I thank my lady for the title of this article! It was and is apt.
For many the concept of cyberpunk dystopianism was first introduced in Max Headroom, seen in the Max Headroom series on ABC from MAR 1987 to MAY 1988. With fourteen shows produced, 13 were aired in the US and the 14th was aired as part of the Australian run of the series. It is a blended-season program much like The Prisoner by Patrick McGoohan which ran 17 episodes. Both programs had a first and second season squashed into a limited production run. Max Headroom had an abbreviated first season and second season while The Prisoner was scheduled for a second season but had that cut and McGoohan wanted to wrap up the entire thought schema in one season a bit longer than normal.
Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future was a tv-movie in the UK, and the tagline '20 Minutes into the Future' was seen at the start of each episode of the series. Many of the elements seen in Max Headroom draw their lineage through cinematic productions of dystopian futures. The most notable of them is Blade Runner (1982) directed by Ridley Scott, and the entire look of the city of Network 23 and Max Headroom could fit seamlessly into that dystopian future without missing a beat. The same low level social dynamics of a post-futuristic world gone to ruin is part and parcel of both, down to fires in oil drums and the real lack of cars at street level. So, too, are the social interactions between levels of society similar from the highest corporate level (Dr. Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner and Ped Xing in Max Headroom) through the techno-geniuses that support them (J. F. Sebastian in Blade Runner and Bryce Lynch in Max Headroom) all the way down to the lowest level operatives of Matt Deckard and Edison Carter, who are the draw and appeal for their differences in being perhaps not human and more than just human both at the same time although in starkly different ways. One can picture Matt Deckard confronting Roy Batty and then having Edison Carter land in on the confrontation with the help of Blank Reg and Big Time Television.
For all of that there are other precursors to cyberpunk television beyond just Blade Runner, although it hands off so many visual cues that the relationship is hard to miss. What makes it distinct from the 1980 made for TV movie Brave New World, is that the Aldous Huxley dystopianism is one of anti-septic neatness which is reflected by the anti-septic nature of thinking. That world is a world which, however, bears resemblance to both Blade Runner and Max Headroom in that books are absent not because they are repressed or destroyed, like in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 which was made into a BBC film in 1966, but because they are unwanted by a population now beyond learning. Like in Fahrenheit 451, however, television now plays that central role which makes for the dystopian Max Headroom vision, and it is far more powerful than the multi-wall arrangements in Bradbury's work and closer to the Big Brother two-way dystopia of Orwell's 1984. Much of the television movie adaptation in 1954 or the regular movie adaptation of 1984 in 1956 carries through as cinematic reminders in later works, often with the stark external scenery updated to cast a pall in colors that are dark and muted in modern works, of which Max Headroom takes part. Coming from that lineage of Big Brother, two-way television, corporations blending into the State, and the removal of knowledge media from the world, Max Headroom gives us a glimpse of the cyberpunk pathway. This is a pathway that has an endpoint in other films like Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) complete with mohawk haircuts and lots of leather jackets and leggings.
It is amazing to think that in the span of 1979 to 1982 the entire cyberpunk dystopian future was encapsulated visually and thematically with the decaying and corrupt State with corporatism (and one can't help but see Rollberball (1975) as a precursor to this). From a 1984 collapse through the time of Max Headroom and Blade Runner is a part of this arc. After that then goes through a further decay because they depend on resources that are failing, until the world falls into complete ruin in Mad Max and Mad Max 2. The relatively anti-septic dystopian vision of an Aldous Huxley requires a system that is, itself, so highly dependent upon automation and resources that it cannot last. The enforced ignorance and numbing of the senses are preludes to the ideas later reviewed by other dystopian works,the outcome of which gets a transition phase seen in A Clockwork Orange (1971) where Anthony Burgess juxtaposes wartime lack of morality with everyday life and puts them together. Stanley Kubrick in many ways sets the tone for the later dystopian works in that film to show a highly decadent society with highly authoritarian State on the verge of internal collapse as the State comes to embrace barbarism fully. In Max Headroom those who see such barbarism are in the minority, but have Edison Carter to intrepidly risk life and limb to get the story of how the corporate world and utilization of State power by Network 23 is going wrong.
If there is anything that Max Headroom does represent it is that cry against the dying of the light, the collapse of the civilized State into its corporatist system which is, itself, not sustainable without a civilized population at its core. That State has already removed the off-switch from televisions and utilize two-way technology to track ratings and, thusly, power. Blood games (ala Rollerball) are not embraced while shrugging off the deaths of citizens due to commercials is seen by the new generation of elites as the price to pay for ratings. From that and the body banks, lifted nearly directly from Larry Niven's Known Space works, comes a lowered valuation of life even when the birth of a baby is still seen as a special event even though the backdrop of the life that child will have is a grim one. This is dystopian fiction with a bite to it and the slow degradation of man to becoming viewer in the hands of the media is one that begins to overwhelm, indeed not just co-opt but buy out, the State. The adoring media of the Left today becomes the controlling media of politics and society tomorrow. Big Brother is Network 23, indeed Orwell only lacked putting the BBC behind Big Brother to complete that circle in 1984.
