On “How to Rob the American Electorate”: An Artist Statement and Reflection

This commentary was originally posted on December 6, 2017, to the Electronic Literature class blog for Digital Studies 220 at Davidson College

Earlier this semester, our class was presented with the opportunity to choose one work of digital literature to focus on extensively in the format of a Let’s Play video. Having already become enchanted with Alan Bigelow’s how to rob a bank, I chose this piece for my analysis. Through the process of becoming more intimately familiar with the piece’s narrative arch and ways of exploiting digital mediums, I concluded that the work ultimately communicates a story using methods that would not be possible in a traditional book of print.

As a recap, my argument centered around three themes that Bigelow’s work served to highlight: surveillance, passive consumption, and normalization of product placement. The first two themes, that of surveillance and of passive consumption, I’d like to pick apart again here. The method of information delivery that how to rob a bank uses makes a cunning critique of the ways that information can easily be collected about us based on our smartphone usage. The success of the piece depends largely on our ability to grasp information about the phone user completely independent of any external narration. Relatedly, the method of progression involves a process of consistent swiping familiar to the average smartphone user. We, as readers, indicate we have absorbed the information and are ready for the next visual or auditory information to consume by swiping to the left. When played on the computer, this process is enacted by a similarly familiar mechanism to the modern digital browser (the arrow keys).

I find these elements significant to reflect back upon because of their relevance in the construction of my final port project. Beginning the creation of my own original spinoff of how to rob a bank, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I had a general sense of how the mechanics of the project worked, and I was intrigued by the ways that this piece was uniquely digital in comparison to other forms of digital narrative we looked at which perhaps relied heavily on auditory or textual narration to deliver the plotline. What I had little to no idea about was how much work would go into the construction and carefully planned revealing of a digital persona. Throughout the process, I fancied myself quite the digital spinster – beginning with a few semi-defined pivot points and slowly teasing out details about the character and background story as I continued.  The creation of this process was much like the unraveling and repackaging of a ball of yarn, leaving the story nicely contained for the next person to approach and experience. I do not doubt that this analogy would find common ground in the mind of Alan Bigelow, himself self-proclaimed author of “webyarns”.

The magnitude of the fact that the day I sit down to write this reflection, and reveal this project on my digital domain, is the day that President Trump commits yet another act of political violence upon an entire population of people is not lost on me. It would be unfortunate and perhaps shameful to write this reflection and leave out the fact that today is the day that President Trump chose to formally recognize Jerusalem as the state of Israel’s capital and to order the U.S. embassy to relocate to this area of contentious and genocidal settlement. The combined efforts of the scope of this paper and the limits of my own concision does not leave me room to give justice to this conversation, but this is an event of global importance that we cannot rightfully ignore.

I also wish to recenter the intentions of this project and, accordingly, the merits of humor and satire in building community, developing a voice, and recognizing the absurdities of the world around us. Nonetheless, humor and satire will never be more than a conversation, and thus, I take seriously both objections to the representations I have presented in this project and the ultimate end aspiration to make meaningful change in society beyond the satiric representation of a detested profile in the United States at this present time.

It is worth here noting that the intention of this project was never to move beyond a caricatured vision of a Trump supporter. For one thing, this pieces does not aim to underline a commentary of how we arrived in this political moment, but rather to give due attention to the automated campaign fundraising texts that President Trump’s media and fundraising team continue to carry out to this day. The account represented through the texts from the 88022 number is in no way fictionalized. Every message, video, and link displayed on the screen appeared in an actual message from the Trump campaign over the past months. Setting aside the natural discomfort that arises from a sitting president running an active fundraising campaign, this project aims to highlight the unique tone of these messages. The choice of diction, register, and false urgency aim to culminate a fabricated sense of interpersonal communication and individual attention that stands in stark contrast to the messages’ mode of delivery (i.e. mass telecommunication with all who enlist in receiving such updates with no availability or opportunity for response).

By using this project to respond to an assignment which asks us to transcribe, or “port”, one form of narrative to a new media, I aim to work alongside Alan Bigelow and other electronic authors in challenging underlying constructions of what constitutes literature. I found that the most meaningful way to transcribe texts into a fuller story was to create a character that represented the traits of a person whom the continued media contribution campaign clearly targets.

On another level, there are already plenty of pieces which do the work of humanizing white supremacists, misogynists, and generally xenophobic Americans. Perhaps most crucially though, to whom do these pieces ultimately actually serve?  In response to the debates surrounding the New York Times profile of a Neo-Nazi, Twitter user Talia Levin sums up this point succinctly: “illustrating the banality of evil by focusing solely on the banality and not the evil seems counterproductive”. In other words, who we choose to spotlight with full depth of character and who we choose to write off with two-dimensional tropes is immensely political.

Joe Duncan as a character explicitly represents an exaggeration of several tropes: namely, the deeply misogynistic, bro-ish, oil-stock-trading econ major who doesn’t respect the broader fields of humanities, nor any ethical boundaries. One intention of this project was to create a character that could believably parody some of the traits of the people we encounter on the daily at Davidson, rather than to place the cultural indictments of the vigilant Trump supporter on a distant, classed and regionalized other.

Due to the extensiveness of the process, I found that I had, in fact, accidentally created not one project, but one full story, which could not be given justice within the limits of this project. I expect, and hope, to return to this process to continue the story of Joe Duncan’s journey to New York to meet his hero, Donald Trump. However, in its current iteration, there are two “easter eggs” which may or may not come up in playthroughs. First, we are exposed to three forms of digital interaction which Joe engages in: texting, emailing, and tweeting. While Joe’s (read: my) number is somewhat intentionally not revealed in the course of the story, both his email account and Twitter handle can be found through the close reading of the screenshots and GIFs provided in the project. Should the reader choose to message Joe on either of these platforms, they will be surprised to be immediately greeted with a characteristically offensive response. The email account uses a simple automatic reply system commonly used for vacation responses to send an aggressive comment. Joe’s Twitter account runs a script provided by the service Cheap Bots Done Quick, which utilizes Kate Compton’s Tracery JSON framework to cycle between several possible remarks when users tag the handle. These easter eggs were designed in response to our classes’ conversation about migratory clues and transmedia storytelling, such as the spinoff website available from the clues of the video, This House Has People In It.

Overall, the project has room for several next steps which I hope to expand on in future months. Several further platforms (visible on Joe phone’s home screen) were originally imagined as potential platforms for plot development, which ideally future chapters will speak to. The next chapter of the story necessarily entails a journey of personal confrontation with the disparity between the tone of the Trump campaign’s fundraising messages and the reality that not every average Joe supporter will be able to sustain a personal relationship (or even meet) the president of the United States. I do also wish to eventually either amend or expand the easter eggs that currently exist such that further content beyond personal aggrandization can be obtained through the additional efforts of the reader. Ultimately, I hope you enjoyed experiencing this project. I surely enjoyed creating it.

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