Remembering Max Headroom, a visionary TV show

max headroom newsweek

In 1984 I joined Intel as their graphic workstations  were shrinking from video arcade sized units to large desktop computers. In my spare time, I sometimes played with a Commodore64 and saved quarters for Space Invaders. The first IBM personal computer did not roll out until the following year.

That was the state of technology when Max Headroom was born.  The creation of a British trio, George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton, Max was an artificially intelligent, disembodied personality who lived in cyberspace before the term was coined.  Computer animation wasn’t advanced enough to portray the computerized look the group was after, so filming Max required a four hour makeup session that actor Matt Frewer described as “a very painful, torturous and disgusting enterprise.”

Rocky Morton described Max as a “very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host,” but he was also “media-wise and gleefully disrespectful,” which endeared him to younger viewers.

Max appeared on American TV in 1987, as a talking head – literally – in a TV newsroom in a dystopian near-future dominated by large corporations and television.  Although he became a spokesman for “The New Coke,” and appeared on Sesame Street, only 13 shows aired.

Part of the problem was that Max was down right irritating, with his visual and vocal stutter and an op-art background that was the best computer animation could do at the time.  Here is a 3o second sample from his Coke commercial:

The fact remains that Max Headroom was decades ahead of his time. In one episode, for instance, terrorists blow up all TV towers in the city, pushing the population to riot when they find they have nothing to watch. In the nick of time, city officials pacify everyone by distributing hand-held video viewers loaded with old reruns.

Remember, this was 1987, when the best technology Hollywood had to offer wasn’t enough to capture the vision of Max’s creators.

So what brought Max Headroom to mind right now?  Beyond Max’s “dystopian future dominated by large corporation and television” that is.  Why today, December 3, 2012?

Yesterday, after  a series of storms, I ventured out to the supermarket and walked in just as they played the Christmas carol holiday song I hate most, “Little Saint Nick,” by the Beach Boys.  I had to compliment the store, however – the sound was just barely audible.  Not loud enough to cause real annoyance, I thought, but enough to keep silence at bay, which might cause people to riot.

That brought Max to mind.  “Ha-ha-ha-happy Ho-ho-holidays, everyone.”

Nerds with time on their hands: The Popinator

The Popinator prototype – under development at Popcorn Indiana

An article in the Huffington Post food section puts it like this: “The problem with popcorn these days, is that it doesn’t pop directly into your mouth as nature intended.”

No more! Intrepid engineers at Popcorn Indiana have a working prototype of a voice activated popcorn cannon that calculates the trajectory to your mouth and launches a kernel when you say, “Pop.”

I am seriously encouraged by the Popinator.  Who says America has lost its edge?  Creativity, engineering prowess, and humor – a potent combination!

Andy Grove on How to Create American Jobs

In the wake of this week’s jobs report, here is a Businessweek article from the July 1, 2010 in which Andy Grove, lays out a path to American economic renewal. If anyone has the chops for this, it’s Grove.  One of the three founders of Intel, he helped light the fire that gave us Silicon Valley and changed the world.

(l-r), Andy Grove, Robert Noyce, and Gordon Moore in 1978, on the 10th anniversary of Intel. Photo courtesy of Intel

The bad news is that Grove’s formula depends on intelligent and focused government action. In 2010, that didn’t seem as hopeless as it does now.  Yet perhaps ideas are like seeds; the good ones grow, even though they may take a while to germinate.

One key problem, according to Grove, is our loss of hi-tech manufacturing jobs, not only because of the human cost, but because of our loss of the expertise that production brings.  He says the US has already fallen too far behind to ever catch up in technologies like solar panels and batteries for fuel efficient cars.  “Not only [do] we lose an untold number of jobs, we [break] the chain of experience that is so important in technological evolution. As happened with batteries, abandoning today’s “commodity” manufacturing can lock you out of tomorrow’s emerging industry.”

Grove suggests we need an employment-centered economy and political leadership.  He cites the performance of several Asian economies, including China, the source of so much hand-wringing in the face of perceived U.S. decline.

