Vision: Altered Carbon and Westworld

By Stephen Garner

***A version of this article previously appeared in Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice, 25, 1 (18 July 2018), and is used here with permission from the author and the journal.

 “We aren’t meant to live forever. It corrupts even the best of us.”

– Quellcrist Falconer, Altered Carbon (Season 1, Episode 7 “Nora Inu”) 

“There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point at which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next. No, my friend, you’re not missing anything at all.”

– Robert Ford, Westworld (Season 1, Episode 8 “Trace Decay”)

Altered Carbon (2018) and Westworld (2016-current) are two recent television shows that engage the on-going conversation about  the relationship between technology and human being. Typically framed as  cyberpunk( a science fiction subgenre where advanced technologies are juxtaposed with societal breakdown or change) these stories suggest “either suggest a universe as strange as possible (with equally strange creatures inhabiting it) or one like ours – except for one vital difference.”[1] In the case of Altered Carbon, this is a world where the essence of human person can be reduced to an information pattern able to be ‘resleeved’ in different bodies. While in Westworld, the world looks like ours except for development of increasingly self-aware humanoid robots which engage, for better or for worse, with their human users. Both series provide a mirror to reflect our own questioning about what it means to be human, our proclivity for technology, as well as the power of storytelling in framing that reflection. 

The Netflix Altered Carbon show is based on the first of a series of novels by Richard Morgan featuring the protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs (Altered Carbon [2002]), Broken Angels([2003], and Woken Furies[2005]). Kovacs is an envoy, an agent with a combination of both political and military training, designed to function effectively in high risk, critical situations. In keeping with works in this genre, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), and cinema based on Philip K. Dick’s works (Total Recall (1990, 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), Minority Report (2002), Blade Runner (1982), and Blade Runner 2049 (2017)), the world of Takeshi Kovacs is split between dark and light. In the darker everyday world, the masses toil for their existence and a chance to prolong their lives. In the light, the rich and powerful (known as ‘Methuselahs’ or ‘meths’ for short) live forever above the masses in a world of sunlight and perfection. Kovacs is resurrected into this divided world after several hundred years of imprisonment for insurgency in order to solve the murder of a prominent ‘meth’. If he succeeds, he gets to keep his freedom and  his resurrected body; if he fails, he gets neither.

Altered Carbon is oriented around the ‘gift’ of immortality brought about by technology that can copy the informational essence of a human person, store it digitally, and restore it into a human body – either the original body, a cloned body, or a body that isn’t being used by someone. The vision of the human future here matches closely the scenario that literary critic Katherine Hayles describes as a possible posthuman future. First, information is privileged over material reality, with the implication that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as a transient accident of history rather than an inevitability of life. Secondly, consciousness is seen as an epiphenomenon, or side effect, of human existence rather than the seat of human identity. The third feature of the posthuman relates to the view that the body is merely a prosthesis that we learn to manipulate, and that should we choose, we could extend or replace it with other suitable prostheses. This extension or replacement will be, in part, achieved by the fourth aspect of the posthuman: the seamless melding of human and intelligent machines.[2]

 In this context, the body becomes separated from the person, objectified in a way similar to a set of clothing or a preferred tool. You simply put on a new body, or “sleeve” as they are referred to, as the circumstance dictates. The poor are those who cannot afford to a new or second-hand body to be ‘resleeved’ into, and who are forced to rely upon the State to supply a body or to go deeper into debt to lease one; a new body which may be of different ethnicity, gender or age than the person occupying it. Moreover, bodies can be forfeited and taken away from people to be used by others, as is the case with Kovacs while serving his prison sentence. In the worst-case scenario, a person’s digital essence may be placed in a virtual reality environment in which they are abused, still able to feel pain but powerless to stop it. Meanwhile, the rich are backed up regularly and any matters concerning their bodies are swiftly and painlessly dealt with. 

In this scenario, our true selves become the story that is recorded in our information pattern, which is shaped by interactions with the world through the prosthetic bodies. Human life becomes the narrating of those stories as they are serially ‘incarnated’ into the world. In the books, this is played out when an earlier version of Kovacs is ‘incarnated’ to kill the current version, and ultimately loses because he does not possess the additional life experiences of the older Kovics.

