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How ‘The Office’ creator Greg Daniels designed the future in his new Amazon Prime show, ‘Upload’

‘Upload’ is a comedic new Amazon Prime series that deals with the digital afterlife. Creator Greg Daniels reveals how he designed five elements of the near future in which the show is set.

How ‘The Office’ creator Greg Daniels designed the future in his new Amazon Prime show, ‘Upload’
[Photo: Aaron Epstein/Amazon Studios; rawpixel]

Presently, the closest thing to a marketing campaign for heaven is the Bible.

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Perhaps not for long, though.

The new Amazon Prime series Upload, which takes place about 15 years from now, opens with an ad for one telecom brand’s version of the digital afterlife—which cribs a lot of notes from what people tend to think of as heaven.

Welcome to the future, which is somehow even more heavily commodified than pre-COVID-19 2020.

The world of Upload, which was created by Greg Daniels—the TV wizard behind some of your favorite shows such as The Office, King of the Hill, and Parks and Recreation—looks a lot like ours. Their earbuds resemble AirPods, the phones do roughly the same things, and zipping between some of the super-sleek, self-driving cars is the occasional pickup truck.

Unlike our reality, however, nobody on their deathbeds currently has to read a terms of service sheet before their consciousness can be uploaded to an electronic plane of existence.

Daniels has been designing some of the elements of his imagined future, both grounded and otherwise, since he first had the spark of the idea, while writing for SNL in the late 1980s. He wasn’t sure what to do with the concept, however, and so he only occasionally added notes to a file until the 2008 writers’ strike. For a couple months, he teased out the idea more seriously. It was only about a year after The Office ended its run, however, in 2014, that Daniels wrote the pilot and moved to get the series off the ground.

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Only at that point did he truly get out into the weeds to find the trenchant capitalism satire in a future where tech companies offer competing versions of what afterlife you’ll get for your dollar.

“The most fun part is imagining that if this upload technology exists, okay, now what are the implications? How would it change everything?” Daniels says when we speak by phone. “People would have to be saving up for it, because they’d definitely want to upload to the right place. You’d be looking at every expenditure on earth, and you’d be saying, ‘Do I really need to spend that to make my lawn look nice when whatever lawn I’m going to have, I might have for 300 years in this digital life extension?'”

Daniels, who thought he might grow up to be a New York Times science reporter back in college, has given a lot of thought to the technological and corporate architecture of the future—and infused his thought experiments with jokes. In Upload, Orbit adbots follow consumers to the great beyond, and Oscar Mayer sponsors technology that attempts to bring you back from it.

As Upload premieres on Amazon Prime, Fast Company asked Daniels to talk about the ideas behind five elements he’s imagined for his speculative comedy set in the mid-2030s.

[Photo: Aaron Epstein/Amazon Studios]

Jamie Oliver-designed steak dinner

In lieu of a microwave, one character on the show has a 3D printer in the kitchen, which he uses to print a juicy steak dinner designed by a Samsung-sponsored celebrity chef.

“I did a good bit of research into what was coming, and it seemed like 3D printing was gonna be very big,” Daniels says. “So a lot of designing the future here is just kind of going, ‘All right, well if 3D printers are as widespread as microwaves, wouldn’t it be cool if you could print your dinner? Then all the celebrity chefs could just tweet out a recipe, and you’d plug it into your 3D printer, and it would print out that night?’ Or at least that’s what would happen as long as you kept your fat cartridges full.”

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Vape lung

The life-threatening condition one character on the show faces is even more true-to-life now than it was originally intended.

“A lot of the things that I originally put into the pilot as jokes have come about already,” Daniels says. “The cast and I have a text chain where they just point out, ‘Oh shit, look what’s happening! It happened!’ For instance, there’s a joke in there that Nora’s (Andy Allo) dad has ‘vape lung,’ which is the actual term now. And to me, it was just a joke. Like, everybody was saying, ‘Vaping is a healthy alternative to smoking’ at the time, so my joke was that it actually causes a disease called vape lung. We shot that in January of 2018, and then sometime after that it came out that, yep, that’s a thing.”

[Photo: courtesy of Amazon Studios]

Panera Bread domination

The titans of the broccoli cheddar soup lunch apparently have big things ahead of them, as we see in one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it news item within Upload.

“One of the funny-to-me aspects about this future is that the Panera Bread restaurant has gotten incredibly aggressive and buying all these companies and making a huge conglomerate,” Daniels said. “It’s just one of those things where you know how brands go up and down, it just seems unexpected.”

Bloomingdale’s bodega

If Panera Bread is on the rise in the future, though, one particular upscale clothing retailer is passing by on the downslope.

“Good old Bloomingdale’s,” Daniels says, laughing a little. “I felt like, for some reason, they obviously had suffered some reversals, and now it was just the bodega on the corner, but it still had the same brown bags. I think it’s a joke for New Yorkers more than anybody else.”

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[Photo: courtesy of Amazon Studios]

Drone motorcycle cops

Misbehaving motorists who want to avoid tickets might not just be looking for sirens in the rearview mirror in the future of Upload. They’ll have to also keep their eyes on the skies.

“In all the science fiction of the 1960s, everybody was in a flying car. So everybody who grew up on that stuff is like, ‘Where’s my flying car?’ Everyone thought that was coming,” Daniels says. “That’s part of why it’s really fun to do the research. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the drone motorcycle cops in Dubai that are apparently real? They ride these motorcycles with four big drone propellers instead of wheels. It’s crazy, the stuff that’s in prototype form. Remember those old newsreels when everybody was inventing airplanes and they couldn’t decide how many wings they should have? And sometimes they had, like, 15 wings flapping? Sometimes that’s what’s happening with technologies to a degree, like, you can see them and tell right away, ‘Nah, I’m not sure that one’s going to catch on.'”

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