Upload's vision of the future is terrifying -- and entirely plausible

Commentary: This Amazon Prime show features a Nokia and Taco Bell conglomerate pushing Gordita Crunches in the afterlife. I can believe that.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
4 min read

Upload is darkly ridiculous, but kind of plausible.

Amazon Prime Video

Upload, a series on Amazon Prime Video that premiered Friday, starts with a concept that would fit right into a Black Mirror episode: the ability to live your life beyond death through a digital avatar in a virtual reality simulation. 

Given that Upload's creator, Greg Daniels, ran the US version of The Office, you'd expect a ton of belly laughs and awkward humor. And while it is darkly funny, the show has some pointed things to say about how technology has overrun our lives. 

The show focuses on Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell), an app developer who gets into a big accident while riding in his self-driving car and is convinced (pressured) by his girlfriend to upload his consciousness into digital form rather than undergo surgery and risk death. The show half plays out in Lakeview, a VR simulation of a picturesque slice of old-fashioned Americana, awash in warm colors, with the other half in the colder, bleaker real world, seen largely through the eyes of Nora Antony (Andy Allo), who serves as Nathan's concierge.

CNET's Richard Trenholm says that Upload shows flashes of imagination and heart, even if its mix of silly humor and deeper explorations into the plight of technology don't always mix well. 

Love it or hate it, Upload smartly employs tech that's just out of reach today, but that seems wholly plausible in the near future. 

And while some of the tech is played for laughs, some of it is downright nightmarish. It's worth breaking down just how technology gets acknowledged on the show. 

Spoiler alert: I won't get too deep into Upload's plot, but if you want to remain completely in the dark about the show and some of the little details that make up its universe, I'd avoid going any further. 

spoiler alert

OK, still with me? Let's go. 

Horizen - The company behind the Lakeview simulation is clearly a stand-in for Verizon, the nation's largest wireless carrier.

There are references to the well-to-do enjoying "unlimited data" in their experience. But even the plush Lakeview experience is littered with ads to buy a new taco or mint candy. Buying virtual clothes or using a digital golf club costs extra, and feels just like an in-app purchase or upgrade in the latest video game. 

One terrifying aspect is being too poor to afford the full Lakeview experience and being stuck on a "2 Gig" plan with limited data. You're trapped in a plain, white floor of the hotel, and have access to the first few pages of a scattering of free books. If you do things like express too much emotion or even think too hard, you eat up your data. Run out, and your avatar is frozen for the month, until it resets. 

The 2 Gig plans sound like the budget plans of old, where a carrier would throttle down the access to your phone if you hit your monthly limit. 

Smartphones - By 2033, phones have evolved to become just bracelets on your wrist. You hold out your thumb and forefinger, and a virtual screen appears (I'm not sure how gaming works on this). Presumably, at this point, voice command actually works the way it's supposed to. 

Nitely - The Tinder-like app is regularly referenced and used in the show, suggesting that it's one of the main ways people hook up (so... not so different from today). But apparently the practice of hooking up and moving on is so prevalent that one male character notes that wanting to get to know someone before having sex feels "perverted."

VR suits - We're already building things like gloves with tactile feedback, and Upload embraces that concept with wet suit-like gear that living people use to get intimate with a partner who's already uploaded. 

Upping the degree of ickiness is the fact that you usually rent these suits. Gross. 


Robbie Amell explores a corporate-branded afterlife in Upload.

Amazon Prime Video

Google Samsung and 3D-printed food - There are a ton of references to oddly merged companies, but Google and Samsung getting together actually makes sense. In the world of Upload, these companies have added 3D-printed food to their vast portfolio of businesses. One character notes that the dish he's printing is available only on  Google   Samsung , so it's nice to know exclusivity remains a thing in the future. 

Dangerous self-driving cars - There remains a lot of debate over the safety of self-driving cars, and companies like Uber and Alphabet are working to make them safe. In the world of Upload, that debate has already been squashed, and Los Angeles freeways are filled with them. 

They're widely seen as safe, so Nathan's self-driving car getting into an accident kicks off a mystery that spans the season. 

But a secondary character also dies via a self-driving car, proving that it can be an effective murder weapon. 

Nokia Taco Bell - This merger isn't quite as plausible as Google Samsung, largely because Taco Bell is already part of a larger conglomerate called Yum Brands and  Nokia  has exited the consumer phone business and now focuses solely on telecom equipment. 

But the fact that the two companies have joined forces to create a virtual Gordita Crunch for people in the digital afterlife feels kind of real, doesn't it?

Oscar Mayer Intel - Sandwich meats and semiconductors? Why isn't this a deal yet? The combination of cutting-edge technology and meat actually plays into a plot point early in the show, even if it leads to a graphic and disgusting conclusion. 

AT&TT - Of all the companies, AT&T gets off the easiest. It's just a basic phone company -- no dead people here! But what's that extra T for? Perhaps it finally got to buy T-Mobile ?

In a show played for laughs, the fact that some of these predictions are plausible is testament to the absurdity of our current tech landscape and, well, everything. But that's 2020 for you.