Did Max Headroom Warn Us About the Future of AI?

MTV, New Coke, and ChatGPT all rolled into one…

Jamie Logie

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Photo by Aideal Hwa on Unsplash

The time setting? Sometime in the near future. The place: A dystopian world dominated by television and large corporations. The character? A cyborg — driven by artificial intelligence — challenging the corporations and systems, while at the same time, creating its own persona to influence the public.

This may sound like a description of Tron, 1984, or BladeRunner, but it is in fact a fabricated personality used to parody the changing world of television networks and warn us about the future while going on to become a defining part of the 1980s.

There are certain defining images from the 1980s that have gone on to represent the decade. Acid wash jeans, perms, and ALF, these are just a few of those images you may be picturing. and then there’s Max Headroom. As long as you owned a TV during the 80s, flipped through‌ a magazine, or looked up at a billboard, it was difficult to not see him.

Max headroom was a fictional, artificial intelligence character considered to be the first computer-generated TV host. And you could make the case that this character — from a commercial standpoint — is the spokesperson for the entire decade.

But what are the origins of this character, and how would he fit into the pop culture landscape during the 1980s and predict the future of media and AI?

The Early Conception Of Max Headroom

We live in an age now with an endless amount of entertainment channel “personalities” that seem to be a dime a dozen. Mix that with moronic social media influencers and we are flooded with cookie-cutter personas bombarding us on all forms of media. Our networks are filled with talking heads and even in regular life, it seems as if everyone wants to be a star.

This was no different In the 1980s — but there were just fewer platforms to appear on. But with the growth of cable tv, entertainment programs, and news channels, there was more demand for perfectly manicured presenters to appear on TV. The 1980s gave us this big explosion of insincere and egotistical TV personalities and this created an idea that would develop into the character of Max Headroom.

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Jamie Logie

Some health, a little marketing, and a lot of 1980s content