Television

Upload Builds an Amusing, Ethically Fraught World Around Virtual Heaven

Transcending consciousness is presented as a consumer good in a sharp new Amazon Prime series.

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Upload opens with what appears to be a timeshare sales pitch for a fancy resort surrounded by a lush forest and beautiful lake. "You did well. You deserve … Lake View (by Horizen)," a voiceover tells the viewer.

The sales pitch isn't for a typical summer vacation. It's for virtual heaven, a digital afterlife that serves as the setting for Upload's first season. Mixing sci-fi, satire, romance, and mystery, the Amazon Prime show depicts a near future in which we've finally developed the technological capacity to upload our full minds into virtual worlds. Heaven is a place on Earth—a server room with carefully controlled temperatures.

In the show's beginning, it's just a one-way trip (though attempts to reverse the process are a subplot). Uploading is presented and sold to consumers as an eternal vacation for those near death or simply no longer interested in living, assuming they can afford it.

Upload focuses on both sides of the mortal divide, advancing interesting ideas about the ethics of a manmade afterlife, who has access to it, and who controls it. We meet digital inhabitants as well as living relatives and customer service representatives. The mix of satire, intrigue, and mortality are at turns darkly funny, clever, gimmicky, and warm.

The 10-episode first season is available now for binge-watching and a second season has already been ordered. The show revolves primarily around Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell), a hot up-and-coming programmer who, after a self-driving car crash, uploads to Lake View in a darkly humorous scene that goes to shocking lengths to demonstrate the trip to "paradise" will be one way.

As he settles into "life" at Lake View, Nathan is introduced to his "angel," Nora Antony (Andy Allo). Nora is actually a customer service representative for Horizen working as a drone in a brick warehouse office, where she spends all day at a computer monitoring and attending to the needs of Nathan and other Horizen clients. They are both young and attractive, and a romantic connection develops in violation of company regulations.

Complicating matters further is Nathan's somewhat vapid, wealthy, still-very-much alive girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), who is bankrolling Nathan's stay at Lake View and therefore has complete power over his afterlife experience. This is played for both laughs and serves as a central conflict for the entire first season.

The friction between Ingrid and Nathan also speaks to a recurring ethical issue in Upload's presentation of a digital afterlife: Who, exactly, are these interpretations of heaven for and who are the actual customers? There are, of course, costs to maintaining a digital afterlife, and Horizen (and other companies and brands with competing services) require ongoing payments. Plenty of gimmicky jokes surround afterlife upselling and micropayments. Even in the afterlife, the hotel room minibar isn't free, and Taco Bell still wants to try to sell you food. People who uploaded either saved money in advance, or their living loved ones are bearing the financial burdens.

When Nathan inevitably makes Ingrid angry, she makes his experience of digital heaven a little hellish. One of Nathan's fellow afterlifers is a young boy who is stuck as a child not by his own choice, but because his surviving parents won't allow him to upgrade into an "adult" avatar.

This is all played for humor and hijinks—one plot revolves around Nathan and Dylan accessing an afterlife "gray market" where Dylan attempts to hack his own avatar to grow up. But nobody finds it creepy, odd, or problematic that it's Dylan's parents and not Dylan who gets to decide what age he'll be…possibly for all eternity. Another ongoing plot revolves around Nora attempting to convince her skeptical father to commit to uploading when he dies. Nora's mom died before the advent of uploading, and her dad would rather die a conventional death and possibly be reunited with her in conventional heaven (which he believes actually exists) than upload. This prospect of losing both her mom and her dad fills Nora with despair.

Much of Upload is about how unwilling humans might be to accept the finality of death in a world where they don't have to. But while the living are drawn to the prospect of not dying, the uploaded dead are consigned to wondering whether virtual eternity sticks them in a pattern of existence that, despite its supposed luxury, mimics and pales in comparison to their former lives.

Upload also presents the virtual afterlife through the filters of class resentment and tech skepticism. People who can't afford Horizen's top options are relegated to stark, empty basement rooms on pay-as-you-go plans. Protesters in the real world picket with signs that insist that uploading should be treated as a human right. Horizen apparently treats and pays its workers poorly, though there's little sign that Nora struggles all that much other than having to take mass transit, live in her NYC apartment with a roommate, and work for a terrible sitcom boss (Upload is created by The Office's Greg Daniels, and that former show's DNA is visible every time we visit Nora at work). To the extent there is a revolution brewing against this brave new world, it's being plotted by the neo-Luddite "Luds," who we likely won't see much of until the second season.

