Is it real or wilful ignorance that permits us to foul our own planet with Styrofoam cups and rusted batteries? Would we curb our wasteful activities if only we knew the error of our ways? Technophiles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology think so, and to equip the public with the knowledge we need to change our behaviour they’ve tagged our technological trash with GPS chips and tracked it across the globe. “Some trash is recycled, some is thrown away, some ends up where it shouldn’t end up,” says Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The lab’s video project, Backtalk (as in trash that talks back) is currently on display at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art as part of a group show about our communication with technology. In the video, batteries, cell phones and other discarded electronic devices begin as dots in Seattle, which scatter across a map of the US, leaving a web of fluorescent trails in their wake. “In one case we saw printer cartridges go from Seattle, to the east coast, to southern California,” says Assaf Biderman, associate director at the Senseable lab. “To me, that poses a question on the benefit of recycling versus the cost of travel.”
Backtalk also includes photos taken from laptops that had been sent to developing countries by laptop-donation programmes in the US. New users of the “discarded” laptops consented to have their photo taken. These tracked devices reveal a life that extends far beyond the original owner’s sight. “If you can get feedback about how the end of life looks for an object, it can help you become more aware so you can rethink your actions, ” Biderman says.
The MIT lab isn’t the first to point out inefficiencies in how the US handles electronic waste, of course. Debates on how to best recycle electronics have been waged since the first televisions broke – and as they continue into the present day, these disagreements expose how complex solutions are. About 53 million tons of electronic waste was generated in 2009, according to the technology market research firm, ABI Research. With a dearth of electronic waste recycling plants in the US, many companies export their toxic products to harvesting and smelting operations in Africa and Asia. And what isn’t recycled ends up in landfills, where it poses significant health risks because of leaching lead and other metals. Watchdog groups have sought to improve electronic waste recycling for years, but companies need economic or regulatory incentives to alter their current modes of operation. In Backtalk, Biderman and Ratti reiterate how inefficient the electronic waste recycling system is, and hope their new display of data will encourage people to pause before tossing out a printer cartridge – or better yet, work to fix the system.
“A moral argument is a hard one to make,” says Adam Williams, a doctoral student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who is studying recycling markets in China. “Successful recycling systems in China and Brazil happen when people realise they can profit off of trash,” he explains. “‘Save Mother Earth’ fails in terms of creating a system of global responsibility. Recycling needs to put money into someone’s pockets in order to work effectively.”
Yet Biderman maintains people can also be reached by driving home the concept of our interconnectedness. “After the Civil War, people realised there was a benefit to pooling their money to contribute to the common good, so they created the income tax,” he explains. “If we could create an environment where people were aware of the impact of waste or the impact of traffic, by sharing data obtained through sensors, there would be an incentive to participate in order to improve communal spaces.” Backtalk is a proof of concept that a technologically driven bottom-up approach can engage the public, he says. But if getting the message across to the broader public is anything like trying to get through to the to the over-stimulated visitors milling through the MoMA’s buzzing exhibit on communicative technologies, I’m afraid the message may be lost in digital noise.