TECH
07/20/2011 02:39 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2011

Inside The Afterlife Of Our Discarded Gadgets (VIDEO)

A new exhibit created by researchers at MIT's SENSEable City Lab for New York's Museum of Modern Art probes the "afterlife" of our discarded gadgets, from cellphones and batteries to printer cartridges and computers.

The project, which will be on display at MOMA as part of the exhibition "Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects," was motivated by a simple, yet revealing question: "What if our devices kept talking back to us after we disposed of them?"

To find out, MIT researchers decided to track trashed electronic devices in ways that would offer insights into where the gadgets travel after being disposed of in the United States, as well as how they're used and by whom.

Two visualizations, called "backtalk" were created: one consists of images taken by the refurbished laptops of their new owners (who gave their permission) paired with data about the location of the PCs, while the second mapped the path of discarded devices via "GPS-enabled wireless location trackers" affixed to e-waste disposed of in Seattle. The trackers offered information about how these gadgets traveled across the U.S. and across the world.

The SENSEable City Lab explains on its site:

We turned used laptops and other electronic devices into independent reporters that document their ‘second life’, sending us images and GPS coordinates from remote places. The information they report back offers first-hand perspectives - glimpses into e-waste recycling villages, local thrift stores, public schools and libraries - that prompt a reflection on our society’s relationship with our electronic devices. [...]

Starting in Spring 2011, we started working with electronics recyclers and educational non-profit organizations who donate outdated computers to developing countries. We equipped forty refurbished netbook computers with tracking software adapted from the open-source Prey project. Every twenty minutes, these laptops send us their location (determined using Google’s geolocation API) and a picture from their built-in camera.

Though the exhibition offers a glimpse at where these dead devices go, there's another important story concerning our e-waste that is not addressed: the human health risks posed by the toxic pollutants that are released by discarded and "recycled" electronics.

A 60 minutes report examined a "wasteland" in Guiyu, China where gadgets from the United States that are meant to "recycled" are disposed of--contaminating the air, water, and soil with toxic chemicals such as mercury and cadium. 60 Minutes likens the town to "a sort of Chernobyl of electronic waste" where "you can't breathe the air or drink the water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead."

As The Guardian notes, "As much as 50-80% of US electronic waste collected for recycling is exported for processing where discarded components emit pollutants that are dangerous to human health and the environment."

See the video below for more information about SENSEable City Lab's project, as well as to watch 60 Minutes' report on e-waste in China. Visit The MOMA exhibition will be open July 24 through November 7.

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