Exhibit Visualizes the Journey of Discarded Electronics

MIT researchers develop tracking system that shows paths of discarded, recycled electronics.

Ever wonder where that old cow-boxed Gateway computer you had in high school ended up? After you upgraded to a faster, slicker computer, maybe you passed it along to a younger cousin, donated it to a church, or dumped it off at Goodwill.

When you parted ways, you may have considered it the end of the computer's life. Think again. That computer had a second, possibly even a third existence in places like Kolkata, India.

To help you visualize this globe-trotting second life, some MIT researchers have created a series of real-time visualizations and videos that are part of a new exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The visualizations highlight the "second-life" of used computers when they're adopted by new owners and, as well, illustrate the large volumes of electronic waste that is generated annually. The project is called backtalk and part of MOMA's new exhibition, "Talk To Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects," which opens to the public on July 24th.

"As our objects, buildings and cities become digitally controlled and ‘smarter', they are also being embedded with an increasing amount of electronics," said Carlo Ratti in an MIT press release. Ratti is director of the MIT Senseable City Lab, the group responsible for backtalk.

"But what happens to these electronics once they are discarded?" asked Ratti. "This is what our project set out to explore. Initial results provide an unprecedented glimpse into the global e-waste chain and its patterns of reuse and disposal."

The team developed two different tracking technologies to follow the discarded electronics as they're recycled around the globe. They also partnered with several non-governmental organizations who ship used, donated computers from the U.S. to developing countries. Reused laptops were programmed to detect their location and capture images of their new users with built in cameras. After the new owners gave their consent, data was then sent to MIT in real-time and used to build visual narratives about the computers second lives.

The second aspect of the visualization reveals the traces of e-waste as it it disperses across the United States. The team used GPS-enabled wireless location trackers top map the paths of batteries, cell phones, printer cartidges and other devices scrapped by volunteers in Seattle, Washington.

"The large volumes of electronic refuse generated annually present both a toxic liability and a potentially valuable resource," said Assaf Biderman, the lab's Associate Director. "One of the consequences of digitizing our everyday objects is that the data they capture provides us with new information about the impact of our actions – from what we consume, to the waste we discard, and to the things we give away."

[Via MIT]

Caption: The recorded trajectories of cell phones, batteries and printer cartridges, discarded in Seattle, WA. Credit: MIT Senseable City Lab