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Twenty Minutes into the Future
The Science Fictional Prophecy of Max Headroom
- Annotated Edition -

Max Headroom was a campy/classic/cult, made-for-TV movie (and later TV series) that first aired in the UK in 1985. Its success spawned the American TV series that aired from March 1987 to May 1988, on ABC. Even in its playful preposterousness, it became a dark harbinger of things to come. The pilot: Max Headroom: Twenty Minutes into the Future takes place in a dystopian near-future, which from a 1985 perspective, roughly corresponds to our contemporary world. In this (this?) future, governments have been reduced to Hollow States, while real political power rests with plutocratic media empires… the television networks...

The most successful and powerful network, the network with the highest ratings, is the all seeing, all knowing: Network 23. As a plot device, this so-named network evokes and conjures the all-pervasive 23 enigma, which “sets the stage” for the High Strangeness to come. Network 23… has implemented an insidious mind-control campaign in the form of the “Blipvert” ...commercials that compress 30 second ads into 2 seconds. The only thing that is problematic with this otherwise very successful campaign is the fact that blipverts tend to make sedentary viewers spontaneously combust.

Investigative reporter, Edison Carter, who works for Network 23, plans to reveal his employer's plans to the world, but meets with an untimely accident as he is attempting to flee with his exposé. Carter’s consciousness is downloaded into a computer, which takes on a life of its own as the virtual presence… Max Headroom.

Vintage cyberpunk wildness ensues, with Max ending up in the possession of a Pirate Television Station “Big Time” and it’s founder, Blank Reg. Max’s programming becomes self-replicating and he soon, through machine learning, develops artificial intelligence... thereby attaining sentience. Sci Fi sit-com meets singularity...

The American series began each episode with the tagline: 20 minutes into the future… illustrating how quickly the future sneaks up on us in our emerging, Instagram world. This very annotated edition, since its publication, has itself become a #prophecy of our pop-future. The salient points we cover herein… have since “come home to roost” with a vengeance.

Once again... science fiction becomes dystopian fact...

Our descent into political dystopia and dysfunction was not without warning signs. On January 21, 2010, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, held that the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for communications by corporations, non-profit and otherwise. This landmark decision, known as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, opened the floodgates for unlimited election spending by corporations.

This ruling extended first amendment protections (previously held as a safeguard for individual, honest-to-god citizens) to corporations. After all, corporations are people too!

However, most of the subsequent unrestricted spending in political races have ended up being funneled through tax-exempt entities known as SUPER PACS. Super PACs may engage in unlimited political spending, as long as they are nominally independent of the campaign. They can raise funds from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups without any legal limit on donation size. Through disclosure rule loophole chicanery, it is possible for super PACs to spend money without voters knowing the identities of the PAC’s donors… before the election.
Unrestricted expenditures “for communications, by corporations” has since exploded along with the rise of social media. The 2016 American presidential elections were driven by competing social media platform cabals, who ignored their own privacy protocols to gather Big Data… selling their own user’s (supposedly guaranteed) privacy “down the river” in the bargain. Political provocateurs, both domestic and foreign, researched, bought, and sold this data, bringing “opposition research” to a whole new, horrendous level of intrusion.

The outcome of this emerging Corporatocracy is self-evident.

Social media platforms aside, television networks continue to play a critical role in disseminating propaganda. The reality of “Network Wars” …where hostile, ideologically combating “channels” vie for political domination by weaponizing information, has become the horrific norm. For example, take the obvious Network War matchup of FOX vs MSNBC (please!). A recent survey from Nielsen Media Research, measured the American audience from the 8 to 11pm time slot. That survey identified 2.3 million (note the synchronistic 23 here) viewers watching Fox News versus 1.7 million watching MSNBC.

Conventional wisdom views MSNBC as the virtual domain of a progressive politics cabal, while Fox News is considered a conservative cult. Critics of MSNBC, see the channel as espousing hopelessly liberal op-ed, passing it off as real news, which in reality is FAKE NEWS. Critics of Fox News (during the Trump era), see the channel as essentially the TRUMP NEWS CHANNEL… spoon feeding the Reality Star/Trickster King his talking points, which he dutifully re-tweets with puppet-like subordinance.

What is clear… is that these two networks represent ideological factions… each “dug in” to their increasingly extreme political perspective. This is more than partisan politics on steroids. This is tribalism at its most entrenched. And with millions of viewers tuning in nightly, each network is indoctrinating and expanding their respective tribe. Tribalism doesn’t exactly equal Nationalism… but it rhymes!

