On Max Headroom

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This week OTM reflects on a night twenty five years ago when two Chicago television stations' broadcasts were interrupted by the someone posing as the fictional computer generated host “Max Headroom.” But of all the faces available to hide behind, why Max Headroom's? What was it about a disembodied computer program that appealed to the Chicago signal hijacker?

The character of Max Headroom was conceived in 1984 as a futuristic, computer-generated, artificially-intelligent television host who introduced music videos in the U.K. Actor Matt Frewer portrayed Max with the help of heavy video and audio processing, along with cosmetic prosthetics that sharpened the features of the actor's already angular face into something resembling a crude computerized line drawing. In personality, Max was a satirical exaggeration of television's worst tendencies and excesses in the 1980s. Reduced to literally nothing but a talking head, Max was arrogant, fixated on consumer culture and popular media, totally lacking in introspection, and, of course, markedly American.

By 1987 Max was starring in a weekly, visually-striking, urban post-apocalpytic sci-fi series on ABC. I never missed an episode, and I have no doubt that my professional interest in media studies and criticism was ignited by the show. Ostensibly, “Max Headroom” was about a courageous television news reporter, Edison Carter, and his attempts to break big stories with the help of his news director and producer at his network, Network 23. But that tells you very little about what the series actually did. The plot was just a tissue-thin excuse to give voice to a creeping sense of uneasiness about mass media's role in a society where state and private interests seemed to be increasingly muddled.

Each episode began with a curious reminder that what viewers were about to witness was just “20 minutes into the future.” That is to say, much closer than you might imagine. Indeed, the striking thing about watching an episode of “Max Headroom” today is how much of the show's prophetic daydreaming about technology seems to have been perfectly accurate. The world of “Max Headroom” is one in which information circulates through a single global computer network. Edison Carter's producer guides him remotely through urban landscapes by drawing upon a database of instantly available satellite imagery and detailed maps. Computers and televisions are fused into the same device, and everyone has one.

It all seems like such a bright future. So why is everything on the show so dark all the time?

The truly dystopian element of “Max Headroom” was that its weekly nightmarish scenarios were so uncanny, so unsettlingly familiar, plausible, and hideously distorted all at once. In this world, political elections are determined by television ratings, and every network sponsors a corresponding political candidate. (Imagine!) The police act on the orders of private corporations. If there even is a state, it is indistinguishable from a web of private contractors and global businesses. Your rights as a citizen are measured by your credit rating, and credit fraud is one of the most serious crimes. People who refuse to have their lives tracked and recorded in computer records live as quasi-fugitives.  Every wonderful new technology of convenience seemed to constrain its users' liberties more and more strictly. The social criticism wasn't exactly subtle.

Even more explicit were “Max Headroom's” pointed jabs at mass media. In one episode, “Dream Thieves,” a new start-up cable network discovers a way to finally cut the burdensome cost of producing original content. Using newly developed medical technology, the company simply harvests fantasies and dreams directly from the minds of poor people for rebroadcast to audiences. (Is there any better way to describe the worst aspects of “reality TV” or YouTube?) The dream harvesting machine happens to be located in the ruins of an abandoned movie theater. As one of the harvestees remarks, “[It's i]ronical, isn't it? People used to come here to get their dreams. Now they come here to give them up.”

Perhaps most disturbing of all was the show's explanation for how the strangely charming, irrepressible character of Max Headroom was created. One day the reporter Edison Carter finds evidence that his network is airing dangerous content that literally kills viewers. Before he can break the story, Carter is knocked unconscious and brought before Network 23 President Ned Grossberg (brilliantly played by the late Charles Rocket).  Grossberg demands to know definitively whether or not Carter saw proof of the network's mass mediated manslaughter, and orders that the reporter's mind be digitally copied and reviewed. The process takes longer than President Grossberg can stand to wait, so the network president orders that his star reporter be killed. The killing is botched, and Carter's digital copy becomes “Max Headroom,” takes up residence in the network's computers, breaks into live broadcasts and mocks the network on air and becomes a regular feature of Network 23.  The profoundly dark conclusion to this origin story is that Carter recovers from his injuries... and goes back to work for the company that tried to kill him. Why? Because if he's truly committed to his journalistic mission of publicizing the truth, then he can't do without the institutional backing of a thoroughly corrupt global television network.

But if Edison Carter is hopelessly trapped by a corrupt system, then what of Max?  At first glance, Max is a kind of superhero for the computer age. As Professor Donna Haraway shrewdly observed in 1988, this digitized consciousness is uniquely capable of perceiving the world's developing global network of interconnected public and private powers precisely because he is liberated from the constraints of a human body. Without flesh that can be subjected to discipline, Max has no reason to repress lewd passing thoughts, childish associations or shockingly bold criticism of the company upon whose computer networks he depends for his survival. The ultimate shock jock, audiences idolized and envied Max for his apparently unlimited irreverence, his ability say anything about his boss and get away with it. No wonder his face seemed appropriate for an act of broadcast hacking.

But that's not the whole story. The reason Network 23 allowed Max Headroom on the air was precisely because audiences identified with his disdain for his own conditions. And thanks to Max's popularity, Network 23 became the most watched and most profitable network on the planet. Even the freest person in the world cannot bring down something so perverse as a company that manages to profit and grow stronger from acts of disobedience.

Indeed, since the Chicago signal hijackings of 1988, America's television and movie industry has deftly co-opted the sympathetically subversive character of the brave but slightly nerdy pirate broadcaster who hijacks radio and television with the right technology and a hacker's ingenuity. Think of the simultaneously terrifying and truly funny appearance of Jack Nicholson's Joker breaking into television broadcasts with an “advertisement” for poisoned cosmetics in Batman (1989). Think of Christian Slater's portrayal of a quiet high school student who finds an outlet for his anxieties and frustrations by taking to the airwaves with his own radio talk show in Pump Up the Volume (1990). Or Hackers (1995). And so on. By now, this character has appeared in so many forms, it's practically a boring cliché.