Background Noise


Much has been made of the predictive nature of the Max Headroom series.  The show has been credited with predicting things like hacking, network ‘viruses’, on-line shopping, and many others.[1]  However, some critics have also pointed out that what science fiction does best is not predicting the future so much, but either extrapolating current evens to a logical conclusion, or simply holding up a mirror to contemporary culture.[2]

So, in Max Headroom, we should not be so much looking at the technology it predicts, but the world it is showing us.  So what kind of world does it show us?

For starters, it shows us a media-saturated world.  There are televisions everywhere. And what’s more, off switches on televisions are illegal.  In one episode, a group of ‘Blanks’[3] have essentially cut the networks’ ability to broadcast programs to the masses. This results in riot conditions for the populace.  As an emergency measure, video playback units and recordings of old shows are distributed to satisfy the emptiness left by the lack of television programming.

Also, television becomes the vehicle for political expression. Perhaps as a solution to declining numbers of voters actually going to a polling place and casting a ballot, each network sponsors a candidate and then compete for viewers. The candidate of the network with the highest ratings at the end of a special sweeps period wins.

Television trumps traditional education as well.  Within the handful of episodes produced, we see a world where education is packaged and sold to people who can afford the price tag of educational TV.  One episode in particular[4] deals with the fact that there is an underground movement to trade bootlegged recordings of educational programming to be used by children of the ‘have-nots.’  In the pilot, one character steals a network minicam in the wasted outer areas of the city known as the Fringes. She attempts to trade it for something of value to her. The character she is negotiating with produces a book.  She asks what it is.  He replies “It’s a book. A non-volatile storage medium. It’s very rare. You should have one.” To which she answers “Shove it!”

These examples serve not to predict a time “20 minutes into the future,” as the series’ tagline promises, but to hold a mirror up to our own time. While we don’t see box television sets littering the landscape as we do in the series, we do see the ability to watch virtually any television program anywhere at any time. There is traditional network broadcasting, cable networks, YouTube, Hulu and others, available on your television at home, your computer, your smart phone and your tablet media device. We have become as a society much more celebrity savvy than we are aware of current political events or even history.[5] The American Academy of Pediatrics has released a report that indicates that unmonitored television watching can be detrimental to a child’s educational processes.[6] The evidence seems to indicate that the more television and media watching grow, the further it dilutes traditional, solid education and critical thinking.  And yet, there doesn’t appear to be much slowdown in TV consumption. 

Scripturally speaking, the Christian believer should take the implied warnings in Max Headroom about becoming so enamored with media that we lose focus of what’s important.  We are warned about giving in to ‘empty philosophies’ (Colossians 8:9), and encouraged to keep our attention fixed solely on Jesus as the one who has established and fulfills our faith (Hebrews 12).  This is not an endorsement of the idea to ban television. Rather, I would hope that it is a call to carefully consider what we watch and then answer a few basic questions:

What is the underlying message?

How does that message stack up against the Word of God?

How does it encourage me to believe and to behave?

And then maybe, on occasion, commit a Max Headroom-world crime: turn off the set.





[3] Blanks are computer experts who have removed all traces of their existence from any digital network –they are, in fact, “off the grid.”
[4] Episode 207 “Lessons” (aka “Lost Tapes”)

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