How Power Instability Corrupts the Line of Morality in Altered Carbon
by Matthew Elmer Ken
Altered Carbon (2018-) is a dystopian TV series set in a world more than 350 years in the future when humanity has overcome their mortality. In this future, humans can store their memories and consciousness onto a disk-shaped device called ‘cortical stack’, which is then planted into a body often referred as ‘sleeve’. As a result, as long as the ‘stack’ is not destroyed or damaged, the consciousness can always be transferred to a new ‘sleeve’ thereby, reviving the person in a new body. This results in the distinction between ‘death’, which refers to the destruction of the body, and ‘real death’, which refers to the destruction of both the sleeve and the stack. Only the ‘Methuselah’ (Meth), which refers to the wealthiest, have the capability to transfer their consciousness by means of remote storage through their private-owned satellites such that they would not suffer ‘real death’ despite having their stack destroyed. The series follows the story of Takeshi Kovacs, a super soldier (referred as Envoys) who is revived after hundreds of years being ‘on ice’ (cryogenic prison), solving the death of a Meth, Laurens Bancroft, who put him on a new sleeve and take him off ice as means to hire him.
At the outset, a world where physical immortality has been achieved may seem like a utopian world. With scientists continually searching for the cure for mortality, diseases and ageing, immortality may no longer be so far-fetched from reality which is evident in the longer life-expectancy today. Through immortality, people may no longer need to grieve over the loss of loved ones or suffer from diseases and ageing. People can spend eternal lifetimes exploring new hobbies, new places or meeting new people without worry that they are wasting their time. Hence, mankind’s most basic instinct of self-preservation is finally achieved in the story of Altered Carbon and thus, immortality may seem like a utopian concept.
However, in many parts of the series, Altered Carbon shows immortality as a dystopic reality. Wealth becomes an insurmountable gap between the rich and the poor which is exacerbated with immortality as wealth is consolidated for the rich while the poor get even poorer in an endless life cycle. As a result, power becomes concentrated in the hands of the rich through their affluence and political influence which consequently leads to power instability between the two classes. Hence, this class difference allows people like Bancroft and fellow Meth to control the normal class with no restraint. While this power imbalance is also evident in the current reality, the series shows how immortality worsens the existing class inequality to an alarming degree as shown through Kovacs’ perspective as an interloper. The series continually shows class differences whether it is through the treatment given to the poor or the luxuries that are available to the rich. Through the power instability, Kovacs continuously discovers how the line of morality has been crossed many times through the abuse of power by the Meth. This raises the question of whether immortality is something to be desired as Altered Carbon shows a depiction of a possible future where immortality is a dystopic reality through the aggravated power imbalance and immorality. The utopian idea of immortality only exists within the wealthy while the poor live in a dystopic reality where the rich abuse their power over the normal class. Thus, this article seeks to argue how immortality can be a dystopic reality rather than a utopian concept because it enables the consolidation of wealth by the rich, causing the society to exist with a staggering power instability. Consequently, this enables the rich to reign power over the normal class, giving them the freedom and control over society which allows them to exercise their actions with no real consequences. Thus, the line of morality is continuously crossed which is best explained by the proverb: “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Relationship between Power and Moral Corruption
The idea of power imbalance causing moral degradation is not something that is entirely foreign to the current world. In the article “Power and Morality”, Lammers et al. explain how power causes moral degradation through “disinhibition” and “increased focus on self” (2015). The former explains that power is disinhibiting as it enables people to fulfill their current desires. As a result, while most people feel inhibited when desiring immoral behaviours, the sense of empowerment represses these inhibitions enabling them to act upon their desires with “reduced guilt or stress when contemplating behaving immorally”. The latter explains that power leads to a more self-centred attitude as people focus more on themselves and less on others. To a greater extent, “power can also decrease empathy and compassion, making the powerful less concerned with others’ suffering.” As a result, this leads to the depersonalising of people, seeing them as instruments that “can be used in the pursuit of their own goals.” Thus, power has long been thought to corrupt people and Altered Carbon takes this idea to the extreme. The concept of power will be discussed along the argument of immortality on how it enables aggravated wealth inequality which leads to power being concentrated among the elites and how this power leads to the corruption of their morality, exacerbated by their immortality.
