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Upload depicts economic inequality in the digital afterlife

There are many shows that deal with a form of the afterlife. From The Good Place to Altered Carbon and Lucifer, each has its own interpretation of Heaven and Hell and what happens to our consciousness when we depart the Earth and our physical human bodies. But none tackles the concept quite like Amazon Prime Video’s original series Upload.

Now with two seasons under its belt, the well-reviewed series, one of the best shows on Amazon Prime Video, is both a comedy and not-so-thinly veiled satirical parody of societal priorities, economic inequality, capitalism, and our worship of the Almighty Dollar. It’s the year 2032, and technology has advanced so impressively that death no longer means a complete departure from the world. Instead, your human consciousness can be uploaded to a digital afterlife community where you continue to exist, and interact with loved ones, as an A.I. being. Through advanced VR glasses and a host of other technological marvels, humans back on Earth can communicate with – and even visit – you within these upload communities.

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Nora wears VR glasses showing Nathan on the screen in a scene from Upload on Amazon Prime.

From a technological perspective, it’s a fascinating scenario that presents opportunities for holding on that much longer to someone special, being able to say goodbye, and sharing memories in ways that weren’t previously possible. But this doesn’t come without a price, both literally and figuratively.

Our propensity toward capitalistic mentalities means that, on the show, businesses and a new type of real estate agent have popped up to offer communities of all kinds where families can register their loved ones – even themselves – after death. Want to live out your afterlife on an exotic virtual beach? Or maybe you want something with cityscapes, or a Zen-like community of calm. It’s the new type of retirement community that goes on forever, or at least until the money well runs dry. There’s the rub: There’s something for everyone … as long as you can afford it.

An agent shows Nathan's mom different digital afterlife communities in Upload on Amazon Prime.

It’s easy to see how such groundbreaking technology could spark an economic divide, favoring the wealthy and neglecting the poor. It’s not only about what after-death experience you choose to have, but whether your family can afford to sign you up at all.

Financial disparity in death

Ingrid in the hospital deciding on death or upload for Nathan in the series Upload on Amazon Prime.

This theme is explored in many ways. Most prominently, it’s through the protagonist Nathan, a young man who finds himself forever tethered to a girlfriend he wanted to break up with because she holds his afterlife purse strings. But there’s also Luke, the veteran who gains special access to a premium community where he doesn’t fit in and can’t afford any upgrades, and Yang, a young woman banished to the 2Gig basement community.

When Nathan’s wealthy girlfriend, Ingrid, convinces him in his dying moments to agree to be uploaded to a lavish digital estate called Lakeview, he finds himself thrust into a world that offers both opportunities and challenges. Like a digital Ritz Carlton, guests have whatever they want at their fingertips. Feel like a filet mignon? No problem! Want to take a steam bath? Head on over. There’s a casino, hair salon – you name it. A.I. Guy, the jovial, overly attentive but dimwitted human form of a digital assistant is there to help with anything you need on site. But there’s a cost your families will incur every time you want something new.

While Lakeview is a paradise, those who don’t have the means either spend what’s left of their existence in a subpar upload community — the postmortem equivalent of relying on a homeless shelter, community housing, or wo-star motel — or simply cease to exist beyond death, much to the despair of their surviving loved ones who jealously watch as others maintain bonds with their departed.

Nathan as a 2Gig in the Amazon Prime series Upload, with only a second remaining of his data.

Even in Lakeview, if your family hits a financial roadblock and can no longer afford to keep you there, you’re sent to a place called 2Gig. While regular residents enjoy unlimited data in the upper part of Lakeview, the blac-and-white underworld gives residents a measly two gigabytes to use every month for free. Every phone call home, every morsel of food, every moment eats up the data allowance, after which you literally become frozen until there’s a reset the following month or a reinvigoration of funds.

The economic divide doesn’t just exist in afterlife communities like Lakeview, but in the real world as well. Horizon runs Lakeview and employs people for a ridiculously low salary to manage the onboarding and day-to-day needs of the uploads. Each Angel, as they are cutely called, has a heavy workload managing dozens of clients, who rate them on a star scale that impacts their salaries and performance reviews. Yet Angels like Nora and Aleesha barely make ends meet with their entry-level salaries. A subplot involves Nora dealing with her ill father who is not long for the world. Ironically, despite Nora’s job, she can’t afford to upload him anywhere worth going once he dies.

Aleesha, with her feet on a desk, talks with Nora as they work in Upload on Amazon Prime.

Much of the second season focuses on a disruptor company called Freeyond that aims to shake up the industry by allowing free uploading to anyone, regardless of their financial status. Capitalists cry socialism while supporters cry equality for all. The anarchist group the Luds, meanwhile, simply cries for an end to digital afterlives, period.

The commercialization of everything

Nora looks at the computer in her hand in a scene from Upload on Amazon Prime.

Freeyond threatens more than just the flat-rate, pay-for-play aspect of the industry, but also the many opportunities for recurring revenue. There’s a constant stream of upsells and add-ons at Lakeview and other afterlife communities that make it similar to if you were living in a mobile game app. You are prompted and prodded to “buy this” or “buy that” at every turn, with ads literally appearing in the air in front of you. At Lakeview, this can include upgraded skins (bigger muscles, better wardrobe), ad-free experiences (pop-up ads promote this constantly), special access, and even visits from family members.

Nathan flexing his muscles, which have been digitally enhanced, in a scene from Upload.

The importance of this pay-for-play strategy is highlighted when Aleesha, Luke’s Angel, finds herself having to constantly keep the troublemaker in line, stopping him from accessing areas he shouldn’t or manipulating deals to get free merchandise. For those paying, it’s a business built on guilt. How could you not want the best for your family member who can no longer enjoy the comforts of the real world?

Further exemplifying corporate greed, decision-makers at Horizon hold meetings to discuss their next moneymaking innovations, which range from digital babies to a service called MindFrisk that captures the racy dreams of uploaded residents and sells the content as a subscription-based streaming service for people who want to indulge their curiosities.

Upload is terrifying, cynical, and clever

Nathan and Nora sitt on a bench together in Lakeview on the Amazon Prime show Upload.

The world, or rather, the afterworld, seen in Upload represents the most cynical, awful, opportunistic form of preying on surviving family members. If we thought upsells to the most expensive coffin, fanciest cremation urn, and biggest funeral package crossed a line, this takes the concept to an entirely new level. The business of death, after all, is one of few that are recession-proof. So, it stands to reason that any opportunity to monetize it would be an attractive one for a business.

Upload is both fascinating and eye-opening, asking questions about how far we might go as a society when it comes to playing God. The moral and ethical questions it raises are ones we probably aren’t quite prepared to tackle just yet.

For now, the future world that Upload presents is good for a laugh. The show is fiercely clever, well-acted, and fun. If nothing else, it’s a wake-up call that maybe when your time is up on this Earth, the best thing for all involved is for your time to truly be up and for surviving family members to be allowed to let go for good.

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