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Upload September 8, 2020

As I worked on a book chapter about afterlife and resurrection at the intersection between the Bible and science fiction, and had begun another book chapter about afterlife and resurrection in Black Mirror, the television series Upload was released and provided a great deal of interesting food for thought that touched on the same themes. The series manages to engage with serious issues pertaining to ethics and technology, including their religious aspect, while also being genuinely funny. Here are just a few observations for those who have watched the series and enjoyed it, and want to think further on the religious elements.

Lake View in the TV series Upload promises that the best days of your life could be after it is over. In the first episode a character mentions that a relative is in heaven, which leads to the question in response, “Which one?” Upload has self-driving cars that can be set to prioritize occupant or pedestrian which intersects with another big research interest of mine. After an extremely improbable accident in a self-driving vehicle, the main character Nathan Brown has to choose at the hospital between going to the OR or going to the Upload room. His religion is listed as non-denominational charismatic Christian, but he prefers a bowling alley to a chapel customized for his stated religious preference.

In the digital afterlife in Lake View the personal assistant (a real person who appears in the digital realm through an avatar) is referred to as “angel.” Throughout there is language that makes this experience significant, as of course it must be, and overlays it with religious vocabulary. It is a “big day: you died and were reborn.”

This afterlife offers in-app purchases to occupants, such as when Nathan wants coffee. (The very fact that the desire for coffee is there in this context could be a study in itself.) His girlfriend who sponsored his upload and visits with him there says she is not afraid to say she loves him now, since she isn’t afraid of scaring him off now that he is locked into an afterlife with her.

Imperfections are said to make Horizen’s Lake View more like real life. There is discussion of the advertising being inaccurate.

Nora Antony (Nathan’s “angel”/assistant) says: “Life is the most magical gift there is…And, if there’s God, he’s amazing ’cause he gave us life, and the gratitude and creativity to keep it going for as long as we possibly can.” A digital afterlife can thus be a pointer towards rather than away from God.

What richness in just the first episode for those interested in the intersections between religion and science fiction and/or theology and technology!

Episode 2 features a therapy dog (voiced by someone in the real world employed by Horizen) who says that life isn’t fair even in Upload’s digital afterlife. When Nathan realizes he is missing memories, the response is that he must be “death lagged.” We learn that Nathan had been working on a freeware version of what Lake View offers before he died. Called “Beyond,” this freeware would have threatened a $6 billion/year industry. Was he murdered? One of his deleted memories relates to access to the digital afterlife and income inequality, which is wonderful to have as a major theme in the show. The question of how digital afterlife relates to relationships in the world of those still biologically alive, as well as those who do not get uploaded, is another major theme. Nora says at one point that heaven isn’t heaven if her mom isn’t in it, and we learn that her mother’s death is a reason why her father isn’t eager to consider uploading to Lake View (this intersects in interesting ways with the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” which I also highly recommend).

Episode 3 features the first attempted download, i.e. the return of an uploaded mind into a newly-created artificial body, which would mean the potential for endless corporeal life. It doesn’t work. The episode also features Nathan attending his own funeral via a two-way screen. We also learn that since Ingrid pays for the upload and extras, she could delete him.

Episode 4 features Nathan’s interaction with one of the very wealthy Choke brothers who says he lived a life of purpose and this is his reward. Conversely we hear of the “2Gigs” who have the lowest quality of digital afterlife. 5 pages of free preview of books is included for free, and if you run out of time you are frozen until the next month. Capitalism is thus a major factor in the digital afterlife. Nathan comments, “These people don’t deserve this.” He becomes seized with a desire to do something to help them, even if only by bringing some of his unlimited breakfast buffet to them.

The relationship between a living person and an upload is described as the “ultimate long distance relationship.” Nathan says Ingrid literally owns him.

In Episode 6 we get to see more of the real world in the time period in which this series is set. As Nathan’s young niece Nevea turns out, invited to Ingrid’s home for a meal, to never have encountered a chicken bone before, the comment is made that not everyone can afford unprinted food. We also get a sense of the ways that digital existence are found to lack some of the richness of biological existence. For example, an uploaded person who has been there a long time pays to be able to experience having a cold.

In Episode 7, Nora’s father pays a visit to the digital realm. When Nathan says that it’s not the real world and not heaven, Nora’s father agrees and adds that when Nathan died, his soul went to the real heaven, meaning that his upload/avatar has no soul.

In episode 8 Nora tells Nathan that he is in heaven and can walk on water. He believes her and walks straight off the pier…and splash. In episode 9, a very rich individual we were introduced to previously, Mr. Choke, talks about how his father brought him up to believe that God favors the prosperous. He does this after finding a hidden Easter egg in an activity for Lake View residents that makes him slightly richer. Unfairness continues in the afterlife.

Episode 10 is the season finale. I’ll just say that it offers some revelations and some cliffhangers, and recommend the series if you haven’t seen it. If you haven’t seen Upload yet, go watch it. If you have, please share your thoughts about it in the comments section!

 


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