Immortality and Power Instability
The first issue presented in Altered Carbon is the power imbalance that exists between the Meth and the normal class. Immortality enables the Meth to continuously maintain and multiply their fortune as the endless life cycle allows them to consolidate their wealth forever. On the other hand, immortality causes the poor to struggle every day for the rest of their lives. As a result, the socio-economic status disparity that exists between the Meth and the common class becomes harder to bridge which results in an even greater gap between them. Thus, with capitalism still being the economic system of the future, wealth inequality enables the rich to gain control over vast aspects of society, giving them power and control over the world they live in. This leads to power instability in Altered Carbon as the Meth have become the new gods where they are almost untouchable with their immortality, wealth and political influence. In the current world, death is the greatest leveler in society. Whether they are rich or poor, death will always be the final destination for everyone. However, in Altered Carbon, class privilege has the ability to change how people die or whether they even die. While most people have access to the technology that allows them to transfer consciousness, only the wealthiest have access to better technologies that can make them truly immortal. For example, Bancroft owns a military-grade private satellite such that his consciousness is backed-up every 48 hours, allowing him to continue living despite having his stack destroyed. As a result, Bancroft and fellow Meth are the only people who can be considered truly immortal as no physical limitation exists to prevent them from living forever. The contrast of power and wealth that exist in the series is evident through Kovac’s interaction with Bancroft himself. During his first interaction with Bancroft, he was surprised by the display of power and wealth Bancroft has as he says, “No one has that kind of power… never met anyone filthy rich enough to afford it.” The difference in wealth and power between the Meth and the poor is so staggering that it did not seem believable as Kovacs witness the extent to which the Meth have capitalised their wealth over the hundreds of years. Through capitalism, the rich are able to tap into their wealth to empower them and control people who are less affluent, giving them control over the normal class. While class inequality exists everywhere, the series shows how immortality has caused income inequality and power imbalance to be exacerbated to the extent that it is unimaginable when compared to the normal world.
Immortality and Morality
Another problem that is presented in the series is the moral issues that are apparent among the Meth. With greater affluence and wealth, the Meth are able to exert their power onto the people with less influence. This is shown throughout the series as Bancroft exerts his power onto his assistant and prostitutes. The story tells about ‘Head in the Clouds’ which is an illegal, high-end brothel, specially catered for the Meth. The sexual fantasies which include rape, torture and pleasure killing of people and children are offered in the brothel in which Bancroft is a regular customer with a tendency to get overly physical and abusive. Such behaviours are only enabled through the disparity in power and influence. As explained previously, the power given to the Meth enables the disinhibition and self-focus that blur the line of morality. Hence, Bancroft may have started with a moral line that he would not cross. However, through the disinhibition and his pursuit of self-interest, the act of immorality is done with reduced guilt. Moreover, living for hundreds of years, the repeated act of immoral actions may gradually turn the acts into the norm as he becomes desensitised. As a result, the moral compass that may have existed is gradually eroded until what is considered moral and immoral becomes unclear. The power that they have enable them to exploit the poor without having to fear anything and the poor have little choice but to accept the offer since the compensation given to them is simply too attractive for them. As a result, Meth would always be able to cross the line of morality since they hold power over the poor.
Moreover, immortality also exacerbates the immorality problem presented in Altered Carbon. The immortal life given to them has caused them to be jaded with typical pleasure as they live for hundreds of years. Consumed by human greed and desire, the Meth have forgotten the concept of enough. When Kovacs confronts Miriam Bancroft for her immoral acts, her reply is “Enough? It’s an interesting word. I’m not familiar with it.” The insatiable desire to want more of everything and every one causes the Meth to explore hobbies and activities that are perceived as unacceptable by society. As a result, this boredom leads them to places that cross the line of morality. In season 1, Bancroft hosts a party with a display of debauchery and brutality where a married couple fights until one of their bodies is destroyed. Another scene reveals how a Meth enjoys the torture of another person by putting his stack into a snake which causes him to eventually lose his sanity. Such examples show that immortality makes them more apathetic as they are desensitised by the amount of time they have spent living in the world. Thus, they indulge in a hedonic treadmill where they continuously seek even greater thrills to entertain themselves which often, at somebody else’s expense. As a result, immortality further exacerbates crossing the boundary of morality fuelled by the insatiable desire to want more.
In conclusion, Altered Carbon raises the problem of immortality and whether it is truly a desirable utopian world. As the plot progresses, the show reveals that the culprit behind Bancroft’s murder is himself. 48 hours before his death, he was in Heads in the Clouds, exploring his sexual pleasures and fantasies. However, during this time, he accidentally kills the prostitute which results in her real death. While he is desensitised to the death of the physical body, he was shocked by the fact that he just murdered someone in the pursuit of his pleasure. This becomes the turning point for him, in which he realised the gravity of his wickedness. With his hedonic treadmill, he concludes he has lived too long, and that any future pleasure he would achieve would come at too high a cost for others. Unable to live with his remorse, he decided to erase his memory by killing himself before his consciousness is backed up to the clouds such that he can be revived without any guilt. This reinforces the question about immortality as even the morally wicked Meth can come to such conclusion despite having everything. Thus, while immortality removes human limitations, diseases, and ageing, it is a double-edged sword with one end pointing to the problem of morality and wealth gap that is aggravated with immortal lives. Thus, I argue that Altered Carbon’s depiction of immortality is not utopic as what people may think at first with immortality leading to wealth inequality and morality issues as the power given to them through their immortality gradually corrupts their moral compass.
Lammers, J. et al. (2015). Power and Morality. Current Opinion in Psychology, 6, 15-19. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.018