What If E-Waste Could Report Information Back About Itself?

MIT’s “Backtalk” project outfitted discarded laptops and other e-waste with tracking technology to create a visualization of our gadgets’ “second lives.”

There’s a cell-phone recycling bin in my supermarket that I’ve tossed old bricks into when I get the newer, sexier model. But I do wonder what really happens to the stuff I toss in there: Does it get shipped off to Africa, where the precious metals are smelted out by hand over a toxic-fume-spewing open flame? Or does it just end up in a dump or landfill somewhere, good intentions about “recycling” be damned? The creators of the MIT Senseable City Lab’s “Backtalk” project wondered the same thing, so they outfitted a bunch of e-waste from Seattle with tracking technology that would let it report back about its “afterlife.”


That cell phone battery trashed in Seattle goes on quite a journey.

The resulting visualization is pretty compelling — like one of those classic “watch your Facebook connections ping across the globe” clips except much more physical. That cell phone battery you chucked in Seattle goes through quite a journey, hopscotching all the way to Florida before it rests. And trashed laptops — which are often refurbished and resold to developing markets — go even further: The video follows one line from Seattle all the way over the top of the globe to land in Kolkata, where we then see the actual face of the Indian kid who is now using it.

MIT was able to create these impressive visual narratives by attaching wireless GPS trackers to cell phone batteries and printer cartridges from volunteers in Seattle, as well as software in refurbished laptops that let the new owners (who were asked for their consent, of course) transmit data and pictures about the laptops’ “second lives” back to the Senseable City Lab. Looking into the eyes of someone literally on the other side of the world, using a piece of technology that we discarded for being “unusable,” really feels like a splash of cold water in the face of our tech-consumption habits. Maybe MIT could set up a laptop-recycling-plus-penpals program for Backtalk v2.0.

[Read more about Backtalk, which is currently showing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.