The Subversive 80’s through the Lens of Max Headroom
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Michael: Thanks to those that watched my presentation. I’m going to drop a few links to explain some background on how the presentation came about.
First, I co-host a podcast called Codepunk and my co-host wanted to explore the original TV movie on one of our episodes.
A few months later, I decided to use Max Headroom as a topic for our robot+beer newsletter.
Finally, the Codepunk YouTube channel does a series called Digital Shots, and we recorded one for Max Headroom.
When the announcement came out about the Cyberpunk Culture Conference… I knew that I had consolidate all of this into a presentation. I do have an “extended cut” of the presentation too that adds about a minute or two of additional content that I had to cut in order to make the time limit.
As I started work on these Max Headroom pieces, it was amazing to see several fans come out of the shadows. A good example is conversational software pioneer (and Botkit creator) Ben Brown.
I’m leaving the Discord open for most of the day (and tomorrow), and will be explicitly lurking in this channel when my presentation time comes around. Have fun.
mlex: “raiding the authenticity from past generations into meme-ified versions of itself.” good stuff! here we are in 2020, in a discord conference. do you think we are driving a wedge into the brittle, stupid corporate media?
the macroeconomic summary was good… damn the 80s were nightmarish, the economic divide (of Reagan and Thatcher) took off like a rocket, and here we are. can you comment on the stasis of military-intel-industrial complex, which permitted the ruling class to run wild? isn’t that the intentional subversive humor of Max Headroom, originally pointed at TPTB as they consolidated their empires into a Rollerball future? (Now of course we have advanced from Rollerball and Logan’s Run to Hunger Games….)
I wish I had that vene(ish) diagram of all the dystopia and where we are currently. Give me a sec…
I think that with recent “tech worker” movements we’re at least starting to influence big tech to a certain degree, but it’s difficult to say we’re driving a wedge. We all thought we were driving a wedge back in the 80’s. I do believe that the Internet is getting back to enabling individuals and greater peer-to-peer communication, collaboration, and distribution of goods. I hesitate to say that blockchain will help, but decentralization certainly will.
This is a good read on tech workers.
It’s always funny how government debt increases, government spending decreases, but military spending increases. Basically they are fleecing citizens to pay for a military set to protect geopolitical interests, while pushing for a flat earth perspective of the economy (when convenient). All dystopia seems to shift budgets to the military before draining education, healthcare, etc.
mlex: Love the Venn diagram… if you look at spending, and the positions of the ruling class, all that’s left is a militarized future for no purpose. thus the cyberpunk rebellion becomes even more necessary. and yet we are all dependent on the network, and now become pandemic isolated nodes. nonetheless, the pandemic creates the necessity for the virtual conference. and, speaking from my limited experience (well I did run a live video conference with Nick Papadakis at MIT in 1999) and a slew of conferences since then (in Italy, UK, Japan, Shanghai, etc)… it seems to me this sudden ‘discord’ dynamic is a good thing!
Graham: I don’t have much more substantial to add, but the steps the US government has taken recently to establish its Space Force certainly seems to align with your proposition re: the great wads of cash spent on the military.
mlex: probably Space Force is a reaction to the Chinese blasting a satellite in orbit, as well as the general discarding of treaties that the hawks behind Trump have been pushing…. they still think in terms of US hegemony while the multipolar world is spinning away from them… see here.
Michael: I wish it would have just amounted to more funding for NASA, but that’s asking too much, I guess.
Josh: One of Cyberpunk’s strengths is its attention to what Arjun Jayadev and Samuel Bowles call “Guard Labor,” the trend away from productive work towards violence work as inequality rises
Michael: Excellent point.
Alex: I really like your presentation. My only feedback would be that it could use more intro to who & what Max Headroom is. With that it’d be really good for general audience on YT, not only for us who have the context
Michael: Thanks. It had a ~10 minute limit, so I had to trim it down. I do have an extended cut with a different intro that shows the “coke” commercial version vs. the “VJ” version. I’ll post it to YouTube after the conference is over.
Josh: Hi, great talk. I have always been fascinated by Max and the way that the movie and the show captures so many tensions of the period. As someone who has been thinking hard about Max, I wondered if you could speak a bit about how he serves as a singular virtual personality. Unlike the rotating cast of actual MTV Vjays, there is only one Max. In this, he resembles many other cyberpunk media figures who seem to have a kind of monopoly on the airwaves, like Buster Friendly in Do Androids Dream, Bixby Sinclair in Robocop, or even Dr. Art Fish in Synners. Why do you think that these texts posit a singular media figure, even as they present networked futures in which everyone has access to tech? Another way to ask this is, how does Max anticipate some aspects of youtube/instagram virtual celebrity, but not how widely distributed that celebrity would become?
mlex: very good question, Josh! (also Bug Jack Barron…)
Michael: From an entertainment perspective, the writers, of course, wanted a relatable character, so that points to the need for a singular vision/brand/person (especially considering the budget–Max was make-up and not actually digital/CGI). There was also this assumption that Max was supposed to be a unique virtual life, which led to tension when the character was in danger. It was so far ahead of today’s social media that you have to wonder how things would be different… Would Max be an emergent personality from a Instagram influencer account?
I do believe modern cyberpunk (TRON Legacy, AI in Altered Carbon) represent this characters differently–I’m not sure if that’s an evolution of the writing and technology, or just a shift in how we view the future.
Josh: I think the representation of the hotel AIs in the Altered Carbon TV adaptation is one of its most interesting bits, for sure!
Adam: And the attention Altered Carbon draws to this in how it uses Matt Frewer too!
Josh: I do think that Max’s unintended and unique position in the narrative is important for maintaining his link to the subversive energies you discuss here. especially in a media context where the Alex Keatons seemed to be multiplying….
Josh: Could you say a little more about the way the liminal position of the V-jay (overlapping dj, reporter, celebrity) impacted their ability to be political onscreen? You mention the libertarian politics of Loder and Kennedy briefly. How much were their individual politics overwhelmed by the generic “rebelliousness” of the MTV brand imagery?
like Kurt Loder, Max makes the jump from journalist to Videostar. Does Max’s unprecedented total trans-substantiation give him more freedom to “be himself” on the airwaves?
Michael: Max’s “celebrity” but also his digital nature made him more able to be controversial on air. If you watch any of the UK videos he was a VJ in it is a very obscure and experimental. Way more so than the US television show. With MTV, they were banking on controversy and personality gelling with the youth in order to provide ratings, but a lot of those early VJ saw themselves as artists and cultural pioneers trying to lead a new generation.
Sumeyra: Hi, it is great talk. Do you think that counter history is the bone of cyberpunk media? I mean can we talk about singular media and singular new world history-culture though the perspective of Max?
Michael: My opinion is that Max represents a specific era of authentic cultural evolution told through the perspective of the emerging media of music videos. Max was an artistic rendering of what video journalism and talking head (literally) punditry could be– a new tool for the counterculture and youth movements to pass along a message of non-conformity and speak out about the geopolitics of that era.
Michael: As Friday wraps up, thanks to all those who watched my presentation. If you want to keep in touch I’m on Twitter … Also, if you’re in to programming and technology, I write at Codepunk, have a newsletter, and do a number of videos of YouTube. See you around!