In 1987 the cyberpunk TV show “Max Headroom” premiered on American TV screens with the tagline that the program takes place “20 minutes into the future.” Only 14 episodes were made of this rather dismal view of the future in which people constantly watched television and a handful of giant TV networks ruled the land. I recently started rewatching the show and was struck at much of technology has changed since the 1980s—and how much remained the same.
In the “Max Headroom” world, all technology—even common household appliances— operate from a centralized computer. Entire cities can ground to a halt if this mainframe goes down.
TV sets are everywhere and broadcast nonstop. In fact, an “off” switch on a TV is illegal! In one episode, a woman pushes a baby carriage that holds not an infant but a TV set which she views as she walks.
In another show, when a terrorist shuts down the networks, the people riot when they can’t have their TV shows. In desperation they buy boot-leg videos to watch.
The networks spew out a steady dose of garbage, including commercials compacted into 3-second blipverts (to prevent channel switching) and a ridiculous game show embedded with subliminal images that create addictive viewing.
Each person’s identity information is encoded into a central database. Purchases are made not with cash but with a metal tube that contains digital financial data.
The “blanks” are the people who rebel against the technology. The blanks have removed their personal information from the central database so they have no history and no identity. They move freely off the grid and beyond detection. Blanks are illegal and are subject to arrest.
Much of the technology on “MH” looks obsolete: the characters use computer disks instead of flash drives, videocassettes instead of DVDs and clunky typewriter-style computer keyboards with not a flat screen in sight.
But the basic premise of the show is true today.
Every TV channel runs 24 hours a day, every day, even if that means filling the time with infomercials. And how addictive are reality shows that have viewers rooting for their favorites and avidly discussing the program around the water cooler?
Today’s society may not be watching TV nonstop, but people are definitely glued to the screens of their cell phones and tablets. Some people even leave their cells and BlackBerries on and close to their beds when they go to sleep at night. People can’t even drive or walk without their eyes on their cell. Heaven forbid they miss a text or phone call that is probably not too important. Those who lose their cells panic, not only because they’re cut off from the world but that little piece of hardware contains all their personal data.
People purchase goods with their financial data encoded onto plastic cards. Those who refuse to use a cell phone or—gasp!—a computer are teased as “Luddites.” Such people also find themselves increasingly shut out from society as so much of the modern world—from retail shopping to government business—is carried out online.
People don’t memorize phone numbers because that info is programmed into their cell. In fact, children don’t memorize anything because they can access information from their tablet or cell. Kids are dumb as rocks without their Smartphones. But how can they learn algebra and advance math concepts if they can’t multiply two numbers in their heads?
All our personal information is available to any computer hacker. Stores track our purchases, the government can read our emails, and anyone can find our location through our cellphone GPS.
Much of our devices, vehicles and appliances operate by computer chips. When these computers fail—and they do—we’re stuck.
In one “MH” episode, Blank Reg, while bartering, hands a woman a print book. When she looks at it with disgust, he says, “It’s a book, a non-volatile storage medium. It’s very rare. You should have one.” With the ebook boom and school textbooks going digital, in the future a print book may be rare indeed.
On the TV show, Max Headroom himself is a generated computer image formed from the memories of ace TV reporter Edison Carter. While Max can move around inside databases and electronic files, he can’t exist outside a computer.
In reality, the technology of the 1980s couldn’t create a computer-generated person. Max was actually actor Matt Freuer with heavy makeup, superimposed on an animated background.
But today’s computer software has produced amazing images in such movies as “Avatar” and beyond. The Sims game lets those at home create their individuals. No doubt creating a real “Max” is not far behind.
Is technology bad? Of course not. Technology has improved living (who wants to do without a washer or dryer?), helped people live longer and healthier, and brought the world together through communication and travel.
Technology has also created horrible weapons of war, viruses that can shut down computers, and platforms for hatemongers, bullies and terrorists to spread their wickedness.
The devices created to serve humans threaten to enslave them. In future, will face-to-face communication become a lost art when people can only communicate through texting? Can humans think and reason on their own without their Smartphone? If our attention is constantly focused on a screen, how can we think, plan, daydream, create or relax?
Let’s hope that those who are smart enough to invent technology also know how to use it wisely.
What do you think about today’s techno-centered society?