As we gather with family and friends in video spaces, with our virtual backgrounds and touched-up faces, our actual bodies are safely secreted away in our modern bunkers, waiting for the day we might return to the living.
In this context, there is something uneasy in streaming the new Amazon Prime series Upload. Like other shows that have explored the intersections between technology and society, Upload questions what it means to be truly human—and, in particular, about the potential of some part of our selves living on in digital form. The plot follows some standard tropes, including a whodunit, a romance, and a character who does a lot of growing up after he has died. But beneath this, we are presented with set pieces that make strange the possibilities of our digital selves living rich lives after death, and that question what it means to live full lives in the meantime.
In the first episode, 27-year-old software developer Nathan Brown is gravely injured when his self-driving car fails to avoid a parked dump truck. As his gurney is pushed down a hallway in the hospital, he encounters a fork in the road. He must decide whether he wants to be wheeled toward the operating room and risk that he may “old-fashioned die,” or toward a machine that will upload his consciousness to one of many private “heavens” that will preserve his consciousness indefinitely. (Lots of people apparently choose their afterlife provider before they are faced with death, but apparently a relatively young Nathan never bothered.) He chooses the latter, and is presented with a tablet so that he may accept the Terms of Service of his new home. He notes that he cannot just hit “accept” without reading the terms, to which the representative asks, “Have you never gotten an app, ever?” With that less-than-informed consent, Nathan’s consciousness is uploaded and the remainder of the series leaves him in a liminal space: an exclusive afterlife resort.
Ghost stories—of the science fiction or more traditional varieties—often depict a macabre and somewhat opaque membrane between the worlds of the living and dead, and this makes up a substantial part of the story here as well. Like Black Mirror’s “San Junipero,” the living may visit these afterworlds as prospective residents, but there are also plenty of other opportunities for interaction.
Nathan, for example, is the guest of honor at his own funeral, and spends significant time on the phone trying to sort out his affairs back in the less virtual world. Those still in their mortal coils can wear head-mounted devices to interact in virtual spaces with a mixture of the living, the dead, and the artificial. There is the opportunity to don haptic suits for more “intimate” interactions. And there is a tantalizing look at the possibility of “downloading” back into artificial bodies or controlling the Internet of Things from our personal heavens. In all, the afterlife of Upload is very connected.
And here is where the uncanny intersection with those forced into social isolation by COVID-19 intrudes. Most of us are living fairly disembodied lives of late, engaging with friends, family, and co-workers online through video chat and video games. My elementary-aged kids have moved their recess into a private Minecraft server where they build and play with their friends. My own family does battle with time zones in Spain and California to “meet up.” We attend birthday parties, happy hours, commencement ceremonies, and, sadly, funerals through the same devices. And there is ever present the draw back to “normal life.” Are we all still alive?
This use of an “afterlife” to critique our modern online interactions is a very thinly veiled theme of the show. And certainly, it follows on a number of other speculative views of how social media is changing our lived (and dying) social lives. Neal Stephenson’s 2019 novel Fall, for example, attempted something similar, detailing the ways in which our social lives are increasingly governed by the social media “doomsday machine.” He notes in an interview, “We’ve turned over our perception of what’s real to algorithmically driven systems that are designed not to have humans in the loop, because if humans are in the loop they’re not scalable and if they’re not scalable they can’t make tons and tons of money.”
One of the few seeming regulations on those who reside in Upload’s afterlife is that they are not permitted to earn an income. Yet their lives are filled with opportunities to spend money, largely to provide distraction. One of the dead, for example, pays piecewise to experience a head cold, along with pay-as-you-go sneezes, merely because it is something to break up the monotony of eternity. This issue of class and consumption seems to permeate the show but never really goes anywhere. It is difficult to read it as much of a critique. Instead, it is simply a very slightly exaggerated version of our online worlds today.
Perhaps luckily, at present we are unable to carry anything near our full consciousness into the digital realm. Nonetheless, our ghosts—the digital ephemera that make up our lives—do continue on. In Upload, dead Nathan is owned by his girlfriend. His existence is largely permitted through her continual payments for upkeep, and—as she makes clear at one point—she therefore has the capability of simply “deleting” him. Anyone who is spending their time in gaming worlds during their isolation knows the desire for virtual objects is far from a distant future concern. And the question of who owns “you” when you have passed on is already a bit of a mess. The question of virtual consumption runs through the show. What would a dead person want with a Taco Bell chalupa? It hardly seems like the kind of question we would expect to have to ask about our afterlives, but Upload introduces a world in which such questions kind of make sense. The bigger issues of spirituality, of truth, of respect are given short shrift and our afterlives are governed by hollow simulations of hollow pre-death existences.
Nathan has very little when he leaves the living world, in part because it seems his intellectual property may have been absconded with. Indeed, his living consciousness—incomplete as it may be—seems to be his main asset, and at one point becomes the object of a custody battle. We have already seen this in many real cases, with families battling over how an author’s works may be used, or how a figure may be portrayed once they are deceased. Many of us may assume that we lack the kinds of intellectual or social contributions that would matter after we have passed, but Upload highlights the ways in which even trivial markers of ourselves remain important to those who care about us. We may never come to the point where we can export our consciousness to a hard drive, but we can be assured that an ever greater part of our recorded existence will outlive our physical bodies. The ways in which we shape and regulate the use of these digital remembrances now will have an effect on how our future selves can be used.
As a sitcom with a tendency toward the most obvious sight gags, it is unlikely that Upload will be embraced as a kind of future probe in the way that Black Mirror, Altered Carbon, Westworld, or other series have been. It is hard, though, to leave the show without wondering what will happen in your own digital afterlife in a world where more and more of our selves are wrapped up in what we create technologically—our social media pages, our Spotify playlists, our email correspondence, our Animal Crossing homes, our Pinterest boards, our financial transactions, video recordings of our work happy hours, biometrics from our workouts, our trips on Waze, or the traces of our daily routines in the records of the increasingly smart cities and organizations around us.
We may be relatively far off from the point where our digital ghosts think for themselves and act on their own behalf, but our legacies will live on, kept alive through the efforts of both the people who wish our memories to linger and the technologies that allow that to happen. At least for now, our digital afterlife is in the hands of the living: those who plan for their own afterlives ahead of time, and those who care for the afterlives of others once they have passed.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.