Tracking the afterlife of electronic gadgets

Exhibition catalog for "Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects."

"Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects" is an exhibit opening this weekend at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Among the many installations is the product of some research conducted by Carlo Ratti and Assaf Biderman of the SENSEable City Lab at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Ratti and Biderman were interested in what becomes of a castaway electronic device when it's donated or recycled. Where does it travel? Where does it end up? To that end, they attached tracking devices and cameras to a series of donated laptops and then tracked them and watched them as they moved around the world. Biberman says the work being presented at MOMA is a visualization of reports from the machines as they traveled, complete with photos of what the machines were seeing. The visualization is updated in real time.

Biderman says the project emerged out of another experiment they conducted a while back. "We developed these sensors you can charge once and they'll tell you for one year where they are in real time," he says. "Then we invited 500 households to install those sensors on their trash. Anything from rotten bananas to a fridge."

"After we did this deployment where we followed a whole bunch of trash, we realized that e-waste shows very bizarre behavior. The travel patterns covered almost the entire country and similar items going to the same place could take very different routes."

As for what he hopes people will get from the exhibit, Ratti says, "One point in using all this data and the tracking technology we have today is that we can better understand our cities, our systems -- in this case the recycling chain -- and so we can in the future optimize and design it in a better way."

"But I think there's another component that comes down to individual choices. The question is, will we use electronics in a different way once we know what happens when we throw it away? Will it change our consumption if we see the things we throw away, they don't disappear, they're still on the planet, they're just moving around and they will end up in the U.S. or outside the U.S."

Also in this program, the coming retirement of Google Labs. Sometimes brilliant, occasionally bizarre, often fascinating.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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