“Life imitates art” has become uncomfortably true in the two short years between the first and second seasons of Greg Daniels’ sci-fi comedy “Upload.”
The series follows recently deceased computer programmer Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) as he attempts to navigate Lakeview, the digital afterlife space created by a company called Horizen. The first season debuted in 2020, when rumblings of the “metaverse” had yet to make it into the zeitgeist. Since then, the company previously known as Facebook has rebranded as Meta — even taking a few pages from Daniels’ book.
“It’s kind of hilarious that Facebook is now calling their metaverse Horizon a couple years after we did,” Daniels told Variety, referencing the company’s free virtual reality game Horizon Worlds which was released in December 2021.
“The nugget of the idea is that if you could technologically record people’s minds, and then reconstitute them in a metaverse where they live full-time, then you would basically be able to create heaven,” Daniels said. “Because people would be able to persist as long as the computers were powered up. They would be safely in the metaverse.”
“But if that was the case,” he continued, “then human beings would be making it. [So] it would not be fair. It would be for profit. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a great metaphor.’ Just to talk about how there’s a lot of unfairness already in the distribution of technology and the good things in life.”
Thus, Lakeview is utopic on the surface, but it also showcases the horrific inequalities created by capitalism with more fervor as the series progresses. It costs a lot of money to “upload” one’s conscience into the afterlife. The premise first emerged to Daniels when he was coming up with sketches as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” in the late ‘80s, and he developed it further during the 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike, intending it as a dramatic science fiction novel. The project fell to the back burner when “The Office” took off on NBC. But Daniels continued to consider the idea of uploading, and he realized he could find humor in his dystopia thanks to his Gen-Z children.
“There used to be a thing called Club Penguin, which my kids were playing,” he said. “My daughter came to me and said, “I need 99 cents to buy a TV for my igloo.’ And I realized in that moment that if the tech companies hosted a digital world that you lived in, they would try to monetize it relentlessly, and there’d be in-app purchases for everything. And that was a very funny thought. That really helped make it more of a comedy.”
When it comes to the moral implications of “Upload” or the metaverses that tech companies are building today, Daniels likens himself to Nora, the “Upload” character played by Nora Antony. She works as a Lakeview customer service rep and fears what Horizen and other corporations are capable of, but still believes that a more egalitarian digital afterlife is worth fighting for.
“There’s a lot of science fiction that’s just dystopia. A very negative view of the future,” Daniels said. “And the opposite of that is a utopia, where you think everything is going to be perfect… I’m somewhere in the middle between those two. When products are rolled out with great fanfare, I’m always thinking, ‘Well, how could that go wrong?’ But on the other hand, it is exciting to think of positives too. In the show, Nora, she’s a real believer in how terrific it is to upload. Because she lost her mom [already], and her dad is sick, so she’s pretty desperate to upload her dad. You see the promise and the potential in all the tech.”
“I’ve been urging [Amazon] to try and get into the upload business as fast as possible,” Daniels said, as “Upload” streams on Amazon Prime Video. He is cautiously optimistic about metaverse technology and even believes a world like “Upload” could exist in real life — and much of his research on the topic comes from the cybersecurity professionals and library of knowledge Amazon gave him access to. When asked if he would himself would upload if digital afterlife technology existed, Daniels said yes, despite the dark consequences explored in his show — like the reveal that Nathan was murdered for attempting to develop an afterlife that poor people could access for free.
“Yeah, I think I would do it. But I would look at it more like any sort of medical intervention,” he said. “No matter how religious you are, if you were so religious that you wouldn’t have open heart surgery, because [you think] God wanted you to have a heart attack, that’s too religious for my tastes. I think you could also say God gave us the brains to invent eyeglasses so that we’re not eaten by lions that we didn’t see. That’s one way of looking at all the technology, but you also have to make sure that it’s got an ethical dimension, where the most important thing is how it affects the people who are using it.”