Advertising and the Historical Reference

In mid-May of 2018, an internal video from advertising-technology company Google leaked to the public. Produced by Nick Foster, the design head of Google’s experimental lab X, the video dove into a thought experiment: if all of one’s actions online can be recorded, could they be synthesized to better inform future generations’ own? The video analogized this digital ledger with a genetic organism, which — like the physical gene — may have the inherent drive to reproduce itself. So Google must jump in, ready to guide the digital gene — a supposed template for future digital/physical lives — with advanced tools to point out good behavior in purchasing and daily habits. Essentially, Google may reinvent itself as a morality company, with its advertising division the key to a higher human and better future.

What if the ledger could be given a volition or purpose rather than simply acting as a historical reference? What if we focused on creating a richer ledger by introducing more sources of information? What if we thought of ourselves not as the owners of this information, but as custodians, transient carriers, or caretakers?

Foster appears to ignore that the drive of epistemology and philosophy and betterment is in fact the Historical Reference — that is, the millions of textual and oral histories that are sifted and filtered to produce a certain narrative line, enabling a sequence of events to be intelligible. And doubly ignored: that (the) Historical Reference(s) are ceaselessly given purpose — for better or worse, as we can see in the successes and follies of humankind; the cruelty, breakthroughs, wars, and genius inherent to giving volition to ideas concocted from the Historical Reference. We have never stopped being the custodians, transient carriers, and caretakers of the Purposeful Historical Reference, sweeping away whole histories inconvenient or unintelligible — that we now sit on the Historical Reference, pockmarked with miles-wide and pitch black holes resulting from our faithful — fateful — custodianship over the ugly and bad and beautiful and good.

I find Foster’s willful ignorance admirable and innocent, the musings of an egomaniac that has discovered blessedness in their techno-idealisms. He believes that an advertising-technology company, doing what they do best — selling ads — could unlock the secrets of “depression, health, and poverty.” Who knew that making the Historical Reference — richer — also known as throwing one’s own two cents into the ocean — could finally break open the nut of the silent, the internal afflictions that don’t speak through digital purchases or relationships or movement. With this video, Foster has already contributed a huge insight for future healthcare: depression buys bananas too!