The “Upgrade My Body” trope is one that is frequent in science fiction and other speculative media. This trope generally involves the notion of leaving the disabled or ageing body behind in order to transfer consciousness into another, more “durable” form. This form can involve a robot, android, clone, or another person’s body.
I have been thinking of this trope since reading the new comic book adaptation of The Jetsons (DC comics, 2018), where the authors have changed the storyline of The Jetsons to have Rosie (the family robot/maid) actually be George Jetson’s mother, who decided that her body was deteriorating so she euthanized herself and uploaded her consciousness into a robotic body. Although this trope can be a space for imagining different bodies, it has an inherently ableist ideology underlying it—the notion that the disabled body is not sufficient and that people need to upload into a more able body. It also has implications for the relationship between euthanasia and disability, which has been fraught with issues. I will expand on the issues with disability and euthanasia below.
Although currently a science fictional idea, the notion of uploading one’s consciousness into a robotic form and then euthenizing the original body has already started having implications in the real world. Nectome, a company founded in 2016 by MIT AI researchers has created a process for preserving brains, where the brain would be vitrifixed and then, according to Sam Altman, the chief executive of Y Combinator (who is working with Nectome), the brain will be uploaded to the cloud. As Alex Hern from The Guardian observes in the article, Startup wants to upload your brain to the cloud, but has to kill you to do it , “There is one pretty large downside. In order for the vitrification process to preserve a brain well enough to leave hope of accurate upload or revival, it has to be carried out at the moment of death. Or, more precisely, it has to be the cause of death.” According to Hern, Nectome has already been looking into states with “death with dignity” statutes as spaces to offer this.
However, there are issues with “death with dignity” and “euthanasia” laws where it pertains to disability. The offering of euthanasia to disabled people is contingent on the idea that there is no value of life possible for the disabled person, and, unfortunately, in our society, because of ableist policies and social beliefs, it is challenging to live as a disabled person. Medically-assisted death is also often pushed by medical practitioners who believe that there is no life worth living with a disability, and this can lead to pressure toward medically-assisted death. Indeed, Disability Studies scholar and disability activist Catherine Frazee observes that: “Doctors, at times, have killed. This is fact. Often, when they have killed or harmed, they have not acted alone, but as agents of state authority. With all of their immense skill and influence, doctors have played indispensable roles in residential schools and asylums in Canada, comfort stations in Southeast Asia, enhanced interrogation facilities at Guantánamo Bay, and extermination centres in Nazi Germany. People with disabilities have suffered violence and harm at the hands of doctors, parents and caregivers. Sometimes, as with Satoshi Uematsu in Sagamihara, Japan, the world has instantly recoiled in horror. Sometimes, as with parent Robert Latimer in Saskatchewan, a court of law might ultimately uphold conviction, but not before public opinion solidifies in support of the perpetrator.” (). Frazee points out the dangers of medical power and the influence that a lab coat can have on people who are already vulnerable.
Tropes like “Upgrade My Body” continue to replicate the idea that the only solution for disability is death (what is called the Better Dead than Disabled Trope in Disability Studies), and presents disabled lives as insufficient.
This trope provides a space for people to think that the mind and the disabled body are separate from one another (something often called a Cartesian dichotomy because it separates mind and body like the philosopher Descartes does). By thinking of the mind as separate from the body, consciousness is limited to the mind and the body is treated as a machine whose only purpose is to keep the mind functioning. The problem with this, of course, is that consciousness is distributed and not confined to a singular organ (the brain), but rather spread through neurons throughout the body, constructed not only of neural impulses, but also of the vast amount of hormones and chemicals spread through the body. Of course, this assumption also projects the disabled body as something that is broken and can be fixed by an upgrade, as though the body is a used item to trade in for a better model when it comes out.
The assumption of a separation between mind and body also leads to ableist descriptions of disabled people, and a good example of this is the rhetoric around Stephen Hawking, who, throughout his life and upon his death was described as being a “great mind trapped in a disabled body”, and similar rhetoric. These ideas were responsible for the vast outpouring of people saying that he was better off dead and was no longer “trapped in his body”, namely, they were suggesting that he was better dead than disabled. Newspapers like the New York Times created articles titled “Stephen Hawking Dies at 76; His Mind Roamed the Cosmos”, celebrities like Gal Godot stated, “Rest in peace Dr. Hawking. Now you’re free of any physical constraints… Your brilliance and wisdom will be cherished forever,” and artists like Mitchell Toy portrayed images of Stephen Hawking walking away from his wheelchair into the cosmos, suggesting that death was an escape from disability. All of these portrayals make assumptions that disabled lives are not enough and separate the mind of Stephen Hawking from his body. This is also a distancing technique—by focussing on the mind of Dr. Hawking as something separate from his body, people are trying to distance his accomplishments from his disability. They assume that he achieved things in spite of his disability, rather than achieving them as a disabled person. This rhetoric around successful disabled people is often used to reinforce the notion that disabled people are incapable, but that there are rare “disabled heroes” who are able to transcend disability.
The “Upgrade My Body” trope fits in with this separation of consciousness from the disabled body, projecting the idea that the disabled body is insufficient and only holding back the mind of the disabled person.
Although this trope normally focusses on the idea of an upgraded body, there are some versions of this trope that involve getting rid of the body altogether and creating a cyber presence. A good example of this trope is the Black Mirror episode San Junipero, where an ageing disabled woman debates whether to euthanize her body and permanently upload herself into a virtual reality where she becomes non-disabled and young (appearing in her early 20s), and thus erasing both age and disability in order to become the socially defined norm.
Derek Newman-Stille is the seven-time Prix Aurora Award winning creator of Speculating Canada. He is completing his PhD at Trent University, researching representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. Derek is the editor of the upcoming anthologies: Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales From the Margins and We Shall Be Monsters: Frankenstein Two Centuries On. Derek has published in fora like Quill & Quire, The Canadian Fantastic in Focus, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Misfit Children: An Inquiry into Childhood Belongings, The Playground of Lost Toys, and Accessing the Future.