While feeling vaguely anti-tech and "late-capitalist," the vibe is more mundane evil than cruel. Lake View, scenes of which were shot in New York's Shawangunk Mountains, is a complex technological undertaking and thus prone to glitching. Its a boutique vision of "heaven" only if you like the idea of spending eternity in an occasionally pixelated simulacrum of a midcentury Catskills resort. But we also learn that there are other options when Nathan explores where his digital self might reside if things with Ingrid get rocky.

Despite Lake View's many deficiencies, Upload also asks the viewer to feel sad and angry that many people can't afford to go there when they die. This is a recurring criticism dished by a certain type of tech critic: that newly introduced technologies—particularly medical technologies—are available first to only the wealthy. While history shows that the rich get new stuff faster, it also tells us that valuable technological developments scale up rapidly and come down in price. We pay the same amounts for computers and televisions as we did two decades ago and yet get so much more value. There are indications in Upload that similar advancements are taking place in the afterlife tech sector, and that people may one day be able to design their own afterlives. I don't know about you, but I want a heaven designed by Wizards of the Coast, thanks.

Where will Upload take this conflict? The Good Place similarly explored the ethics of the afterlife and what people "deserve" when they die, and viewers concerned about social and economic disparities determining a person's quality of afterlife likely enjoyed how The Good Place tackled those questions. If Upload's later seasons also wallow in class resentment, the show will miss interesting storytelling opportunities. Hopefully, Greg Daniels et al. resist the temptation to give us a bloodless comedy version of Westworld or Altered Carbon and instead focus on how people communicate between the physical life and the virtual afterlife, and whether technological innovation can flatten inequilaity—not by stacking everybody in a bland version of "rich people heaven," but by giving people the tools to define their own personal heavens.

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  1. yeah i’m excited about this. loved Parks and Good Place.

    1. Good Place was amazing because they explicitly threw away the economic commentary. I watched a couple episodes of Upload and the economic ignorance just became too much.

      There is no way in the world that such a system wouldn’t be funded via an annuity where you essentially pay in and then fund your existence from the proceeds of that nest egg. It is how Trust Fund babies have been living for decades. No one would develop this pay as you go model because…well all of the grief and strife that we see in the series.

      1. cool thanks. haven’t started Upload yet because I stumbled on Patriot which has already been and gone (18 episodes) but man Patriot is dark and funny. really funny. through 12 episodes so far…

        1. Yes, I LOVE Patriot. The only problem is that it is too hard to watch in this house with kids around.

          It is interesting all these old series are being recycled by Amazon and others since nothing new is being produced.

          1. the USA needs my pee? lol

  2. I want a heaven designed by Wizards of the Coast.

    No thanks they had a few good ideas for D&D but always managed to dumb it down as they say. I build my own heaven thank you, Just like I design my own AD&D campaigns. But I am getting real tired of all this class warfare crap myself. In real life here theirs a multimillionaire who live across from me ( Note, I live under the poverty wage here in the U.S, Their a lot of farms and ranches around me) and he’s out their feeding and taking care of his cow, while most people are sitting on their butts right now. Rich and poor are not different social classes and where I live you can find rich and poor drinking at the same bar.

  3. And Reason get a edit button, I meant to say he’s taking care of his cow heard.

    1. what did his cow hear?

      1. As we say here, My kingdom for an edit button.

  4. Are they going to do a digital hell for condemned criminals?

  5. I watched most of the first episode until I was convinced it just wasn’t good enough. It’s not complete trash, it definitely has it’s moments. When politics are discussed the sympathetic characters display the same childish Hollywood liberalism as every other show. One of these characters has a framed poster of “Oprah/Kemala 2024 For President” on their wall. I’m serious.

  6. I can’t buy into a series who’s central conceit is that server hosting will, for inexplicable reasons, increase in costs.

