the status of humanity. The posthuman body blurs distinctions between the real and the virtual, the natural and the technological, and can lead to the breakdown of categories and boundaries. Although the posthuman body may signify the destruction of the human body, Toffoletti explains that the “post” in “posthuman” refers to something that comes after the human while still being part of human existence and change. The posthuman body can be seen as the next stage in human evolution enabled by technology. Similar to the cyborg, the posthuman body breaks down identity-related boundaries and challenges norms that dictate the human body should be purely biological.
Altered Carbon offers relevant critiques on the human experience in a highly technological environment where boundaries are constantly being broken. The show portrays various types of posthuman and cyborg entities. Poe, an artificial intelligence under several embodiments including the Raven, is depicted as a complex character whose identity as a person is challenged by his non-organic embodiment and his strong connection to humanity. Although he possesses all the attributes of personhood, including emotions, self-awareness, consciousness, and reasoning, his hybrid identity creates conflicts with both human and artificial characters. The rejection Poe faces is a result of societal norms that favour a strict separation between organic and artificial identities, as well as his obsessive interest in humans. However, Poe’s personhood is affirmed by his emotional experiences and meaningful relationships. Despite his synthetic nature, Poe often exhibits a greater capacity for empathy and emotional complexity than his human counterparts, suggesting an intriguing inversion of the human-machine dichotomy. His characterisation compellingly challenges the conventional understanding of humanity, suggesting it as a state of being that transcends mere biological determinism and can be achieved, or even surpassed, by non-human persons. Poe represents an identity beyond the binary classification of organic and artificial – a metaphor for real-life people who exist beyond the normative boundaries. Challenging the dichotomy between organic and artificial and advocating for the recognition of non-human persons, Altered Carbon presents a posthuman story that celebrates the power of the cyborg. Poe also rebels against the systems subjugating him. Through themes of community, connection, and rebellion, the show presents an optimistic outlook on the liberation of cyborgs.
Whilst being devoid of spiritual significance, Bodies are highly valuable commodities in Altered Carbon as they provide a means to attain immortality and god-like power. Psychasec’s clones represent what Hillman refers to as techno-bodies – bodies that surpass the biological constraints of human bodies and offer a promising glimpse into the liberating potential of science. However, the show does not present an idealistic view of the future. Instead, it explicitly states that the technology and resources that grant power are only accessible to those who are already in positions of power. Therefore, Altered Carbon is less about speculating on the potential implications of advancing technology and more about criticising the current distribution of power under neoliberalism.
Altered Carbon sheds light on the depersonalisation and exploitation that occur in a neoliberal society. The show emphasises the value of a body as a precious resource and uses the treatment of Grounders’ bodies as an example of how the neoliberal system is exploitative. The Meths in Jack it Off and Head in the Clouds can purchase the bodies of Grounders, predominantly women, for entertainment purposes, including sex and often deadly physical violence. Despite the fact that the death of the body does not mean the death of the person inhabiting it, the violence-for-entertainment industry is incredibly traumatic for the individuals selling their bodies for several reasons. Firstly, the process of resleeving is excruciating and disorienting, and adapting to the new body is psychologically taxing. Moreover, the physical abuse facilitated by the replaceability of the body is psychologically damaging, as seen in Lizzie Elliot’s character arc – having been murdered and tortured, she is completely debilitated.
As a character who routinely endures violence, only to receive financial remuneration as a superficial balm, Alice’s life illuminates the commodification of suffering in a society where economic value reigns. Society marginalises her and other workers, leading to their depersonalisation and a failure to recognise their own exploitation. The depersonalisation and exploitation that Alice and others experience is not merely incidental but systemic, rooted in the political structure of this posthuman world. Altered Carbon can be interpreted as a reflection on how the neoliberal political system subjugates the working-class population.
The show portrays a flashback of events occurring 250 years prior to the main plotline. This episode highlights the cortical stack as the ultimate power symbol and introduces its creator, Quellcrist Falconer, who leads a rebellion against the Protectorate and against the emergence of the Meth class. Quellcrist expressed how she was motivated by the posthuman dream of transcending the human body whilst correctly predicting that her invention would lead to a severe power imbalance and exploitation of people:
Quellcrist: I wanted to be an explorer. See other worlds with my own eyes, but one life wasn’t enough time to see the stars, so I found a way to transfer the human consciousness between bodies and, in that creation, soar. Suddenly, anyone could travel distances beyond imagination faster than light and no one would ever be limited by one lifetime again.
Kovacs: That’s… That’s beautiful.
Quellcrist: Rome was a town of refugee cattle herders, but it became the most powerful empire on ancient Earth. Do you know how? Roads. Roads were the technology that let them send their armies all over the world. I thought I was freeing the human spirit, but I was building roads for Rome. Eternal life for those who can afford it means eternal control over those who can’t. That is the gift I gave humanity. And that is the reason we are all going to die. So, stop looking at me like I’m a hero, because I am not.
Upon analysis, Altered Carbon reveals that the characters face challenges in accepting their cyborg selves, which constitute an uncanny fusion of human and machine. Moreover, the technology in the show demonstrates that human subjectivity heavily relies on embodiment, as seen in the characters’ strong attachment to their physical bodies. The visceral depiction of techno-induced depersonalisation emphasises the threat that technological transcendence poses on the nature of human identity and the integral role of our bodies in shaping our sense of self. The transmutations of the human condition, catalysed by radical advancements in technology, unveil critical concerns about the inevitability of depersonalisation in a futuristic posthuman world.
The disquieting prospect of an increasingly disembodied existence emphasises the paradox inherent in technological progression. Whilst such advancements may liberate us from biological constraints, they also risk severing the cord tethering us to our corporeal origins and, perhaps, to our very humanity. In this sense, Altered Carbon is a dystopian allegory that highlights the loss of personal identity and the latent threats of our own rapidly advancing technological landscape, making us ponder the ominous deterioration of the essential markers of our humanity: our capacity for empathy, our attachment to our physicality, and our innate need for continuity and stability in our selfhood.
The show also explores the power disparity encountered when it comes to the restricted access to immortality and the exploitation of some under a neoliberal system. This dystopian universe is a stage where the drama of class conflict and social stratification is played out on a grand scale. Neoliberal capitalism, with its inherent inequities, has evolved into something that monopolises life itself as re-sleeving, the passport to potential immortality, is a luxury mainly reserved for the Meths. In its exploration of a posthuman world, Altered Carbon provides an effective critique of neoliberal capitalism, exposing the dehumanising potential of economic disparity when combined with radical technological advancement, whilst making us contemplate the increasing commodification of life under neoliberal systems.