So in their relentless pursuit of supporting their agenda while shoring up their tribe’s ideology, our favorite networks strive to become Network 23… the eye at the top of the ratings pyramid. If either Fox or MSNBC could get their hands on Blipvert technology… you bet your sweet ass they’d use it. Maybe they already have.

Which brings us back to Max. As you no doubt recall, Max Headroom was an AI designed by a boy genius, at the behest of Network 23. As indicated above, through the unfolding storyline of the original pilot, Max falls into the hands of an obscure pirate network… Big Time TV. It is at Big Time that Max achieves sentience. Through his liberation via Big Time TV’s guru, Blank Reg… Max becomes the sarcastic voice of the underground. His witticisms propel Big Time TV up the ratings, to rival the nefarious Network 23.

The creators of the Max Headroom franchise brilliantly foresaw the chaotic, un-stabilizing nature of Artificial Intelligence, eight years before Vernor Vinge would publish his paper on Singularity. Twenty Minutes into the Future depicts the very moment when Max achieves sentience… the very moment of Technological Singularity.

But wait! There's more!

In a bizarre example of fact imitating fiction, on November 22, 1987, television broadcasts of two local stations in Chicago, Illinois were hijacked in an act of video piracy... by a video of an unknown person wearing a Max Headroom mask and costume, accompanied by distorted, unsettling audio. The first incident took place for 23 seconds during the sports segment of WGN-TV's 9:00 p.m. news broadcast. The second occurred around two hours later, for about 90 seconds during PBS affiliate WTTW's broadcast of another innovative example of science fiction: Doctor Who.

The hacker made references to Max Headroom's endorsement of Coca-Cola, the TV series Clutch Cargo, WGN anchor Chuck Swirsky, and “all the greatest world newspaper nerds” a reference to WGN's call letters, which stand for “World's Greatest Newspaper.” A corrugated panel swiveled back and forth, apparently was used to mimic Max Headroom's geometric background effect.

The video ended with a pair of exposed buttocks being spanked with a flyswatter before normal programming resumed. At the time, the culprit or culprits were not caught or identified.

The Max Headroom signal hijacking incident went on to became an influential “cyberpunk hacking trope” world-wide. Now, more than thirty years later, the identity of the hijackers is still unknown. The signal hack incident itself became a portent of things to come, decades before the Anonymous Collective would make global news. Just like Max, the signal hack became a prophetic indicator for our  AI infested, Brave Noö World.

Just as depicted in Twenty Minutes into the Future, the rise of artificial intelligence is a massively disruptive component of our own dystopian world. It is the potential of AI that currently drives the fear-based disruption of world cultures today. As “smart” technologies and the internet of things continue to globally expand, people live with the fear that they will soon be replaced by a machine. It is as if humanity is becoming obsolete. It is fear of a technology that we do not understand, that is driving not only our collective angst… but the rise of protectionist Nationalism, as well.

The fear of being replaced by a machine is the exact same fear that fuels immigration phobia... fear of the other.

Oddly, “Max Headroom Unchained” is not merely a plot contrivance in the 80's TV series, he is ultimately an instrument of hope. The idea that the Max AI escapes the evil clutches of Network 23, to grow and run wild in the apocalyptic, techno-jungle, is an encouraging thought. It alludes to the inspirational idea that new technologies can escape the hands of the powerful… and find their way into the hands of people. As the Scottish poet, Robert Burns once said: “The best laid plans of mice and men, often go astray.”

In their quest for dominance, even the very powerful cannot control everything, all the time. Instruments of change have a way of escaping the intent of Archonic Powers. Agents of liberty have a way of “leaking” out into the wild world. So as we meander through our Brave Noö World, fear not the anticipated outcome… for those in power cannot predict all possible outcomes. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. And that too is an encouraging thought.

Max Headroom is quite remarkable as science fiction prophecy. Hollow governments, increasingly ceding power to media empires… a population increasingly hypnotized by said media empires… elections being decided by network coverage… a world where most technology, except those pertaining to centralized telecom and mobile technology, has been de-funded or otherwise discontinued… Renegade news reporters, eerily similar to YouTube i-reporters, taking on the networks to counter the “official story” …the list goes on.

In retrospect, the vision of Max Headroom’s dystopia is uncomfortably similar to our current version of reality. But don’t take our word for it… check it out for yourself. Venture out into the wild world of social mediation. Stop for a moment and consider the similarity between Google and network 23. Check the news feeds on your smart phone... do those rascally algorithms impact what you see? In the words of the great John Perry Barlow... “The future's here, we are it, we are on our own.” This is Edison Carter, signing off.




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