For all of the darkness of a world sliding into Mad Max realms, there are glimmers of a future that doesn't need to be this bad. First and foremost is that the Tyrell Corporation, Big Brother nor the Fordian State of Brave New World all lacked an older cohort that remembers not just ethics but displays them. In this Network 23 has a person that is unlike all the others in a position of power in those dystopian futures: someone who has qualms about what he has helped to create and sees it as toxic. That person is not Edison Carter, per se, nor Theora Jones his controller to get him to stories, nor Murray their producer, all of which are front-line functionaries to the programming for live shows which can be replaced or interjected at a moment's notice. That person who is so different is Ben Cheviot who demonstrates ethical underpinnings in pulling lethal commercials and allows for the complicity of Network 23 working to get blood sports into the line-up even against the pull of ratings. For all the fun (or not so fun) parts shown for everyone else in the system, Ben Cheviot has a keen awareness of just what can and cannot be done to start showing the problems of the system that he has helped to promote. Edison Carter would be a top, and soon dead, journalist as seen in the first program if not for Ben Cheviot willing to back him against the rest of Network 23's interests of the moment. While Ben Cheviot got to the Board of Directors of Network 23 he must have demonstrated competence and ability to deal with competitors to a large degree as it is a cut-throat position just to be on that board. By having a better 'feel' for viewership and how ratings work, he is able to become the Chairman of the Board and allows Edison Carter to start showing the underbelly of Network 23, the State and corporations... because it is good for ratings. Ethics sells. Ethics are power when chained to moral certainty.
Edison Carter, Theora Jones, Murray, Blank Reg and others also show this form of moral certainty and ethics that go with them. In many ways Blank Reg (a Blank is someone who has gotten themselves erased from all records to be truly free) lives that life of moral and ethics, live or die, continually and is an energetic force to be reckoned with. Although pirate station Big Time Television may not get the ratings, it does work a wedge into television of an older sort that he still remembers. In this way Blank Reg is the counter-part to Ben Cheviot, although the two could never be mistaken, their firm standing upon what they see as right and wrong is not only similar but their requirements have put them in crucial positions on either side of the Network/public divide in which the State is part of the Network. Blank Reg isn't just hitting at the television level but at the level of a Blank, which is to say trying to get people to actually ingest more than television as part of their thought processes. Like Brave New World books aren't burned, just not circulated or used, they are seen as relics of a past long gone and no longer needed. Yet it is Blank Reg who tries to get people interested in reading (are they even literate anymore?) and touts books as 'a non-volatile storage media... you should have one'. In our modern age of e-readers what will become of books? Not text on screen but printed books? That non-volatile storage media is immune to EMP and CME effects, they will survive them while your e-reader, your PC, your laptop, the servers that serve up text, and the rest of the modern infrastructure goes away. Hardcopy back-up can be burned but cannot be erased, cannot be changed once printed, and if carefully tended can last many life times. Your PC is obsolete the day you buy it. Ditto your cellphone and all other digital media.
The people of that digital media are represented by Bryce Lynch, late teen techno-nerd, and his work for Network 23. Bryce is somewhat detached from the goings-on around him and in his own self-created world of technology. He is more than willing to create commercials that kill (although only as a side-effect of those who no longer exercise ANY), more than able to take a brain-dump of Edison Carter for the old Chairman of the Board to protect him, and then willing to help Edison Carter at various points throughout the program. In many ways a family style dynamic between Edison, Theora, Bryce and Ben form, although it is very underplayed it does have effects on Bryce to both humanize him and show that he does care about people close to him. He takes part in the creation of digital personalities from direct brain dumps, starting with his pet parrot (who shows up in the first episode and then is replaced by a screen of the digital parrot thereafter in its cage) and ending with Edison Carter which yields the namesake of the show: Max Headroom.
Max Headroom is only tangentially the star of his own program, with Edison Carter (the source for Max's altered ego) being the real one. Max is a completely digital being (although there were no digital effects when the series was produced to make him, so it was done through SFX with make-up and only a digital background done for later episodes) who is born in the lab of Bryce Lynch. Max's home is the Network 23 internal network which has external feeds to two-way televisions. Thus Max starts out with the ability to grow in capability and, when he is threatened with erasure, he can leave Network 23 for the rest of the external system. Max, as Edison's altered ego with far fewer inhibitions, is in turns smarmy, insightful, comical and devious and a total creature of the Network ratings system. Yet he is also its critic beyond mere critique, as he asks what are the effects of this visual pap that is pushed out to the world at large?
For all of the sometimes juvenile humor of Max, he is also a person that grows beyond that rather shallow exterior of head and shoulders, giving insightful questions into the nature of authority, television, the State and the human condition. While he may no longer remember much of what it feels like to have a body, Max Headroom grows into this larger system that gives him more than a physical presence and one that is at once as omniscient as Big Brother and as limited as the humor of a teenager. Scary in one regard, yes, but he does not have a controlling nature and is as irrepressible, and yet open, as Edison Carter. For an altered ego he is still learning about the Id and Super Ego, those parts necessary to create a solid moral view with ethics and compassion. That he has that capability and shows it is beyond any doubt, because Edison Carter has them. That these are skewed by his environment is also without a doubt as Max Headroom is at once more and far less than human, and for all the faux humbleness of a game show host he often displays real doubts about himself and who he is.
