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Cast-off gadgets peek into new owners' lives

MIT researchers set up cast-off Netbooks to send back pictures and location data from the computers' new owners in developing countries. Images from the research are part of an upcoming exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

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There is an afterlife--for electronics, anyway. Ever wonder what it's like? Researchers at MIT tracked used computers to find out. The project gives you a glimpse of where cast-off laptops and smartphones end up.

Rather than simply providing statistics about the global flows of secondhand electronics and e-waste, the MIT Senseable City Lab researchers produced a series of images of the gadgets' new owners and their surroundings. The images hail from Indonesia, South Asia, and Africa.

For the project, dubbed Backtalk, researchers sent refurbished Netbooks to developing countries via nonprofit organizations. They set up the computers to record location and pictures, and send the data home to MIT--with their new owners' consent. The Netbooks carried stickers explaining the project in the local language.

The researchers captured the data using the open-source antitheft software Prey, which records a computer's GPS coordinates and takes a picture with the computer's camera every 20 minutes.

refurbished netbooks
The netbooks carried stickers explaining the project in the local language. MIT Senseable City Lab

The MIT team used the data to build visual narratives about the computers' new lives. Here's a summary from the project Web site:

The information [the Netbooks] report back offers firsthand 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.

The images are random windows into the everyday lives of people in developing countries. At once dreamlike and voyeuristic, they introduce an exotic remoteness to otherwise mundane scenes: a home in India, a classroom in Ghana, a shop in Nepal.

Images from the backtalk project will be shown as part of Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, an exhibit opening July 24 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.