The latest project from The Office creator Greg Daniels is an ambitious swing at big tech and the increasing digitalization of everyday life. Starring Robbie Amell and Andy Allo, Upload tackles some of tech’s biggest ethical questions by taking viewers on a journey through the afterlife.
The sci-fi comedy is set in 2033, during a time when the human consciousness can now be uploaded to digital spaces post-mortem, essentially creating a virtual afterlife in which people can continue to “exist” even after death. Such services are generally divided into two categories: 1) excessively lavish and overwhelmingly expensive, such as Lakeview by tech giant Horizen; or 2) cheaper and more accessible, but woefully lacklustre.
The show begins with Nathan Brown (Amell) — a gifted coder, up-and-coming tech entrepreneur and something of a fratboy manchild — embarking on a business venture to create a new digital afterlife that will be the perfect middle between the two categories. On the verge of his entrepreneurial breakthrough, Nathan is tragically killed in a self-driving car crash. In order to save his life, his superficial but obscenely rich girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) uploads him to Lakeview.
In Lakeview, Nathan meets his assigned customer service rep Nora (Allo) — or, as all Lakeview residents are supposed to call their customer service reps, “Angel”. Nora discovers that Nathan’s digitized memories are being tampered with, leading her to the revelation that his death was no accident. The two develop an unexpected bond and attraction, and grow closer as they work together to uncover the conspiracy behind Nathan’s death.
Who killed Nathan Brown? Was it his best friend and business partner Jamie (Jordan Johnson-Hinds), who stands to gain financially from Nathan’s death and won’t take his calls all of a sudden? Was it his heiress girlfriend, Ingrid, who was found tampering with his car settings moments before the crash? Was it Oliver Kannerman (Barclay Hope), Ingrid’s father and — big gasp — the owner of Horizen, ruthless in eliminating all competition from the market?
Greg Daniels is known for his observational comedy and that loving sense of satire definitely comes through in Upload. Lakeview is ridiculously luxurious but still comically bound by automated rules, like the sumptuous breakfast buffet (maple bacon doughnuts!) phasing out of virtual existence the second the clock strikes 10am. The advertising is just as relentless in Lakeview as it is in real life, with the guy tirelessly pushing Orbit gum in the lobby obliviously getting on everybody’s nerves.
It’s all so very mundane and completely relatable, even for us as an audience who have yet to experience a digital afterlife. Turns out it can be every bit as annoying as real life.
Comedy aside, the various ethical pickles sprinkled throughout the series aren’t just used as fodder for laughs. Since Nathan’s digital afterlife is bankrolled by his girlfriend Ingrid’s bank account, he finds himself subject to her every fancy and whim, including her uncomfortable wardrobe selections for him and an invasive media interview on “the ultimate long-distance relationship” (an interview which Ingrid got her shoulder blades sharpened for). Nora’s manager Lucy, aware of her employee’s growing intimacy with Nathan, seizes control of Nora’s Lakeview avatar to reject Nathan’s feelings.
Dylan (Rhys Slack), a Lakeview resident who died at age twelve and spent the last six years stuck in the virtual form of a child while his real-life peers have all grown up, angrily and desperately longs for growth and adulthood — or, at the very least, the digital simulation of it.
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching aspect of Lakeview is the lower 2Gigs level, reserved for less affluent Lakeview residents.
Compared to the upper levels’ ridiculous opulence, the 2Gigs level is depressingly barebones. Books are only printed up to the first five pages — “the free sample,” Nora explains wryly. Windows have no views. Residents walk around without genitals, because they don’t have enough data to load even those. Once the allotted 2 GB is used up, the virtual resident freezes, only to unfreeze when the next month begins.
The discovery outrages Nathan, who exclaims “It’s just code!” But, as Nora sums up, “Well, they want people to pay for upgrades. It’s called capitalism.”
Each episode is consistently underlined with questions and dilemmas. Is consuming a virtual simulation of maple bacon doughnuts at all comparable to the experience of eating real food?
What is one’s identity and personhood made of, and does that identity continue to exist even when parts of one’s history are removed or lost?
Is the very concept of independence even available to an uploaded person, when their digital existence is dependent on biological people?
What kinds of rights apply to the digital remains of a person, and who should hold control over these rights? How can personal privacy be preserved when everything digital can be readily accessed and manipulated with the right intelligence?
Is it wrong to feel angry at a loved one turning down the opportunity to take up residence in Lakeview or any other virtual afterlife because they still believe in the “traditional”, pre-tech idea of Heaven?
How accessible and affordable should digital services be, especially when they are literally a matter of life and death?
The concept of ratings and the value we ascribe to them is thoroughly explored. Nora desperately needs a 4.6-star employee rating to secure her sick dad a place in Lakeview, but her boss Lucy (Andrea Rosen) refuses to let her slide by on her current 4.598-star rating. Lakeview customer service reps, or Angels, are expected to bow to their charges’ every beck and call without complaint, or risk low ratings that reflect directly back to their supervisors. Nora’s booty call Byron (Matt Ward) promises to give her five stars on the dating/hook-up app Nitely, and then, once he’s left, gives her four.
In a world where life is so deeply and pervasively enmeshed with tech, is it at all possible to separate one’s own value and sense of self from the arbitrary ratings given by others?
These aren’t just questions and dilemmas for Nathan, Nora and the rest of Upload‘s cast of characters to ponder.
They’re big questions for us viewers to ask ourselves even now, as tech giants continue to grow and muscle out all vestiges of independent competition in the market, and as they continue to mine our personal data and use it for their profit while they preach a message of bettering our lives.
They are important questions for us to ask the authorities that govern our lives, as basic necessities and resources continue to remain inaccessible to large numbers all over the globe while a single man becomes the world’s first trillionaire — enough money to end world hunger four times over. (Indeed, it’s ironic that Upload is produced and distributed by Amazon Prime Video.)
The more tech grows and develops, the more human reliance on it does. Just ten years ago, it might have been fully possible to imagine life without apps for socialization, or food delivery, or rideshares. Now, especially in the throes of a global pandemic, it’s hard to imagine getting through the days without Twitter and Instagram.
Humankind still hasn’t invented the digital afterlife, but we’ve essentially learned to upload our entire lives and selves much in the way Nathan and the residents of Lakeview have. And every day, whole companies and industries are working round the clock, dedicated to the sole purpose of furthering the extent of the digital upload of the self.
In a world dominated by digital services and products, is there any way to live a fulfilling life detached from tech? Is the life that exists in the digital space life at all?
Edited by Abeer Khan