Upload Satirizes a Capitalist Heaven

The Amazon show is one of several recent works in which the afterlife darkly mimics earthly existence.

Amazon / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

In The Good Place, heaven looked like the Getty Center. In Black Mirror, the digital afterlife can be anything from an ’80s beach town to a blank white expanse. In the new Amazon series Upload, heaven is a simulation designed to mimic an upscale Catskills resort hotel, and when the central character Nathan (played by Robbie Amell) dies and has his consciousness transferred into it, he has some trouble adjusting to his new reality. “This,” he tells his customer-service “angel,” Nora (Andy Allo), “is a bad idea. The ads make it seem like a really great thing, but it is monstrous.” Nora tries to soothe him. “I get it,” she says. “This isn’t perfect. And maybe you were led to think it would be, since the marketing mentions ‘heaven,’ like, a dozen times. But … maybe the imperfections make it more like life.”

Nora’s right: The digital afterlife Nathan is in isn’t perfect, but it is perfectly attuned to the show’s earthly world, a 2033 late-late-capitalist America where corporations have found a way to monetize heaven itself. By persuading Nathan to give his plush post-life environment, Lakeview by Horizen™, another shot, Nora is spared the calamity of losing both a client and valuable points on her professional rating. Meanwhile, Horizen, a telecommunications company whose off-screen counterpart is an easy homophonic guess, can keep charging Nathan with fees for everything, including his in-room coffee and the “Timberlake Plus” bespoke emerald-green suit he wears to live-stream in to his own funeral.

Upload isn’t flawless as a television show, partly because it seems so fascinated by the dynamics of the world it has constructed that its attention to plot and character are secondary. But as a philosophical projection, buffeted by the jaunty humor and irreverently satirical eye of its creator, Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation), it makes an argument that’s hard to counter. As technological and scientific advancements bring humans closer to the concept of the digital afterlife—where souls can be uploaded to live peacefully in a simulated universe and even continue communing with the living—the stakes of such an existence move beyond ethical concerns to existential ones: Do people have the capacity to conceive of an online utopia, given the frailty of human nature and the imperfectability of the real world? Any version of heaven created by people, Upload argues, would inevitably have the same rampant inequality and toxic consumerism of life on Earth, but without the parts that actually make it worth living.

This kind of setup isn’t the most obvious canvas for a comedy. But it’s a subject that TV keeps returning to, in dystopian series such as Black Mirror and Altered Carbon, and thematically in comedies such as The Good Place (created by Daniels’s Parks and Recreation collaborator Michael Schur) and Forever. On Westworld, hosts can be rewarded for their brutish lives among humans in a kind of robot heaven named the Sublime. Try imagining a kind of heaven designed by and for humans, though, and the scenarios immediately get darker, as though we’re unable to conceptualize an afterlife that won’t eventually ruin us.

In 2016, the psychologist and neuroscientist Michael Graziano laid out the basic concept of a digital afterlife in The Atlantic. Imagine, he wrote, “scanning your Grandma’s brain in sufficient detail to build a mental duplicate. When she passes away, the duplicate is turned on and lives in a simulated video-game universe, a digital Elysium complete with bingo, TV soaps, and knitting needles to keep the simulacrum happy. You could talk to her by phone just like always. She could join Christmas dinner by Skype. E-Granny would think of herself as the same person that she always was, with the same memories and personality—the same consciousness—transferred to a well-regulated nursing home and able to offer her wisdom to her offspring forever after.”

This, in essence, is the setup for Upload. The show follows Nathan, an amiable Ken doll of a character, in a recognizable near future in which Manhattan’s skyline has been transformed by a proliferation of pencil skyscrapers and Los Angeles’s freeways are dominated by self-driving cars. In the first episode, Nathan is revealed to be a coder working to create a free digital afterlife for people who can’t afford the luxury alternatives offered by megacorps such as “Panera Facebook” and “Nat Geo Instagram.” But when his car malfunctions in circumstances that seem obviously suspicious, Nathan’s wealthy socialite girlfriend, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), pursuades him to upload to Lakeview by Horizen so that they can be together forever. (“We’re a Horizen family,” she previously bragged to Nathan’s family at Thanksgiving. “Unlimited data on both sides.”)

The process of turning Nathan’s consciousness into data is abrupt and comedically grisly, but when he awakens at Lakeview, guided by Nora—who assembles his setup as deftly as any Genius Bar employee—he’s basically himself. His new home is essentially a hotel room decked out in luxe Americana (“Hope it’s not too Ralph Lauren,” Nora jokes), situated in a scenic resort with adjustable seasons, badminton, trailing wisteria, and adbots doing market research on the dead, touting samples of products by Orbit and “Nokia Taco Bell.” Any extras Nathan wants—coffee, bottled water, the McDonald’s fries in his minibar—count as in-app purchases and get charged to Ingrid’s account.

