20 Minutes Into The Future:
Three Dystopic Moments and One Prime-Time TV Show
As I was reading Martin Hand and Barry Sandywell's essay "E-topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel: On the Democratizing and De-democratizing Logics of the Internet, or, Toward a Critique of the New Technological Fetishism" for the Coursera Course "E-Learning and Digital Cultures", I fomented this response:
Hand and Sandywell’s description in “E-topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel” of three “mutually reinforcing” dystopic moments (202) brought to mind an episode of a classic 80s television program which I feel could be beneficial for the discussion of digital cultures and e-learning. This program is the much revered Max Headroom and the episode in question is called “Lessons”.
There’s nothing subtle about this episode - the connection is clear - but I am haunted by its prophetic nature. Problems clear enough to appear on prime-time fiction television a quarter of a century ago still face us today.
The episode opens with a commercial:
The episode opens with a commercial:
“You know knowledge is priceless. That’s why education is worth paying for. With Pay Education TV’s “Know All” Pack you can buy your child the gift of knowledge. Remember, knowledge is power. Subscribe to Pay Education TV: the bright choice.”
Having earned my MA in Media Studies in 2010 I am no stranger to the steep commodification of education. My interest in this topic is related to my dual status as victim and beneficiary of my private education.
Hand & Sandywell’s Three Dystopias
Cyber Exclusion - “an era of cyber-imperialism” p. 202
This dystopia is clearly presented in the cyberpunk milieu of Max Headroom. Numerous groups are excluded by class. Homeless children are excluded from education through the pay-per-view structure of educational programming.
Global Citadel Theory - “a fragmented universe of high tech citadels” p. 203
Like Neal Stephenson’s burbclaves in Snow Crash, citizenship is very much for sale in this dystopia. This future is marked by ‘private solutions to public problems’ (203). Max Headroom presents a dystopia dominated by television networks locked in neofeudalist competition for the hearts, minds, and dollars of the teeming proletariat.
“In such a world, single corporations have access to more information than any single government, while vast populations of derelicts and noncitizens are fair game for the body banks which collect spare parts of biotechnology.” (Ross 147).
In addition, Hand and Sandywell argue that this stratification will result in an erosion of quality in content. Andrew Ross notes that the network programming of Mad Headroom demonstrates an “increase in consumer gratification [which] is manifest in shows such as Lifestyles of the Poor and Pitiful, Porky’s Landing, and Lumpy’s Proletariat, or else the kind of shows, as Max puts it, that ‘go over nobody’s head.” (“Techno-Ethics and Tele-Ethics.” p.147)
Max further comments on the quality of television programming in, what Ross identifies as a paraphrasing of Portia’s plea for mercy in The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of TV is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle ratings dropeth, to a very tiny percentage share, and lo! ‘tis none.” (153).
Global Panopticon or “The Electronic Panopticon of Cybernetic Capitalism” -
“[T]he cybernetic panopticon of digital capitalism produces docile minds locked into their screens.” (204).
This dystopia relies on a Foucauldian network of electronic surveillance. As in most cyberpunk fictions, the digital panopticon of Max Headroom is largely defined by its oppotion: the Blanks, or people who are not indexed in any government database. As Hand and Sandywell note, these dystopic “moments” are often mutually reinforcing and such is the circumstance for the Blanks. Because they are not indexed they are excluded from many of the benefits of citizenship and are not protected under the law.
The most present Blank in Max Headroom is Blank Reg, the operator of an unlicensed DIY broadcast network, ironically named “Big Time” television, which is headquartered in a pink bus. Blank Reg is “savior” as “sentimental technocrat” in the world of Max Headroom (Ross 147). In “Lessons” Blank activists are targeted for sharing pirated educational programming with impoverished children.
Ross, Andrew. “Techno-Ethics and Tele-Ethics.” Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural
Criticism. ed. Patricia Mellencamp. 1990. (138-156).
Max Headroom <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092402/>
Season 2, Episode 7 [5 May 1988]
Pt 1 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BExPoPmmV00>
Pt 2 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYTJrtkXCJc>
Pt 3 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3gjLtDorcvQ>
Hand, M. and B. Sandywell. 2002. E-topia as cosmopolis or citadel: On the democratizing and
de-democratizing logics of the internet, or, toward a critique of the new technological
fetishism. Theory, Culture & Society 19, no. 1-2: 197-225. (p.205-6)[The full article can be found here: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/19/1-2/197.full.pdf]