The first episode of Netflix’s Altered Carbon introduces a future in which personal identity is, supposedly, no longer strictly tied to a physical body. A 7-year-old girl’s consciousness is emptied into the body of a haggard-looking, middle-aged woman; our hero Takeshi Kovacs wakes up 250 years after his death, his mind poured into the body (aka the sleeve) of Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman. Throughout the series’ first season, audiences see Kovacs as played by Kinnaman, Korean-American actor Will Yun Lee, and Chinese-American actor Byron Mann. It’s also implied that those are not the only bodies Kovacs has inhabited throughout his life.
Most psychologists agree that human identity is intrinsically tied to our physical understanding of ourselves. So what happens to a human mind that doesn’t have an assigned physical body and that can, for all intents and purposes, change its age, race, and physicality at the drop of a hat?
“Our identity is simply who we think we are, and how we think we fit into our social world,” Dr. Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, tells SYFY WIRE. “Obviously, the details vastly differ among people, but basically all of our identities are based to some extent on just four or five categories of things.” Leary defines those categories as “physical characteristics,” “competencies, skills, and knowledge,” “social characteristics,” and our “relationships with other people.”
Society determines what those categories are. Leary explains simply that our society, the characteristic features of our everyday existence and the norms that direct our behavior, determines what’s important when we’re defining ourselves. So, if society has adjusted to it, then it’s no big deal, right? Altered Carbon argues that, by the year 2384, society has adjusted to the idea that identity is not strictly tied to the physical body. Or has it?
Altered Carbon is still obsessed with the physical body, despite existing in a fictional future where human identity can supposedly be downloaded to a hard drive and transferred haplessly between bodies. Physical pleasure is still vastly important if the number of strip clubs featured in the show are anything to go off of. Killing someone’s physical body — even if the stack is undamaged — is still technically considered a crime.
More importantly, unrest flickers along the edges of the first season’s narrative, hinting at a society that hasn’t fully embraced sleeves. Within seconds of Kinnaman’s Kovacs leaving the facility where he was reanimated, he’s inundated by “Spirit Savers” and “After-livers” who fundamentally believe a spirit belongs to a single body. From there, Altered Carbon introduces its audience to myriad reasons why this whole sleeve thing is more than a little messed up — without actually delving into the moral implications.
Married couples are forced to fight to “skin death,” and Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) flexes his godlike wealth by exposing his various sleeves to deadly diseases, knowing that he’ll just be able to transfer to a new body once the current one fails him. These are inexcusable offenses when witnessed through the eyes of a 21st-century viewer — and, supposedly, through the eyes of average people in 2384.
The little girl in the first episode whose stack has been transferred into the body of a middle-aged woman is the perfect example; her parents are horrified. “She’s 7 years old,” the father tells a looming security guard as the aged-up little girl cries and clings to her mother, who she now appears to be at least a decade older than.
“The basis of identity is kind of just sort of made up in the sense that everybody agrees that certain things are important, and certain things are not important,” Leary says. “You could have a society where [the color of] people's skin was totally irrelevant, had nothing to do with who they are, and it would have nothing to do with their perceptions of themselves. That's just an arbitrary thing that we focus on as human beings, but you wouldn't have to. You could pick other things. So, if you had this fantastical society in the future, you [could] come up with … a different set of criteria for defining what a person's identity is.”
If the physical body doesn’t matter to human identity in this world, then why would a family really care about how old their child appeared to be as long as her mind was still intact?
In “Social Psychology of Identities" (2000), Judith Howard, a professor of sociology and gender, women, and sexuality studies at the University of Washington, explores human identity in relation to “ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender, class, age, and (dis)ability, both separately and as they intersect.” Each facet plays an important part in a person’s understanding of themselves and, when those facets interact, questions of identity only grow more complicated.
“Our whole sense of self is very embodied,” Howard tells SYFY WIRE. “It's not just purely cognitive. So it's hard for me to imagine real human beings being able to do something like that — [change bodies] — and still, in a sense, be the same person.”
To prove just how central our core identities are to us — including things like race and gender identity — Howard points to research done in the past “15 to 20 years” as the internet has “basically taken over everybody’s lives.” Researchers questioned whether people would hide their true race or gender online — say they’re something they’re not — if they presumed they were invisible.
“Interestingly, most of the research has shown that even though people could dissemble, for the most part they don’t,” Howard says. “That’s another thing that says something about how central our core identities are. In the situation where people don’t see your body, you still don’t pretend to be somebody other than who you physically are.”
None of this is to say that humans can’t adjust to major physical changes. Humans do so all the time, and there’s no one right way to inhabit a physical body. Our society just tends to get hung up on certain aspects of what makes a person an individual.
“People accommodate to those changes,” Leary says. “And research has shown that even people who become paralyzed ... by and large, after a number of months, they begin to adjust to the new lifestyle. They adjust their identities and substitute things they used to be. Now they have other things they pursue, and they move along. So, even in our world, massive changes and your physical identity, it's not that they don't have effects, but those effects kind of wear off a little bit over time, and in the long run they don't matter quite so much as you think they would.”
In the end, as important as human identity is, it’s, well, all in our heads.
“We are not a fixed person,” Leary says when talking about how arbitrary identity can be. “Sometimes we sort of think we are who we are, and we're not gonna change, but in fact we do change. Over life, tremendously, we're not the same person now [as] we were 15 years ago. And we are arbitrarily selecting parts of ourselves to base our identity on, and if we picked different parts of ourselves … we would have a different kind of identity.”
Humans naturally change over time. You aren’t the same person as you were 10 years ago. It just so happens that Takeshi Kovacs might not be the same person he was 10 minutes ago.