Where Do Old Gadgets Go To Die? MIT's Backtalk Project Embeds Trackers to Find Out

MIT sensiblecity lab image

Image via YouTube Video

MIT's SENSEable City Lab has come up with the Backtalk project to find out more about what happens to gadgets when consumers are done with them. They've turned their research into art, and it is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But you can get a peek at the project -- and at the crazy mapping of old gadgets -- in this video. MIT used GPS tracking devices embedded in gadgets from cell phones to printer cartridges to netbooks. They used those tracking devices to watch where the devices went. But even more interesting is that with the netbooks, the lab also used software in the built-in webcams to record images. Check out what all that data told the lab:

Engadget points out, "Sooner or later, the device you're reading this on will either be sold, donated, recycled or otherwise disposed of; and unless you're particularly nostalgic about old gadgets like us, you likely won't ever give it much more thought."

It's a disturbingly true statement. We should care about where old devices go -- they contain precious metals (that we're running out of) that can be reused in new gadgets, and they cause incredible amounts of pollution when not recycled properly, as happens in e-waste dumps. Why don't more of us care about where gadgets go to die, when gadgets are both a major part of our culture today and will be part of our lives for the forseeable future? It seems a little insane. No, it seems a lot insane.

MIT writes, "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. We focused on two common scenarios that apply to obsolete electronics: e-waste disposal in urban centers, and the reuse of functioning devices in developing countries. By collecting information form these devices we set out to investigate one of today's key unknown stories - that of global e-waste."

The project is a fascinating and important look at what happens to devices because while "out of sight, out of mind" might be true, "out of sight, out of planet" is most certainly not. Seeing what happens to gadgets might make us care a lot more about what we do with old devices.

Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this
More on e-Waste and MIT
Assaf Biderman on Creating SENSEable Cities (Podcast)
MIT Using Electronic Tracking on Trash to Change Consumer Habits

Related Content on Treehugger.com