The Ems of Altered Carbon

People keep suggesting that I can’t possibly present myself as an expert on the future if I’m not familiar with their favorite science fiction (sf). I say that sf mostly pursues other purposes and rarely tries much to present realistic futures. But I figure should illustrate my claim with concrete examples from time to time. Which brings us to Altered Carbon, a ten episode sf series just out on Netflix, based on a 2002 novel. I’ve watched the series, and read the novel and its two sequels.

Altered Carbon’s key tech premise is a small “stack” which can sit next to a human brain collecting and continually updating a digital representation of that brain’s full mental state. This state can also be transferred into the rest of that brain, copied to other stacks, or placed and run in an android body or a virtual reality. Thus stacks allow something much like ems who can move between bodies.

But the universe of Altered Carbon looks very different from my description of the Age of Em. Set many centuries in future, our descendants have colonized many star systems. Technological change then is very slow; someone revived after sleeping for centuries is familiar with almost all the tech they see, and they remain state-of-the-art at their job. While everyone is given a stack as a baby, almost all jobs are done by ordinary humans, most of whom are rather poor and still in their original body, the only body they’ll ever have. Few have any interest in living in virtual reality, which is shown as cheap, comfortable, and realistic; they’d rather die. There’s also little interest in noticeably-non-human android bodies, which could plausibly be pretty cheap.

Regarding getting new very-human-like physical bodies, some have religious objections, many are disinterested, but most are just too poor. So most stacks are actually never used. Stacks can insure against accidents that kill a body but don’t hurt the stack. Yet while it should be cheap and easy to backup stack data periodically, inexplicibly only rich folks do that.

It is very illegal for one person to have more than one stack running at a time. Crime is often punished by taking away the criminal’s body, which creates a limited supply of bodies for others to rent. Very human-like clone and android bodies are also available, but are very expensive. Over the centuries some have become very rich and long-lived “meths”, paying for new bodies as needed. Meths run everything, and are shown as inhumanly immoral, often entertaining themselves by killing poor people, often via sex acts. Our hero was once part of a failed revolution to stop meths via a virus that kills anyone with a century of subjective experience.

Oh, and there have long been fully human level AIs who are mainly side characters that hardly matter to this world. I’ll ignore them, as criticizing the scenario on these grounds is way too easy.

Now my analysis says that there’d be an enormous economic demand for copies of ems, who can do most all jobs via virtual reality or android bodies. If very human-like physical bodies are too expensive, the economy would just skip them. If allowed, ems would quickly take over all work, most activity would be crammed in a few dense cities, and the economy could double monthly. Yet while war is common in the universe of Altered Carbon, and spread across many star systems, no place ever adopts the huge winning strategy of unleashing such an em economy and its associated military power. While we see characters who seek minor local advantages get away for long times with violating the rule against copying, no one ever tries to do this to get vastly rich, or to win a war. No one even seems aware of the possibility.

Even ignoring the AI bit, I see no minor modification to make this into a realistic future scenario. It is made more to be a morality play, to help you feel righteous indignation at those damn rich folks who think they can just live forever by working hard and saving their money over centuries. If there are ever poor humans who can’t afford to live forever in very human-like bodies, even if they could easily afford android or virtual immortality, well then both the rich and the long-lived should all burn! So you can feel morally virtuous watching hour after hour of graphic sex and violence toward that end. As it so happens that hand-to-hand combat, typically producing big spurts of blood, and often among nudes, is how most conflicts get handled in this universe. Enjoy!

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  • lump1

    Yeah, basically all your objections are right on. I binge-watched the show last night, and all those incoherencies didn’t prevent me from being reasonably entertained.

  • Robert Koslover

    I’m not familiar with with this book or TV series, but one fact stands out: you said you watched the series, read the book, and (!) the sequels. Presumably, it didn’t take committing all that time for you to conclude that the presented world was seriously unreasonable. So… why didn’t you stop after just watching the series and/or reading just the first book? My only conclusion is that you must have found it all to be entertaining. I suspect the author (and movie makers) both had their primary goals as entertainment, not future forecasting. And it sounds like they succeeded. So they are unrealistic. (The Lord of the Rings is unrealistic too.) From that perspective, do you recommend the book and/or series to others?

    • Seems a Catch 22. One must have liked it if read/watched it all, yet one isn’t informed enough to credibly criticize if only read/watched a little.

      • Robert Koslover

        Sure. Well, the whole book + sequels + the whole series seems more than enough to me, but I do admire your commitment to suffering through all of it just so you could criticize it fairly. I’m reminded of (among others) a James Bond tidbit from the movie, You Only Live Twice: “Bond: (while unzipping Helga’s dress) The things I do for England.”

