Help, My Information's Being Co-Opted by Max Headroom!

Michael Pellauer

The character of Max Headroom is unique, not only on television, but in the cast of fictional characters we are discussing this week. Conceptually, Max is similar to Gibson's AI creations Wintermute and Neuromancer in that he is an artificial life form whose realm of existence is the global network of technology that human beings have created. This environment was never meant to support life, and therefore these beings are portrayed as having godlike powers over their domains, able to take control of machines for their own purposes.

While Max may not be the nefarious genius that Neuromancer is, he certainly has a more interesting personality. He communicates with humanity through televisions (which are more similar to computer monitors in Max's world of "Twenty Minutes into the Future"). He is powerful because of his ability to control these systems, to co-opt their normal visual and audio outputs, and to and use them to display himself. This ability, as we saw, allows him to jump from multiple points in the city rapidly (perhaps even be at different locations simultaneously) and communicate with everyone from the head of the TV network to the punks on the street at his whim.

This very ability, which makes Max useful as a partner to the reporter, is one currently feared by many cyber-citizens on the present-day Internet. There have been incidents of hackers breaking into websites and replacing the information -- with pornography, say, or propaganda for other companies. At some level we all know that data on the Internet is not very trustworthy, but this issue is not something we think about in everyday surfing. How do you know the scores you get off of ESPNet are accurate, or the news reports from CNN online? While many people would surely not act on a stock tip taken from a random web site, what about one from the New York Times? Who's to say these sites haven't been co-opted by smart, subtle hackers -- changed give misinformation?

The more trusted the medium, the more surprised we are when it is hacked. No one gets too excited about a web site being broken into these days, but I remember an incident that occurred several years ago in Chicago. It was late at night, and I was watching everyone's favorite English science fiction show Doctor Who on public television, when all of a sudden the screen was replaced with Max Headroom -- he was co-opting my information! Things degenerated from there, going from absurd to obscene as Max Headroom proceeded to pitch Pepsi instead of Coke, swear, pull down his pants, and get spanked with a fly swatter. "Max," it turned out, was a hacker, a local college kid who somehow managed to take over the channel and have some fun. The whole thing lasted for about two minutes, then disappeared as quickly as it had come.

From the Chicago Tribune, November 30, 1987 (obtained through Lexis-Nexis):

Now, years later, the irony of this incident is inescapable. I can't help but think that the whole thing would make Baudrillard erupt into uncontrollable laughter (or tears). But before you laugh to hard think about this: how do you know this page hasn't been co-opted itself?.

[To other discussions of this topic by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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