Sunday, February 20, 2011
The headrooming of society
From my childhood to the present, I watched the world grow increasingly science fictiony. But it happened differently than most science fiction stories imagined. Intelligent androids and intergalactic space travel are, at the very least, a long way off, regardless of how many computerized Jeopardy contestants and Mars colonization plans we encounter. Yet the rise of the Internet and cellphones has made our society much more tech-centered than before. I enjoy looking back at old sci-fi that takes place now and seeing what it got right, what it got wrong, and what it didn't even consider.
I kept all this in mind as I viewed the DVD of Max Headroom, the 1987 TV show. Given my vivid memories of the show and its frequent references in popular culture at the time (remember Doonesbury's Reagan parody, Ron Headrest?), I was surprised to learn it ran for barely two seasons of just 14 episodes. The pilot, based on a 1985 British telefilm I still haven't seen, concerns a muckraking TV journalist named Edison Carter who gets into a motorcycle accident after uncovering a scandal at his own network. A young hacker named Bryce, hoping to find out what Edison knows, unloads Edison's mind into a computer, resulting in an artificial version of the reporter. The program's first words, "max headroom," the last words Edison saw before his head collided with a parking garage barrier, become the program's name.
After Edison regains consciousness, Max develops as an independent mind who can travel anywhere on the network at will and can even jump to other networks if given the opportunity. Both he and Edison are played by Matt Frewer, a tall skinny actor with a voice like Kermit the Frog. In his dual role he gives the sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde performance that later made Jim Carrey a star, playing both a withdrawn nerd and a manic, uninhibited personality. Watching the show as an adult, I discovered that I found Max's loud talk-show-host shtick rather grating. As a kid, I think I enjoyed the series mostly for its techno-thriller plots and paid little attention to its not-too-subtle anticorporate satire.
What is the show's vision of the early 21st century? (The time frame is never identified directly, but the pilot gives one big clue, when Bryce, played by an actor of about 16, is said to have been born in 1988--suggesting it takes place around 2004 or so.) It depicts a society literally run by TV networks. In place of an apparently absent government, the networks have their own politicians elected through online voting. Money is measured in "creds" rather than dollars. A subculture of "blanks," people who have escaped registration on the central database, has emerged.
As a single-minded pursuer of truth in a society buried under propaganda, Edison traverses the city carrying around a large wireless camera connected directly to his network, allowing him two-way conversations with operators who can tell him instantly about the dimensions of whatever building he's in and where people in it are located. When conventional technology fails, his electronic alter-ego pops up on computer screens around the city, ready to help out.
I'm always amused at how futuristic speculations turn out to overestimate technological advancement in certain areas and underestimate it in others. In 1989's Back to the Future Part II, for example, we learn that by 2015 we will have flying cars, hoverboards, self-fitting clothes, convincing holograms, etc., etc.--yet the characters still use fax machines. I've come across two early-'90s novels about advanced VR games--Piers Anthony's Killobyte and Vivian Vande Velde's User Unfriendly--in which the gamers still use telephone modems. There's a tendency for futurists to be overconfident about the most exciting developments while failing to predict the obsolescence of everyday objects.
Max Headroom has some of those qualities. The title character is an intelligent, sentient being whose creation depends on advances in A.I. and mind-reading way beyond anything we have today. Yet most of the computer technology on the show looks hopelessly primitive to any real resident of the 21st century. The characters still use floppy disks--no CD-ROMs or flash drives in sight. There are no computer mice and there's no Windows, despite the fact that both existed, if obscurely, in 1987. The hackers communicate with the computers using just a keyboard, hooked to a TV screen displaying block print on a black background. There are lots of vidphones but no cellphones.
Looking at the big picture, though, the series was pretty ahead of its time. Without ever using the word "Internet," it envisioned a society that has gone almost entirely online, with signals transported through air rather than just through wires, with instant communication over long distances even while outdoors, and with a total integration of TV, video, and computers. Topics covered on the show include identity theft, cyberterrorism, video editing, and medically harmful commercials--among other things. Then there is the aforementioned GPS-like navigation tool in buildings, and, perhaps most eerily, bar graphs that get updated in real time.
In its social vision, the show follows the cyberpunk tradition of extreme paranoia about loss of individual rights in a future dominated by big corporations. In one episode, a blank faces execution for a nonlethal computer prank, and he's linked to the crime based on statistical analysis without any direct evidence of his guilt. Another episode has one of the network "politicians" placing blanks in detention camps. Privacy in this universe is almost nonexistent because there are cameras everywhere, even inside people's homes. This all looks a tad less fantastical in today's world of satellite cams, increased surveillance, and "unlawful combatants."
For all its hyperbole, Max Headroom is one of the more realistic projections of the future I've seen. Part of its secret, I believe, is that it starts from a base of real knowledge about computing. I had the sense that the writers understood the subject and weren't faking it with meaningless technobabble. Even when the show dips into outlandish territory (as in one episode in which a network is literally stealing people's dreams), it stays grounded in a way that many other sci-fi productions do not. Its most important insight was that the talking-head approach to TV journalism, with its concern for ratings over truth, would naturally worsen as the technology grew more centralized.
What the series most failed to anticipate was how the Internet would begin to replace traditional media. The fact that I'm writing all this on a blog, making my thoughts available to just about anyone on the planet, even though I'm not a journalist or politician or celebrity, illustrates how regular citizens today have the power to make their voice heard in ways that weren't possible twenty years ago. While the image of corporate takeover in Max Headroom and similar sci-fi works seems prescient in many ways, what they didn't foresee is the tool we'd have for exerting our personal identity against those who aim to suppress it.