    • Evaluating a work of fiction *as entertainment*, is a different exercise, than comparing it to realistic forecasts of the future. Star Wars is “fun”, but also unrealistic “fantasy” at the same time. Evaluating the Bible as a guide to literal scientific truth is different than evaluating it as literature.

  • While I can see how it can be seen as unrealistic in those regards, it may not be given the power structure the system works under. Even what should be cheap is not necessarily given that. Even VR was pay by the minute, which doesn’t sound cheap. Under such a power structure, stagnation may prevail as a static hierarchy develops. Presumably patents and ip have been made perpetual and if you never die, copyrights would already be non ending under current law. A hierarchy extracting all surplus and devoting it to perpetuating itself may be ripe for disruption and may have a delicate balance of power, but also be one that resists change, and technological stagnation has been a fear since it began.

    • An unemployed guy with few resources was still able to keep his daughter in VR full time.

      • You are assuming that isn’t the reason he had few resources. There are a lot of unknowns here, the difference between an external connection and an embodiment, what level of experience it provides, what network is provided, etc.

        Did growth die, or was it killed? The former seems more likely as frontiers would be under less control. Once growth dies, there may be little value in ems and more cost than benefit to others than themselves.

      • Tim

        I think it was actually Poe (the AI hotel) who was providing the virtual environment. But we don’t know how Poe can afford it, or even how it can afford to stay open as “nobody stays at AI hotels anymore “.

      • In the TV show Poe wasn’t involved at first, yet the VR was going.

  • Sid

    Hi Robin. I really enjoyed this post, and other posts you have done on these lines. I would be very interested if you could write a long essay (maybe even an academic paper; or even a book!) detailing the ways in which you think through the structure of different future societies, preferably with many examples. Age of Em is fantastic, but it’s an extremely detailed analysis of one scenario. I realize that at a certain level your technique is really just “apply our best social science”, but that’s like the time I was told in a philosophy class “rely more on arguments and less on intuition”. It’s good advice, but one also needs to see how it’s done.

  • Jacob Egner

    >It is made more to be a morality play, to help you feel righteous
    indignation at those…rich folks who think they can just live
    forever by working hard and saving their money over centuries.

    Oh, Robin, your words warm my icy heart. Also yes, most fiction is written by the economically illiterate to play to the gut-level prejudices of themselves and their readers. Have you ever been tempted to write SF? David D. Friedman is already one of my favorite fantasy authors (for Salamander, not Harald), maybe I can also have an economist as one of my favorite SF authors…

  • Taj

    I haven’t seen the series, and it’s a while since I read the books, but isn’t the implication here that the stacks are only a backup medium? If you still need a meat brain for actual cogitation – not implausibly –
    then most of the wilder extrapolations vanish.

    Doesn’t explain the AIs of course…

    • The TV series clearly has stacks being used to run a person who lives in virtual reality, using no human brain. But I don’t remember if that was in the books or not.

      • Zazz Razzamatazz

        The stacks are like a hard drive, you still need a processor for the mind to be awake and thinking. But you’re right, VR should be workable. Maybe the computing power is too expensive to have billions of stacks plugged in.

  • Speaking of carbon … one reason (among others) you have no credibility as an “expert on the future” is that you ignore the reality of global warming that will prevent your fantasies from coming about.

  • Tim

    “People keep suggesting that I can’t possibly present myself as an expert on the future if I’m not familiar with their favorite science fiction (sf). I say that sf mostly pursues other purposes and rarely tries much to present realistic futures. ”

    I fully accept that SF is usually not trying to present realistic futures. And I understand you picked Altered Carbon because the stacks fit directly into your em scenario. But Altered Carbon is not good scifi.

    And by publishing one review you have opened the floodgates…

    I would love to read your analysis of the society in Pandora’s Star by Peter F Hamilton.

    And what about the Lockstep (Karl Schroeder)?


    • I did review Lockstep:
      Yes I must limit the flood somehow, via em-related sf and highly regarded sf.
      I read the Commonwealth Saga, which awkwardly assumes one can store mental states artificially but need brains to run such states, and that this situation continues for many centuries.

      • Commonwealth also implausibly assumes superintelligent and very powerful AIs, who strangely have very little interest in, and only occasional contact with, human affairs.

  • Rafal Smigrodzki

    Spot on! Altered Carbon is a socialist morality play with sciencey-sounding props made to fit the narrative of envy, the driving force of socialism.

    Hated the book and won’t watch the movies.