    Sort of like how in Altered Carbon it’s just assumed that cloning would be impossibly expensive so only Meth’s can afford it, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

    Still, that being said I enjoyed Altered Carbon for what it was (a sci-fi action/comedy). Not so sure an action-free title that’s supposed to be ‘super deep’ will hold my attention when they assume a much closer future than Altered Carbon does.

    1. Not really a spoiler, but I will warn anyway:

      In one episode, there’s a minor plot point that involves the service degrading when a couple server racks are damaged. As someone who’s currently working the cloud world, I had my suspension of disbelief challenged. Something like Horizen would be run out of multiple datacenters worldwide, with multiple levels of redundancy, inside and across those datacenters. The goal of the design would be that one of more datacenters, connections, or any numbers of components could fail, and customers would never notice. This would be especially true for a premium offering.

      Not a dealbreaker, but a minor detail that didn’t ring true for me.

  7. Too many issues for me; it’s written by people who have a poor grasp of technology at best (everything is surface-level like “lol look at the low frame-rate,” consumer frustrations only) and almost no handle on economics.

    There are so many interesting ideas for shows today, that are poorly executed by progressive simps.

  8. This thing is just so prevalent on so many timelines that it’s just going to have to be dealt with.

    At some point in the future humans are going to create some form of transportation that routinely kills them. But they don’t notice because it also prints a replica of them at the destination.

    AND/OR they will willy-nilly, create digital/virtual copies of themselves

    The good news is, this type of transportation will be abandoned as the truth of it starts to be realized (about a century or so after invention) but it will also lead to a more useful transport system that uses congruencies and will lead to a much better understanding of spacetime.

    The bad news occurs in the actual afterlife, on ‘the other side of the veil’ as it were.

    Individuals are going to be duplicated, often over and over again. In some cases thousands of individuals will have a single set of parents. And they WILL be individuals. After each split, whether it’s transport related or due to some type of upload, a new individual will be created.

    But they will all share the same past up to the initial split.

    And that’s going to have repercussions in a couple thousand years. Out by Jupiter. When all these excess dead (eventually they’ll be referred to as ‘unborn’) show up once humanity gets past death.

    Yeah, That’s gonna be fun. When people come face to face with 9000 copies of themself ‘cos they used the transport system to commute to work.

    1. Been watching “The Prestige” and drinking again?

      1. No.

        Just offering the ‘view’ from the Center of All Things.

        We laughed about this post a few continua across ago. But you don’t remember that yet.

        It’s okay, you will, when you’re in that point.

        You were be big on re-integration. The larva had to take you …dup?… and show you why it didn’t matter.

        But you don’t remember THAT yet either.

        Durational time sucks. And mono-directional linear durational time sucks worst of all

  9. Great show. Like an episode of Black Mirror, but played for laughs. Some of the economics and science don’t make sense, but they’re making fun of the way tech is priced now — people on the low budget plan (the “2 gigs”) have to basically go into hibernation if they use up their data in the first few days of the month.

  10. One thing they got right (I think) — you can’t get “uploaded” when you’re dead. So people with life threatening injuries have to decide if they want to try to save their lives through emergency surgery, or upload their brains while they’re still working. Which leaves the option for checking out early, if you’d rather be virtual.

    1. Well, this show isn’t very scientific, so I feel pretty silly attempting a technical answer to this. But the thinking goes that the first “uploads” will be scanned brains. Scanning by electron microscopy is destructive. You have to annihilate the brain to map it out. So it’s only practical with an already dead brain. I thought that was where the show was going, when they vaporize the dude’s head, except he’s alive so they can play it for laughs.

      Of course, even if we can scan a brain and switch it on, we have no idea what that entails as an experience. And it’s safe to say the “you” reading this is still dead. What we have here is at best a copy that may approximate you; which may indeed be convinced it is you.

  11. How does reason miss an opportunity to mention the David Koach reference?!

    To me this show is trying to show corporatism is a bad idea, but capitalism is good. I think they almost literally say that in episode 5. This show may be more libertarian than you think under the surface. Nora longs for proper capitalism while feeling heavy under the weight of cronyism in her small apartment and public transportation. She outright says NYC doesn’t have self driving cars and HAS TO settle for progressive ideal of a lifestyle.

  12. They took one episode of black mirror and made a whole series about it, though to be fair, they chose arguably one of the best episodes of black mirror.

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