In Upload, the digital afterlife is essentially a hotel room decked out in luxe Americana. (Amazon)

The extent to which Lakeview is a for-profit undertaking becomes clearer when Nathan meets David Choak (the inspiration for whom is also easily guessable), a gazillionaire magnate who “influenced American politics for a generation” and who now spends his fortune in the afterlife on black-rhino burgers and endangered-parrot sandwiches. (In Upload’s world, the maxim that you can’t take it with you is thoroughly disproved.) At the other end of the Lakeview wealth spectrum is the economy floor where the “two-gigs” live, an environment modeled after a hospital cafeteria where the food is by Lean Cuisine, the TV is broken, and books include only sample chapters until the full volumes are purchased. “They want people to pay for upgrades,” Nora tells Nathan, who’s appalled at the company’s essentially holding customers ransom for no reason other than that it can. “It’s called capitalism.”

The shadow of an acknowledgment that any man-made afterlife would be reserved for those who can pay for it hangs over Upload. When “Oscar Mayer Intel” develops radical technology that might allow uploaded consciousnesses to be re-downloaded into printed clone bodies in the real world, promising “endless corporeal life,” the first test subject bids $4 billion for the privilege of the experiment. Similarly, in the Netflix show Altered Carbon, set in the 24th century, human souls can be downloaded onto devices known as cortical stacks, which can then be inserted into new clone bodies; the upgrades are so expensive that only the wealthiest members of society can afford the process, rendering them essentially immortal. On Upload, protesters regularly proclaim that “upload is a human right,” but the reality is that it’s a luxury that further divides the haves from the have-nots. Rather than parse the ethical and psychological concerns of extending human consciousness beyond life, Upload simply extends reality to its logical conclusion. If humans can’t fix our own world, it wonders, what hope do we have of creating the structure of an equitable afterlife?

One of the series that has consistently explored the chilling ethical ramifications of consciousness uploads and the copy-pasted brain is Black Mirror. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’s speculative anthology isn’t known for its optimism, or its generous interpretations of human nature: In the show’s universe, human souls can be copied to digital clones called cookies, and those copies (which have the same awareness and ability to feel emotions as the originals) are then converted into digital slaves (the episode “White Christmas”) or tortured (“Black Museum”), or turned into video-game characters by a tyrannical coder (“USS Callister”). But the third-season episode “San Junipero” surprised longtime fans of the show by offering up something unexpected: a technologically advanced happy ending.

The episode’s twist comes midway through, after Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) and Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) meet in a beach town called San Junipero and spend the night together: The town is a simulated reality that dead people can be uploaded into and living ones can visit, occupying bodies that look like their younger selves. In reality, Kelly is an elderly woman with a fatal illness and Yorkie, who was paralyzed in an accident in her 20s, wants to be euthanized and uploaded to San Junipero. Kelly wants to die naturally like her husband and daughter did. But in the show’s surprise conclusion, she joins Yorkie in San Junipero instead, and the pair dances to Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth.”

The episode floored critics who were waiting for the unsettling gut punch. Brooker, the show’s co-creator, said that he wanted to upend ideas about what Black Mirror could be—and indeed, the concept of technology enabling happiness rather than destroying human lives is at odds with virtually every other episode the show has offered up. But even in “San Junipero” there are hints that Yorkie and Kelly’s love affair might not be an enduring one. The town itself is designed for pure pleasure and nostalgic wish fulfillment; inhabitants and visitors can flit between 20th-century decades and aesthetics as easily as they hop bars. When Yorkie goes looking for Kelly one night, she stumbles upon the Quagmire, a club offering more extreme experiences to residents who are “trying anything to feel something,” jaded by the town’s perpetual sunshine and lack of pain. When Kelly smokes a cigarette on the beach, she observes that “it doesn’t even taste of anything.” Without real stakes, real experiences, the episode hints, the endless summer of San Junipero will one day lose its thrill.

The same quandary is apparent in Upload, where Lakeview residents can pay to have simulated colds. “When you’ve been here a bit, you’ll understand that having no fun can actually be fun,” a resident tells Nathan, before shelling out an extra $1.99 for a sneeze. The paradox of a boring heaven brings to mind the final episode of The Good Place, where the afterlife-set show’s four main characters eventually got tired of living forever in paradise and chose to become particles of energy instead. In the end, as my colleague Spencer Kornhaber wrote, “the show made a soothing, seductive, and (thankfully) shaky case for death.” Even in an unbranded, un-monetized, truly blissful afterlife, even surrounded by the people they loved, The Good Place’s characters couldn’t accept the idea of actual eternity. Which makes Upload’s man-made version of heaven, with its radical inequality, peskily perennial adbots, tiered social system, and glitchy digital assistants, seem even more fated to be hell.