The Election in New Babel
Electronic Literature

Web-based electronic literature
Custom Processing sketch to generate headline text

Project Description

If, as Marshall McLuhan once said, ads were the greatest art form of the 20th century, then perhaps text related to targeted advertising could become literature in the 21st. In the logic of the current era’s media, governing coalitions are not monolithic blocs made up of voters with a shared political vision. Increasingly, they are fragmented demographic slices, often at odds with one another, but nudged in the same direction at a crucial moment through hyper-customized ads. They do not represent a consensus, but rather the handful of swing voters who can decide a national election.

The Election in New Babel is a generative text piece that expresses the absurdity of this fragmentation through newspaper headlines covering a fictional near-future election. The piece uses custom-written code to exhaustively generate uncannily specific demographic groups, derived by iterating through Facebook’s actual targeting options, such as “parents,” or “people whose anniversary is within 61–90 days.” These targeted-advertising-based voting blocs are inserted into politically themed clickbait headlines, replacing traditional constituencies with their shared concerns and experiences. Of the vast number of potential combinations, 100 voter blocs are presented in the present iteration.

The titular reference to Babel comes both from the biblical narrative describing the linguistic mechanism of a societal breakdown, as well as Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel, wherein similar a logic of exhaustive recombination within a set of constraints was deployed as a thought experiment.

The Election in New Babel employs a social media’s eye view of the public, which may at first be dehumanizing, as it reduces individual lived experiences to quantifiable categories for potentially nefarious hypothetical purposes. But it invites human moments of imagination as well; one may easily find oneself thinking of friends or acquaintances who fit the audience descriptions, or start to form connections between otherwise unrelated groups of people. It also has jarringly specific moments where one may well imagine the capabilities of targeting even individuals, using a relatively small number of generic-sounding options. Thus, while there is a humorous aspect to the absurd headlines generated by the piece, The Election in New Babel is also a serious reflection on the interaction of technology, identity, democracy, and the unpredictable realignments they engender, which will likely shape the rest of the century.