Reviews of Upload and Midnight Gospel

Published: 06/21/2020

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I recently watched Upload and Midnight Gospel. Two shows that inhabit hypothetical worlds I've thought a lot about myself. It was interesting to see them portrayed on screen and I thought I'd write up some of my thoughts about them. This post has some spoilers so if you're interested in a broad recommendation I'd say Upload is worth watching if you think the premise is compelling but is overall pretty medium. It has some pretty good moments and gags though. I thought Midnight Gospel was amazing and highly recommend it. It was a very beautiful and compelling show.


Upload explores a world where brain scanning and uploading technology has been invented. In that sense its like Robin Hanson's the Age of Em. But what follows isn't a series investigation of the likely consequences of this technology but a fun show which is more interested in social commentary than futurology. I've heard it said that all sci-fi is really about the present and this show is no exception. Its bad futurology but good social commentary.

The show is set in the near future. At first I thought it was as near as 2024 because I saw a 2024 Opera-Kamala campaign poster in a scene. But I think its actually sometime in the 2030's. In the show the scanning technology is destructive and is primarily used on people who are about to die. The uploads are treated like they are alive in some ways and like they are dead in others.

The world of upload is a world of extrapolations. A world with fantastical computer technology but outside of that little that would be out of place in the 1970s. Frequent shots of public transit show the same buses and metros we have today. That we had in the first half of the 1900s. Wealth inequality is greater. Corporations have collapsed into even fewer. We hear about "Panera-Facebook" and "Natgeo-Instagram" (One may question how it is that Facebook and Instagram have come to be separate entities in this hypothetical future. Could it be that the show creators didn't know? That the world is already ahead of where the pessimistic show creators projected it? I'm often surprised to hear people reveal that they don't know Facebook owns Instagram. I thought this was somehow a quirk of who I know but if not even this show knows what is going on?) Tinder has become nightly where the expectation of a hook up is even more explicit and understood.

I watched the show essentially because of a Twitter ad which seems appropriate. In the virtual world of the uploads there are still ads. I'm always suspicious of product placement in my dystopian media. Taco bell probably paid to have their burrito blasters advertised to the uploads. I wonder if I can get them to sponsor this blog now that I've mentioned them?

In the world of upload the poor eat fantastically machine generated food while the rich eat traditional food. Just like today when eating 'processed foods' is a marker of low status. A big mac is a miracle of modern technology and supply chains but the only billionaire you'll see eating them is Warren Buffet. Random aside I don't really believe Buffet drinks coke and eats McDonald's. You can see some propaganda material here. But I'm skeptical.

In the real world, the first thing anyone would want to do with a brain on a computer is to put the brain on two computers or to run the computer twice as fast or record the state of the brain and run it from that initial state on different inputs. But somehow those natural ideas don't occur to people in the Upload universe. There are scenes where Nathan Brown, the main character, moves from simulated afterlife to simulated afterlife on a hard drive suggesting somehow the technology they use to simulate humans doesn't allow duplication and doesn't even allow them to be uploaded to the iCloud or something.

The uploads are forbidden from working so as to not make life even harder for the poor living. This is definitely the worst futurology of the show and where the show departs most dramatically from the Age of Nim. Most of the jobs portrayed in Upload would be done easily by uploads themselves. For instance there are caretakers called angels which help the uploads adjust to and navigate their artificial world. These caretakers are humans wearing VR headsets. But who could do a better job of helping a new upload adjust than another upload who has been there? And the uploads would probably be happy to do the work. In one scene we see an upload actually paying to experience a virtual cold.

But what's really unrealistic about not allowing the uploads to work is that a world that could coordinate around uploads not working is a world in which wealth inequality wouldn't increase to the degree it has. If the citizens of upload world decided uploads couldn't work to keep work for the living they could probably also coordinate around lots of other worker protections. Especially since among possible worker protections, not allowing the vast number of dead people to work has got to be one of the most costly imaginable ones.

Anyway like I said the show is fine but not spectacular. If you think the premise is interesting go for it.

Midnight Gospel

Midnight Gospel is simply beautiful. I unequivocally recommend it. The episodes are edited sound clips from The Duncan Trussel Family Hour (a podcast I hadn't heard of before the show but think I'll listen to now) set over whimsical and breathtaking worlds. The show is set in a world with universe simulators. Over a too brief 8 episodes the protagonist Duncan interviews the creatures he finds on strange simulated worlds. It's just like real life. Everyone has essentially a universe simulator on their desk. Only small universes for now. But so much of what people do with it involves podcasting and blogging and posting. I guess people are doing a huge diversity of things but I only see the things they externalize as a performance.

At the beginning I said the show was set in a hypothetical world I've spent some time thinking about, and the show is basically set in the premise of the simulation argument, that eventually we'll be able to make simulations indistinguishable from reality. But the show isn't interested in exploring whether we're probably in a simulation, its interested in exploring Duncan's freewheeling philosophical discussions with the denizens of these artificial worlds.

The show is cocreated by Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure Time. The show has a similar whimsy and is beautifully animated. In every scene there is just so much going on. The conversation goes where it goes and the animation goes where it goes and the two often seem totally disconnected. I find my attention shifting from the words their saying to the world they inhabit and back again. The show seems like it could be equally enjoyed without visuals (as I suppose the source material was intended to be) or without audio.

Watching the show feels like having a conversation on a walk. My focus goes deeper and deeper into the exchange but every so often its punctuated by the surroundings. Look at that tree, do you smell the Chinese food, is that a Lamborghini? Its a strange sort of trick of attention. I'm always perceiving myself as listening and seeing but when one sense becomes very engrossing I might pass a considerable amount of time without realizing I wasn't sensing the other at all.

The conversations Duncan shares with his guests are intimate and spiritual. They talk of death and love. Psychedelics and mindfulness. The guests were all new to me and had interesting stories. Some of the conversations seemed rooted in a 21st century American context such as discussions on drugs legalization and funeral rites but for the most part the conversations felt at home with the unintelligible animations which frames them.

The show makes me want to do some podcasting myself so if you got this far in my blog you're invited onto the podcast. Send me a message.