FULL SPOILERS FOR ALTERED CARBON BELOW!
Seriously. All the spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Altered Carbon is a science fiction show that premiered on Netflix on February 2, 2018 based on a novel written by Richard K. Morgan in 2002. The show provides a dystopian version of the future where the ability to download and upload consciousness to different bodies has created immortality for all, but a deeper divide between the cheap immortality provided to the poor and the extravagant immortality provided to the rich.
While Altered Carbon was enjoyable as an action show and touched on a few interesting topics, one issue I have with the show was its inability to provide a world that seemed to be affected by the crazy new technologies aside from just constantly mentioning them. For instance, while the proliferation of smart phones has changed the way we act in public, interact with one another, and obtain information generally, it’s rare for someone to explicitly mention their phone or talk about its effects on them or on the world.
Not so with Altered Carbon. The technology that has been around for hundreds of years is often discussed, but doesn’t seem to have fully affected society. For instance, while the show feels like it leads to an interesting question of legal responsibility, that question is never asked.
Before I get to the summary, let me give a spoiler filled summary. Takeshi Kovac is resurrected hundreds of years after his death for the purpose of solving the murder of Laurens Bancroft. Bancroft’s death was interesting because it appeared to be a suicide, but Bancroft was one of the few people aware that his consciousness is backed up every forty eight hours so that killing him generally has no effect other than erasing a day’s memory.
Without getting too much into the details, the final explanation is that Bancroft did in fact shoot himself out of guilt for killing a young prostitute. Bancroft had visited the brothel, killed the prostitute, and then killed himself all prior to his next backup cycle, thereby leaving the next version of Bancroft unaware of his prior actions. Kovac eventually learns the truth and explains the situation to the Bancroft and the detectives. Bancroft is arrested, the rich learn that they can’t get away with their crimes, evil is punished.
Or is it?
The question I was surprised that Altered Carbon never asked is: can we hold Bancroft accountable for those crimes? Bancroft, as he currently exists, never committed murder.
On Day 1, Bancroft performed a backup by uploading his consciousness to his satellite server. On Day 2, that same Bancroft committed a murder and then killed himself. On Day 3, a new Bancroft was created from the backup. That new Bancroft has memories from before Day 1 and after Day 3, but his stream of consciousness did not exist at the time of the murder.
Let’s put it another way. Imagine that the backup copy of Bancroft is a clone of the original. The original Bancroft made this clone and then put it to sleep. After the clone was put to sleep, Bancroft went to the brothel, murdered the prostitute, and then killed himself. The clone did nothing wrong – he was sleeping at the time.
It is important to note that Bancroft did not intend to kill anyone when he created his backup. He was not creating a backup with the purpose of avoiding punishment for a crime he was about to commit. In this show, Bancroft creates backups every night. On the day of the murder, Bancroft had become angry at his son for impersonating him and had gone to the brothel to blow off steam where murdered the prostitute while drugged. The night prior, when the backup was created, Bancroft had no intent to visit the brothel or to kill anyone.
So should we be punishing Bancroft for the crimes of his copy?
There are a few reasons given for maintaining a criminal justice system that incarcerates or otherwise punishes criminals: deterrence, protection of society, and rehabilitation.
Deterrence is generally considered the primary reason for incarceration. We keep people from killing by telling them they’ll go to prison if they kill. So who would we be deterring by punishing Bancroft 2.0? It would possibly deter people who generate clones for the purpose of committing crimes, but that clone is still deterred from committing the crime by threats of punishment or forced suicide.
We could punish Bancroft in order to protect society from a man we know is capable of murder. But once we start going the route of punishing people because they have a prevalence for committing crimes or are likely to commit a crime we start going the dystopian route of Psycho Pass or Minority Report (which we would probably rather avoid).
So then are we locking him up to rehabilitate him? From what? He hasn’t done anything yet. He hasn’t even reached the point where he’s capable of murder.
Putting aside the difficulties of punishing a person in a society where people are immortal and can transfer their consciousness to other bodies – I think Altered Carbon missed a really interesting side effect of its world when Bancroft was routinely punished for a murder he did not commit.