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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