Discover more from Everything Is Horrible
Upload Shows How Anticapitalism Without Antiracism Is Awkwardly Unreal
Amazon's neoliberal AI future has a few glitches in the programming.
Amazon Prime’s Upload is a light romantic comedy set in a near-future capitalist tech dystopia. The show, which dropped its second season recently, is forthright about the evils of exploitation and the mechanisms whereby, even amidst abundance, the rich grind the majority into poverty. It’s smart, funny, insightful, well-acted, inventive, and eminently binge-worthy.
In one regard, though, the future of Upload does seem better than the present—there’s no racism. The show has a fairly substantial Black cast, including Andy Allo as Nora, the female protagonist, Zainab Johnson as her best friend Aleesha, and a range of other characters. But neither they nor their white counterparts discuss race or racism. The world of Upload is functionally post-racial and color-blind.
The improbable anticipated triumph over bigotry is never talked about directly. But it shapes the entire series, in which a white man is the main victim of a violent economic regime which is simultaneously nightmarish and too good to be true.
In the first season, app developer Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) is in a suspicious self-driving car accident. He’s badly injured, and his girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), convinces him to upload his consciousness to the expensive digital resort/afterlife of Lakeview. He’s guided through his new digital existence by his “angel,” aka Nora, a customer service rep. The two slowly but inevitably fall in love.
Lakeview has numerous amazing amenities, from maple bacon donuts to an infinite staff of subservient bellhops (all played by Owen Daniels.) But not having a real body gets old fast, especially when you’re constantly bombarded with ads and have to pay for every extra. While wealthy clients live in sprawling luxury, the poor are relegated to a bare windowless basement, where they have to survive on 2G of data a month. The food is terrible—no maple bacon donuts for them—and they don’t even have enough money to daydream.
Nora and Nathan discover that Nathan’s memories have been tampered with. He was targeted for murder after he developed code that would allow people to upload into a digital afterlife for free, threatening a $600 billion industry. In the second season, the two connect with a resistance movement called the Ludds and try to foil the nefarious schemes of wealthy asshole David Choak (William B. Davis), a delightfully unsubtle stand-in for radical billionaire right-wing donors the Koch brothers.
The rich in Upload literally control reality. They use that control to torture the poor in horrifically banal ways, continuously extracting more and more money from those who can least afford it. But in the future, unlike in the present, they do not use that control to enforce a racist hierarchy.
When Nathan first wakes up in Lakeview to his digital life, he is disoriented and frightened. Nora, as a disembodied voice, starts to explain the Lakeview amenities. But Nathan interrupts abruptly to ask if the hotel comes with slaves. Nora reprimands him for even asking the question and then carefully disavows any possible racial or racist politics in Lakeview or in the show. She assures Nathan that it’s the wrong period and of course there are no enslaved people.
The disavowal and the reassurance from a Black woman are necessary, I think, because the truth is that the mechanics and history of slavery do hover over Lakeview, though robbed of a specific racial context. The AI “servant”, for example, is not paid, and appears to be sentient to some degree. That at least raises the question of forced labor.
More explicitly, though, Nathan himself is in a position analogous in some ways to slavery. Ingrid is the one who finances his upload and his ongoing afterlife, and that gives her coercive power over him. She is controlling and narcissistic, and he wants to break up with her. But if he does, she can literally delete him—as she threatens to do at least once.
Nathan’s luxurious surroundings mask a position of complete coercive dependency. In return for his life, he has to perform physical, emotional, and sexual subservience. In short, he is in the position of many Black women under slavery.
According to scholar David Higgins, a narrative in which white people take on the oppression of people of color is known as a reverse colonization fantasy. The War of the Worlds is the most famous example; it’s a story about how Martians invade Britain and treat the British the way the British treated the inhabitants of their own imperial possessions.
More recently, Higgins argues, reverse colonization narratives have often taken the form of psychic, existential colonization stories like The Matrix or Total Recall. In these films, white or white-appearing protagonists are imprisoned in false realities. Mass incarceration of people of color is abstracted and generalized; everybody is in prison, and everybody must free themselves. The moral is a kind of All Lives Matter of consciousness. If you look at the big picture, isn’t everybody oppressed as much as Black people are oppressed, man?
Upload is broadly in that tradition. Nathan is impoverished and imprisoned in a false reality, and his suffering negates and erases his whiteness. Indeed, it negates and erases race as a category altogether. Nora initially thinks that Nathan is a privileged, callous jerk, and says she doesn’t like people from LA. But the script is careful to never suggest that she may, justifiably, see Nathan as privileged because he is white.
Even the horrible, openly bigoted David Choak is only bigoted towards poor people. He refers to the less fortunate as “peasants” and treats them with hyperbolic contempt. But his sole brief indulgence in racist animus is an offhand nostalgic reference to Amos ‘n’ Andy. His fiendish plot in season 2 (which I am going to spoil here) involves disenfranchising voters who might cast ballots against oligarchy. But the voters he wants to eliminate are poor people. There is no mention of disenfranchising Black voters, even though historically, and to this day, Black voters have been the main target of voter suppression efforts.
So, why is this a problem? The wealthy really do oppress the poor. If Upload gets that right, why should we ask it to address racism as well?
Unfortunately, anticapitalism without antiracism tends to drift towards fascism. Reverse colonial narrative, as Higgins explains, have become central to current reactionary movements. Incels, right-wing militias, and Donald Trump all love to portray themselves as oppressed colonized victims of a vast left-wing media conspiracy. The fantasy of white disempowerment justifies any excess of violence in the name of liberation.
The show does address the dangers of fascism in the anticapitalist movement. The Ludds are mainly led by fairly friendly hippie sorts. But they also include a vocal group of violent, cult-like, patriarchal extremists. Again, though, the refusal to engage with racism obscures what’s at stake. The leader of the cult is Black, as are many of its members. This effectively defuses any potential discussion of ecofascism’s connection to white supremacy, even as the show uncomfortably embraces tropes about irrational Black revolutionary violence.
Upload isn’t the only near-future dystopia that sidesteps race. Amazon’s excellent Severance also presents a future rapacious capitalist regime that is weirdly color-blind. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale is about a Christian nationalist US regime that somehow has cast off American Christian nationalism’s vicious history of white supremacy.
Creators who want to focus on capitalism or on sexism may simply want to bracket racism as too complicated, or too likely to distract, from their main concerns. But if you don’t acknowledge and think about racism, you end up unintentionally appropriating Black experiences of oppression and even reproducing racist stereotypes. As Upload is well aware, when your fantasies are too disconnected from reality, they can harm you in ways you hadn’t imagined.
First published March 2022.
Everything Is Horrible is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.