‘Altered Carbon’ and TV’s New Wave of Transhumanism

The future belongs to those who can afford it. This may be virtually true in todays world, where surviving retirement can feel impossible, but its also the literal premise of Altered Carbon, Netflixs new prestige sci-fi series. Based on Richard K. Morgans novel of same name, the neo-noir is set several hundred years in the future, when human consciousness has been digitized into microchip-like stacks constantly being swapped into and out of various bodies, or sleeves.

This technology, along with innovations like human cloning and artificial intelligence, has given society a quantum leap, but its also sent socioeconomic stratification into overdrive, creating dire new realities for the poor and incarcerated while simultaneously producing an elite upper-class. Called Metsshort for Methuselahsthe members of Altered Carbons 0.001 percent have achieved virtual immortality thanks to vaults of their own cloned sleeves and cloud backups full of their stacks. Its either dystopia or utopia, depending on ones bank account.

Whatever your views on the shows plot, in which a former rebel supersoldier named Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), on ice in a stack prison, is revived and hired by a Met to solve the murder of his last sleeve, Altered Carbons best quality is its worldbuilding. In the 25th century, transhumanismthe belief that human beings are destined to transcend their mortal flesh through technologyhas reached its full potential, and some of its end results are not pretty, at all.

But Altered Carbon is only the latest bit of transhumanism to hit TV recently. From Black Mirrors cookies and Philip K. Dicks Electric Dreams mind-invading telepaths and alien bodysnatchers to Star Trek: Discoverys surgical espionage and Travelers time-jumping consciousness, the classic tropes of body-hopping, body-swapping, and otherwise commandeering has exploded in an era on the brink, one in which longevity technology is accelerating more rapidly than ever, all while most people still trying to survive regular threats to basic corporeal health and safety.

These tropes have enjoyed a healthy existence in sci-fi and horror for decades, but now more than ever transhumanism is ubiquitous in pop culture, asking us to consider the ethical, personal, political, and economic implications of an ideology with a goalimplementing technology in the human body to prolong and improve lifethat is already beginning to take shape.

A crucial fact to remember about transhumanism and the philosophies it inspired, including the ones modeled by Altered Carbons Mets, is that its conception was heavily rooted in eugenics. Though earlier thinkers had already produced work one could call transhumanist today, the term wasnt coined until 1951, by Julian Huxley, a noted evolutionary biologist (and brother to Brave New World author Aldous Huxley). Julian Huxley believed strongly in the fundamentally exclusionary theory that society would improve immensely if only its best members were allowed to procreate. In the speech in which he first used the word transhumanism, he claimed that in order for humans to transcend the tentative fumblings of our ancestors, society ought to enact a concerted policy to prevent the present flood of population-increase from wrecking all our hopes for a better world.

While he didnt necessarily believe the criteria for what constituted best should be drawn along racial or economic lines, the ideology Huxley promoted was inherently elitist. It also allowed for virtually as many interpretations as there are people, and plenty of those people, particularly those in powerespecially in Huxleys time, but also in the fictional future of Altered Carbondid and do believe best means white, straight, financially successful, and at least nominally Christian. As a result, the concept he named ended up being primarily conceptualized in its infancy by white men of privilege.

This, of course, didnt remain the main interpretation of transhumanism for long. In the years following Huxleys coinage, humans made profound leaps in technological innovation, first in computers and then in AI, which allowed more people to envision the possibilities of one day being able to transcend their organic limitations. The basic concept was easily repurposed by those whose oppression has always been tied to physical violencenotably people of color, LGBTQ people, and women.

By the early 1980s, scholars like Natasha Vita-More and Donna Haraway had revamped the concept with manifestos that argued transhumanism ought to be about diversity and multiplicity, about breaking down constructs like gender, race, and ability in favor of a more fluid, chimeric alternative in which each person can be many seemingly contradictory things at onceincluding human and machine. (As WIREDs Julie Muncy explains in her review of the first season, Altered Carbon touches upon but never really takes a stance on this dimension of a post-corporeal world.)

As Silicon Valley boomed, so did transhumanism. Millionaire investors have poured endless cash into anti-aging research, machine intelligence companies, and virtual reality; meanwhile, the possibility of extended or superhuman life has veered even further into becoming the exclusive purview of the extremely rich (and, more often than not, extremely white and extremely male). In 1993, mathematician and science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge pegged the arrival of the singularitythe moment at which technology, particularly AI, supersedes human intelligence and either eliminates humanity or fuses with it, allowing people to finally become post-humanat around 2030; by 2005 futurist Ray Kurzweil was agreeing with Vinge in his now-seminal book The Singularity is Near. (The Verge has a solid timeline of transhumanist thought here.)

Today, working organs are being 3D-printed. Nanites, while a few years off, are definitely on the horizon. And the technologies that fuel nightmare fodder like Black Mirror are becoming realities almost daily, which gives the overwhelming impression to laypeople that the Singularity, while perhaps still technically far off, is imminent.

Add privatized healthcare, police brutality, immigration, sexual assault, and plenty more extremely real threats to peoples physical bodiesnot to mention the exponential growth of the TV industry itselfand youve got the perfect cocktail for a flood of transhumanist sci-fi shows that give form to anxieties viewers have about both wanting to escape the physical confines of their blood-bag existences and being absolutely, justifiably terrified of what could go wrong when they actually do.

But however uncomfortable it may be, that dilemma is not accidental. It has become necessary to understanding and surviving our current techno-political moment. Whether enjoying the ecstasy of possibility in Altered Carbons disembodied immortality or writhing in the agony of imagining eternity as a digital copy of ones own consciousness, the roller coaster of emotions these shows elicit ought to be a major signal to audiences that now is the time to be thinking about the cost of pursuing technological immortality. If stacks and sleeves are indeed our inevitable future, the moral quandary wont lie in the body-swapping itselfitll be reckoning with who gets to do it and why.

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‘Altered Carbon’ and TV’s New Wave of Transhumanism

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