It seems like everyone these days has had a paranoiac moment where a website advertises something to you that you recently purchased or was gifted without a digital trail. According to a new website called New Organs, which collects first-hand accounts of these moments, "the feeling of being listened to is among the most common experiences, along with seeing the same ads on different websites, and being tracked via geo-location," reports The Outline. The website was created by Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne, two Brooklyn-based artists whose work explores the intersections of technology and society. From the report: "We are stuck in this 20th century idea of spying, of wiretapping and hidden microphones," said Brain. "But really there is this whole new sensory apparatus, a complicated entanglement of online trackers and algorithms that are watching over us." It is this new sensory apparatus that Brain and Lavigne metaphorically refer to as "new organs," as if the online surveillance framework used by social media platforms like Facebook has somehow transfigured into a semi-living organism. "These new organs don't actually need to listen to your voice to know that you like Japanese knives," Lavigne told me. "They actually have ways of coming to know things about you that we don't fully understand yet." In other words, these new methods of data collection have become so uncannily accurate in their knowledge of you as to occasionally feel indistinguishable from actual ears listening in on and understanding intimate conversations.
There are a few things that we do already know about these new "organs" of data processing, as defined by Brain and Lavigne. We know, for instance, that they have an insatiable appetite for personal data. They gather this by first tracking online activity, which is enough to tell them what people like, what they search for, what they listen to, what they read, where they're walking for dinner, and also, worryingly, who their friends are and what they like, read, purchase -- data that is gathered without their awareness. But, then, the organs also gather information purchased from commercial data brokers about people's offline lives, like how many credit cards they own, what their income is, and what they purchase when they go grocery shopping. And all of this information is triangulated with friends' data, because if they know what those dear to you are buying -- a Japanese knife, for instance -- there is a good chance that that person will be interested in that very same thing. The new organs process this enormous amount of information to break you down into categories, which are sometimes innocuous like, "Listens to Spotify" or "Trendy Moms," but can also be more sensitive, identifying ethnicity and religious affiliation, or invasively personal, like "Lives away from family." More than this, the new organs are being integrated with increasingly sophisticated algorithms, so they can generate predictive portraits of you, which they then sell to advertisers who can target products that you don't even know you want yet.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.