(Note: This post contains light spoilers from the first episode of “Altered Carbon.”)
In Netflix’s new sci-fi series, “Altered Carbon,” humanity has developed technology that makes it possible to transfer consciousnesses from one body to another. That concept leads to some pretty tough philosophical questions, though, many of which are at the center of the murder-mystery at the center of the show’s first season.
Every person in “Altered Carbon” has a device called a “Stack,” basically a small hard drive, surgically inserted into their brains when they turn one year old. The person’s consciousness is effectively installed on the stack like software, meaning they become the stack instead of a combination of their mind and body. A Stack can be removed from one body and placed into another, and making bodies — called “sleeves” in “Altered Carbon” — interchangeable.
That means that a person in the world of “Altered Carbon” isn’t truly dead unless their stack is destroyed, because they can switch bodies — if they can afford it, that is. As it happens, a lot of people just end up transferred to whatever bodies the state happens to have on hand, or being saved in cold storage after their bodies die.
That doesn’t mean they’re gone forever, necessarily. Stored Stacks can be revived, or “spun up,” and installed in new bodies, especially if doing so benefits law enforcement or other interested parties. That’s what happens in season 1 to Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), who is revived and put into a new body in order to solve the murder of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the richest and longest lived people ever — possibly even the longest lived.
Whoever killed Bancroft’s body also destroyed his Stack, but Bancroft is so wealthy he isn’t limited to just the Stack. He can afford to copy his consciousness every 48 hours and upload the file to a private satellite for safekeeping, and he keeps a supply of clones of his original body handy. This helps him escape oblivion, but the catch is that the revived Bancroft can only remember up to the most recent backup, which doesn’t include what happened during his murder.
That raises some philosophical questions. Though the new Bancroft is walking around in the show, he’s missing the last few hours of his former life. He remembers almost everything from the other Bancroft’s life (or lives) — but they’re not precisely the same person. Bancroft was killed, and a copy of him is now living his life.
Bancroft isn’t the only person with copies of themselves running around. In the first episode of “Altered Carbon,” Kovacs is attacked by Dimitri Kadmin, a hitman who has illegally copied his stack to allow two versions of himself to exist at the same time. So while that Kadmin (we’ll call him Kadmin A) ends up being killed during the attempt on Kovacs’ life, there’s still another Kadmin (Kadmin B) somewhere in the world.
That raises the question of whether immortality in “Altered Carbon” is immortality at all. In Bancroft’s case, the situation is clear-cut. Stack Bancroft — the one who was murdered — is really dead, and never coming back. Satellite Backup Bancroft is extremely similar to Stack Bancroft, but he isn’t the original consciousness. That man died. The same is true with Kadmin — though the Kadmin who was killed was a copy of the original, he was also a distinct person.
But this gets very complicated if you’re talking about an original consciousness, not a clone, especially if you factor in religious implications like the idea of the soul. Catholics in “Altered Carbon” believe that once you die, you’re gone. If your Stack is ever spun back up or revived, or if you’re transferred into another body, that action condemns your immortal soul. In the story, religious people are even fighting for the right never to be spun up again. The case, called “Resolution 653,” sees police trying to subpoena a key witness whose sleeve has died and whose Stack has been shut down. The Vatican is fighting the claim, arguing on religious grounds that spinning up the witness is blasphemy.
All that suggests that Stacks and the immortality offered by technology in “Altered Carbon,” at least early on in the series, is more wishful thinking than the actual ability to live forever. Even if a person can be reduced to data, the batch of data that makes up you, which is experiencing the world, still dies. A copy of that data isn’t the same thing as being alive again. If our future is anything like the one “Altered Carbon” imagines, the technology to beat death might be more of a feel good stopgap than actual eternal (or extended) life.