Andy Grove, 2010

Grove recommends government incentives to aid the growth of key industries and keep the manufacturing base at home. He ends the article with a chilling bit of history:

Most Americans probably aren’t aware that there was a time in this country when tanks and cavalry were massed on Pennsylvania Avenue to chase away the unemployed. It was 1932; thousands of jobless veterans were demonstrating outside the White House. Soldiers with fixed bayonets and live ammunition moved in on them, and herded them away from the White House. In America! Unemployment is corrosive. If what I’m suggesting sounds protectionist, so be it.

I suggest everyone concerned with employment and US technical expertise take a moment to read what Grove has to say:

Google Glasses, Anyone?

A video released by Google earlier this month serves as an introduction to their Project Glass, which aims at putting smartphone apps on a pair of voice controlled glasses.  You can watch the clip now or at the end of this post.  I suggest you invest the 2 1/2 minutes  upfront, since the clip is kind of wild and provides the context for the rest of the article.

I discovered Project Glass in a New York Times op ed piece, “The Man With the Google Glasses,” by Ross Douthat, published April 14.

Douthat says that regardless of whether the project comes to fruition, this video speaks volumes about our collective condition – a mix of unbelievable technical expertise and ever-deeper alienation.  As a writer, I couldn’t construct a better illustration of this than the final scene in the youTube clip.  Our protagonist can video chat and share a gorgeous sunset with his girlfriend, and he has to – she’s nowhere near the apartment where he lives.  In a digital world, “sharing a sunset” has more than one meaning!

Douthat quotes an NYU sociologist who says that more Americans now live alone than in nuclear families.  Similar stats tell us similar things that we already know or sense.  Douthat presents both optimistic and pessimistic assessments of the impact of online media on our social connections or lack thereof.

He also adds a note of caution about the political ramifications of the trend.  He quotes sociologist, Robert Nisbet who believed that “in eras of intense individualism and weak communal ties, the human need for belonging tends to empower central governments as never before.”  Douthat suggests that old time totalitarianism is not a likely prospect, but says that “what the blogger James Poulos has dubbed “the pink police state” which is officially tolerant while scrutinizing your every move — remains a live possibility.”  

This reminded me of a piece in February on MSNBC concerning Samsung’s new generation HDTV’s, with internally wired cameras, microphones, and options for 3d party apps, which could allow someone to peer into your living room.  “Samsung has not released a privacy policy clarifying what data it is collecting and sharing with regard to the new TV sets…Samsung has only stated that it “assumes no responsibility, and shall not be liable” in the event that a product or service is not “appropriate.”

In truth, I’m not too paranoid on that score, since the average evening at our house is so quiet the spies would go to sleep.

What stays with me from the video is the sense that the Google glasses turn the entire world into a version of my computer screen, where the world “out there” is wallpaper for the applications I’m running.  The phrase these days is “virtualization,” though in one sense, it’s nothing new.

Various artists, philosophers, and spiritual masters have told us “reality” is more like a dream than we know.  Physicists teach nothing is really solid.  Biologists explains that we don’t see rocks or trees “out there.”  What we see are photons striking the rods and cones in our retinas.  Behavioral psychologists have established that at a certain level, our brains do not know the difference between  “real” and imagined events.  As James Hillman put it, “Every experience has to begin as a psychic event in order to happen at all.”  In this sense, the human mind and senses perform the fundamental act of virtualization and have done so for millennia.

Does this mean I’m going to sign up for a pair of smart glasses when they hit the market?  Nope.  They’re a bit far along the nerd scale, even for me, and actually, the prototype is more than a little creepy.  It’s not hard to imagine surreal scenes on the street with smart-glassed pedestrians trying to navigate around each other, and even worse, smart-glassed drivers reading and responding to their emails.

All kidding aside, once this idea hits the streets in some refined, future incarnation, it will likely be one more seductive technological tool/toy to learn to use in a way that serves us and not the other way around.