The Election in New Babel

Brian James

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 exhibition.

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.

About the Artist

Brian James is a Brooklyn-based design educator and technologist. With an MFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design, his perspective and practice are also informed by prior undergraduate and graduate studies in philosophy and applied linguistics. His professional work includes design and software development of digital interactive pieces at award-winning studios for clients ranging from local educational institutions to global brands. More recently, Brian has focused on his academic interests as an assistant professor of interaction design at St. John’s University in New York City, where he aims to enrich the language of design by constructing bridges of dialog to adjacent domains, such as electronic literature and creative coding.