anti-capitalist politics

Twenty Minutes into the Future

1984 is three years past, and the Brave New World is just 20 minutes into the future. That's where the computer-run and video-tranced world of ABC-TV's "Max Headroom" is located. For the uninitiated, the premise of the "Headroom" show is easy to summarize and almost impossible to explain.

Let's say it's a classic buddy picture, like Butch and Sundance. The buddies are a youngish TV reporter (Edison Carter) and his computer-generated, artificially intelligent clone (the titular hero). But the two-dimensional Max has more wit, personality, and life than his flesh-and-blood prototype, Edison Carter. Max Headroom, a literal talking head, has evolved from "a system to a personality."

Max resides in the computer system of TV Network 23 in a world where television sets no longer have "off switches and ratings are taken every two minutes. All the TV screens are two-way. Those who control "the system" can "access" everyone, and the masses of people have no access at all. It's a world controlled by a tiny handful of mega-corporations with "more power than any single government."

It's a post-industrial world dominated by a soaring and sanitized city of office and apartment towers, for those with access to the information economy. Down below lies a South Bronx-type moonscape littered with TV screens, where the disinformed huddle like street people around barrel fires. It's our world, exaggerated by 20 minutes or so.
The "Max Headroom" show's 60 minutes, including commercials, tell you more about the aesthetic politics and political aesthetics of television than anything to come along since Marshall McLuhan's book The Medium Is the Message. Like McLuhan's foundational work, "Headroom" is not about the content of television, or "what" we watch. It's mostly about "how" we watch and how the fact of watching shapes the rest of our lives.

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