Review of UPLOAD
UPLOAD. Prime Video, 2020.
Following in the vein of shows like The Good Place (2016-2020) and Forever (2018), Amazon Prime Video’s Upload (2020) tackles the question of what happens after we die. A bingeable, comedic SF TV show set in 2033, it depicts an Earth in which the death of the body does not spell the end for the mind; with sufficient warning (and a sufficient budget), humans can ‘upload’ into one of a variety of pay-to-play virtual-reality (VR) ‘heavens’ and live on, interacting with the living as well as their fellow ‘uploads’. Nathan Brown, the protagonist, is a coder working on a freeware version of one of the many ‘heavens’ currently on offer from mega-corporations such as Oscar Meyer Intel and Nat Geo Instagram—the irony that this show is produced by one such mega-corporation should not be lost on the viewer. After his autonomous vehicle crashes, Nathan, dazed and dying, is pressured by his overbearing girlfriend, Ingrid, into uploading his consciousness into Lakeview by Horizen, “the only digital afterlife environment modelled on the great Victorian hotels of the United States and Canada” (“Welcome to Upload”). Among his fellow residents are a multibillionaire, a veteran who ‘suiscanned’ (i.e., committed suicide by upload), and a child who fell into the Grand Canyon on a school trip.
With the first (46 min) episode given over primarily to exposition, the remaining installments of the show’s 10-episode arc (ranging in duration from 24-32 min) deal with Nathan’s difficulty adjusting to a stuffy digital eternity where every purchase must be approved by Ingrid, his budding romance with his Angel (aka customer service rep), Nora, and the increasingly realization that his death was in fact a murder. Part-romcom, part-mystery, Upload is effectively what would happen if a Hallmark movie crashed a Cyberpunk convention. The show draws heavily on video game tropes, with the portrayal of Lakeview invoking a kind of massively multiplayer online game, complete with in-app purchases, pop-up ads, and a Street Fighter gamer mode. The non-VR world of the show is one similar to our own, with a neoliberal gig-economy and stark wealth disparity, albeit with some significant technological advances. These include innovations with regard to driverless vehicles—which, importantly in the series, allow the user to “prioritize passenger” or “prioritize occupant” in the event of a crash—and 3D-printed foods, though the most significant advancement is undoubtedly the posthumanist digital afterlife itself.
Virtual (after)lives are, of course, nothing new in the world of SF. As early as 1933, Laurence Manning imagined in The Man Who Awoke a world in which machines could replace human senses with electrical impulses, allowing people to escape to a virtual life of their choosing. Even uploading consciousness into virtual reality (VR) after death—as opposed to re-downloading into human bodies as in Altered Carbon (novel: 2002, TV show: 2018-2020), transferring into androids like in Rudy Rucker’s Software (1982), or uploading into computer consoles as in Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway (2017)—has a number of precedents, including Philip K. Dick’s Ubik (1969), Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail (2010), Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode (2016), and Neal Stephenson’s Fall (2019). It is interesting to note that the society in Upload is, in fact, striving for the Altered Carbon model of re-downloading consciousness, though so far only with disastrous results. What makes Upload unique, however, is its comedic take, opting for a more optimistic vibe even while depicting a variety of social ills such as ubiquitous surveillance, overbearing labor, and social control via Uber-style star-ratings.
Designed to be easily watchable with an adequate—but not obtrusive—dose of social awareness, Upload is less genre-bending than genre-melding, and the murder plot and digital-panopticon milieu tend to get overlooked in deference to the garden-variety love story. Fans of hard SF will no doubt struggle with the mismatch in the technology portrayed, with, for example, the immense leaps in data-storage for consciousnesses met with chunky VR glasses that already appear outdated for 2020—not to mention the slasher-comedy-esque head-zapping upload sequence.
The series in general seems to have difficulty maintaining a clear focus, and often, in trying to do too much, it ends up doing too little. This includes the character development of its protagonist, who is somehow simultaneously comically narcissistic and impressively altruistic. Intelligent enough to build his own Upload, he doesn’t realize the suspicious circumstances of this death until they are spelled out to him by a neighbor: “Yeah, sure… you just threatened a 600-billion-dollar-a-year industry, and no one murdered you” (“Five Stars”). Nevertheless, it does address a number of themes worthy of scholarly exploration. It does so while treading a middle ground of not-quite biting the hand that feeds it (i.e., Amazon), which in itself may be interesting to analyze for media studies and/or cyberpunk scholars, especially given Sean McQueen’s assertion that “Cyberpunk’s subversive strategies were quickly adopted by, and became indistinguishable from, the corporate structures they initially opposed” (McQueen 5).
Upload is worth watching for those interested in posthumanism, digital worlds, video game studies, artificial intelligence, and biocapitalism, as well as those interested in portrayals of neoliberalism and/or contemporary labor relations. Related to its portrayal of stratified society, it also obliquely addresses questions of racial inequity through its casting and visuals, though there is not anything terribly new there for critical race scholars. The series will be interesting for food studies scholars due to its portrayal of 3D-printed foods and its making visible of the deep enmeshment of food companies in the capitalist world-system (e.g. Nokia Taco Bell, Panera/Facebook). The latter will also make it of interest to scholars working on the Anthropocene/Capitalocene/Plantationocene, though Upload pointedly avoids any mention of climate change. Environmental humanities scholars may also find it interesting in its invocation of a (digital) pastoral sublime. Despite its lukewarm story arc, Upload is eminently topical, and its Amazon backing adds a paratextual dimension which makes it a cultural artifact worth at least passing consideration.
Daniels, Greg. “Welcome to Upload.” Upload, 1, Amazon Video, 1 May 2020.
—. “Five Stars.” Upload, 2, Amazon Video, 1 May 2020.
McQueen, Sean. Deleuze and Baudrillard: From Cyberpunk to Biopunk. Edinburgh University Press, 2016.