If you’ve spent any amount of time with me in the past couple of weeks, I’ve probably tried to get you to watch Altered Carbon—a new cyberpunk noir murder-mystery based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel of the same name that recently came out on Netflix. The show is set in a world where humans have found a way to download personalities into bodies (a.k.a. Sleeves), and in doing so, the human form has essentially become disposable and interchangeable. While the following is mostly my own musings, I will try to avoid spoilers where possible, but if you don’t want spoilers go watch the show then read this.
First off, let’s talk about pain for a bit. Humans have, as a society, generally accepted that pain is a bad thing. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines it as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” What does this mean for the world of Altered Carbon? The IASP definition mentions one of the principal factors: damage. We, in our frail human bodies, are extremely susceptible to damage. We are not exactly the sturdiest things around. And as of right now, we have no way of recovering from many types of damage. But what if we could?
Altered Carbon’s Protectorate has their sleeve technology, Elysium (the film, not the afterlife) has their Med-Bays, and Star Wars has space magic. Escaping the physical limitations of our own bodies and mortality (and mind you, I’m only counting glaringly obvious ones here, so no mech suits, A.I., or crazy life-support machines in this issue) is something we mortals seem to be mesmerized by. In this context, where either the real impact of any damage is reduced (as in Altered Carbon and Star Wars); or where damage is easily repairable, does it become less negative?
We see this interaction between damage and cost play out in Altered Carbon when Lieutenant Ortega tries to arrest Kovac for “sleeve damage” after a fight. Her reaction is what one would expect if a cop in 2018 caught someone smashing a car. It’s still a serious offense, but doesn’t have nearly the same moral implications, which is, in my view, much more significant. It’s almost as if our current ethical and practical dilemmas (punishing those who cause pain and harm) have become the future’s holdover laws. In the same way that we see Tulsa, OK’s “You need an engineer present to open a soda bottle” law as old-fashioned, or as some kind of meme, a future society may eventually come to find our laws to have no contextual grounding for them.
Let’s extrapolate from this something we hear about briefly in the show: death. Now, we’re talking about sleeve death, not real death, because that’s another can of worms entirely. It’s reasonable to say that death, right now, is a bad thing. It is, as far as any of us can prove, the end, and therefore, any damage that causes death is something that we as a society find in our best interests to criminalize. But what if we could just plug ourselves into a new body and keep going? Bodies still cost money, and they are still things you own, so it’s still property damage, but it would be as easy as activating car insurance.
So, this lack of a true conclusion leads well into the question I want to ask: considering a society where the practical justifications to outlaw, criminalize or marginalize a given thing or behavior has been addressed, should we judge solely on moral objections? If so, can we do it fairly and accurately? Going a little further still, to what extent can we really compare what we know as our human experience to that of a society like this? Personally, I’d like to say that while I’m often the first to present moral objections, I’m also the first to acknowledge that those morals are entirely baseless and set in nothing but my own conviction. Because of this, I do not at all think that any judgment we pass can really be called fair and accurate, especially considering how completely different our experiences are.
I would love to hear what you think, so you can email me at cavic001mail.goucher.edu with questions, comments, thoughts, and suggestions for shows or topics you want me to take a look at.
Catch y’all later!
It is not so frequent an event that speakers are introduced as having created oceans. Oceans