Westworld too is concerned with experience. The television show reimagines the 1972 film written and directed by Michael Crichton, keeping the original theme of life-threatening robotic malfunctions in theme parks, but developing some longer narrative arcs. These arcs concern both human behaviour and the robotic creation’s own quest for narrative meaning. Westworld is more in the vein of a science fiction story where one vital difference has been introduced to our world: the theme park is commonplace, as are people taking holidays at such a place, to live out roles a safe fantasy world. The robots or hosts serve as actors in this world, interacting with customers and other hosts according to their predefined stories and memories. Indeed, the co-creator of the park, Dr Robert Ford (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins), is famed for creating new narrative environments in which the customers can immerse themselves.

There are plenty of story arcs within Westworld to ponder, but two stand out. The first of these is the perspective on human behaviour that emerges through the narrative, while the second explores viewpoints drawn from the narratives concerning robots. Theologian and computer scientist Anne Foerst contends that thinking theologically about robots leads us to think more carefully about ourselves. And so too with Westworld as we observe how human beings interact with robotic representatives of humanity.[3] Some treat these hosts with respect, some simply as the background to their human activities, while others enact all manner and forms of violence towards these human-like simulacra. These characters lead us to reflect on what we would do if we had the opportunity to exert power over something that is to all intents human with little or no consequences to ourselves. While we do not necessarily have the same sort of robots to marginalise, the same sort of behaviour is reflected in both historical and contemporary settings when we fail to recognise the humanity in others, including how we carry on our lives in online spaces. As Ronald Cole-Turner remarks, “Technology, for all its good, is constantly on the edge of sin, exploitation, and greed. It is, after all, human technology, beset by our weaknesses.”[4] 

If human beings in Westworld are portrayed as giving up something of its own humanity, then the robot characters are attempting to acquire it, or more correctly, become genuine persons. Some of the robots discover they are creations, while others simply want to be able to make sense of the world they are in. In both cases, the robots push to discover how much free will they genuinely have and how much their lives are foreordained by their programmes and the narratives they have been set within. The questions they ask are the same we ask too: How much freedom do we have to narrate own stories? How does our nature and nurture shape our character and future? And what is the relationship between us as creatures and our creator? 

Both Altered Carbon and Westworld are inherently violent stories, which spills over into graphic violence and nudity in both shows. Compared to the books, Altered Carbon seems to amp that up in a way that can become a distraction from the story, though the television show diverges significantly from the book in places. What the violence in both shows does is make us confront our own perceptions of our own bodies and those of others, particularly putting that in ethical perspective. Both shows also provide a variety of other themes to explore. For example, Catholicism  in Altered Carbon is seen on the one hand as regressive in claiming ‘resleeving’ disconnects the person’s immortal soul from God, but it is also a deep source of comfort for one of the central characters and her family. Additionally, themes of creation, Fall, human fallibility, and redemption run through Westworld, though these have yet to be worked out fully.

Altered Carbon and Westworld are at times a hard watch, particularly as the frailties and morality of the characters is revealed, but they do serve as a space to explore our own human nature, the effect of sin upon human existence, human technological power, and the potential in all of us to treat others as less than human. It will be interesting to see where the creators of these shows take them in future.

Dr. Stephen Garner is Academic Dean of Laidlaw College and researches and teaches in the areas of theology, technology, media and popular culture including teaching modules on Jesus in film and analysing popular culture, and a postgraduate course on theology and media, as well research in theology and transhumanism, ethics and social media, and theology and popular culture. Current research projects include: theological ethics and social media; angels in popular culture; video games and spiritual formation; and teaching theology with digital technology.

[1]Stephen May, Stardust and Ashes: Science Fiction in Christian Perspective(London: SPCK, 1998), 15.

[2]N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 2-3.

[3]Anne Foerst, God in the Machine: What Robots Teach Us About Humanity and God(New York: Dutton, 2004).

[4]Ronald Cole-Turner, The New Genesis: Theology and the Genetic Revolution(Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 102.



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