So if, when the show was aired, it was 20 minutes into the future where is it now?
My lady answered 10 minutes and she is absolutely right on that in many ways.
What would it take to subvert the modern Internet into a purveyor of Network 23 (and other networks in the power grab)? The answer is very little: a government power grab in support of television over other forms of communication, probably done by 'emergency measure' as is hinted at in 1984. Two-way television is, essentially, here in many regards but to be truly controlled as is seen in 1984 or Max Headroom would require a wholesale change of television sets... without off buttons. And as the Internet now is part of the cellphone network, it would also control your two-way digital phone as they already do for emergency tracking. Adjust the software and the 'off button' goes away. As a 'government emergency' requires control of information, any information deemed 'subversive' or 'anti-government' will be removed as 'dangerous speech'. Like the blog post you are reading.
To be clear the Internet is a threat to centralized power as it is a distributed, shared set of networks (a network of networks) that works via a set of common address standards. Any government that can get a hold of the address look-up tables can, quite literally, partition the networks from each other. By blocking off entire blocks of networks and then screening them, speech and thought that isn't sanctioned is restricted. What happens after that is a promulgation of 'sanctioned' software that only allows for connections to sanctioned blocks of the network. Like Network 23 and its cohorts in Max Headroom. With that said there is a set of hacker skills that has permeated society as, from the very first episode, we see that Theora (Edison's controller for live feeds) has skills to get past common and everyday computer security not only inside Network 23 but outside of it as well. In contrast Murray, members of the Board of Network 23 and various others do not have such skills to any great extent, but members of the Blank community do as it is a survival necessity. Edison Carter has rudimentary security skills, mostly to deal with physical security, and his friends also have a range of skills from simple deception of security systems to skills close to those of Bryce Lynch.
Getting around security blocks to get information is one of the skills necessary in the newsroom, necessary to criminals, necessary to the Blanks and only the elites can do without even the basics of them. In a post-Internet segmented world the ability to get around the segmentation and through security routines: the very security that the Networks and others seem to think they need make common trespass against such systems widespread not out of malice but to just get work done and no one thinks anything is wrong about it. Even when they go after the most secure records, it is done with an acknowledgement that there are penalties, but nothing morally wrong about it. Pervasive security doesn't make anything more secure and, contrarily, makes going against security measures common place. For all the security that Network 23 and others seek, they just add complexity to getting around such measures and get no real security against the mildly determined.
At the top of this realm is Max, although he is unskilled at security circumvention he is born directly into this cyberworld. He can and does run afoul of security measures, yes, but he also demonstrates an ability to move from network to network, area to area, building to building without much regard for who owns what or what security measures they have in place. If the centralized network headquarters are bastions of security, the outlying network is a hodge-podge of everything from insecure televisions to relatively secure private systems. And make no mistake about it, in the world of Max Headroom all security is relative and no one has planned on a sentient cyber entity moving through systems, which raises a whole question of just what is security to such a being?
The physical problems of any of the relatively advanced, that is to say further along in the timeline of decay, worlds that are represented by the generic continuum that coalesced in the late 1970's and early 1980's is one that comes quickly to our civilization once basic maintenance and upkeep can no longer continue. Cities like Gary, IN and Detroit, MI starkly show how entire sections of cities can go to ruin in less than a decade through depopulation alone. The hints in Blade Runner and Max Headroom of A Clockwork Orange style elitist inculcation of barbarism leading to decay and retribution would leave our current physical infrastructure in such ruins as seen in those worlds. Even with such relatively minor organizations (or lack thereof) like the current OWS movement (backed by Unions, socialists, communists and anarchists) the decay inside those encampments has shown rapes, murders and the spread of communicable diseases that are at a first point on a decay continuum. If the goal of those backers is to get city blocks set ablaze with radical and relatively pointless intent and violence, then the dystopian continuum at A Clockwork Orange will be set and in place. It is but a short transition through a 1984 regime that then seeks to restore some order and, lacking that, collapses back to corporatism of a Blade Runner or Max Headroom style outcome.
This outcome is not hard to get to, at all, and while those who seek power may think they can get it permanently, what they actually get is transient power as no centralized system can run a complex world. The problem in bringing on the moral and ethical decay necessary to get to that point is that it cannot and will not stop at the lowest levels, no matter how many are killed in the attempt, because the decay has already started by those who brought it on. When you welcome in barbarism as a means to an end you don't find yourself civilized once you have done so as you have let go of the very support of civilization necessary to be civilized. In the world of Max Headroom there is a desperate attempt to retain and spread the necessary morality and ethical backing is being done by a very few at Network 23. We never learn much of how the world got to the point of the Max Headroom world, which points to just how unpleasant the transition was.
The trick is not to get to that point in the first place and to retain civilized habits and remind our fellow citizens of those necessary habits and costs to oneself as the price to have a technological civilization. Civilization isn't free, and your freedom is without price.