Geography Baiting 1: MIT Senseable City Lab "MoniTour" Goes Offline

Has the correspondence from Unwitting, Unwilling Research Subjects finally got traction at MIT's Legal Office?  After 3 months of silent treatment, communications from MIT and BAN reignite the blog.

It is the end of summer vacation for Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Senseable City Lab. Professors have been on vacation, with little time to return calls or respond to our letters of May and June 2016.  But last week got a response back last week from MIT's Legal Department, saying that all future inquiries and correspondence should go through them.

This is one week after we cc'd MIT's Senseable City Lab Director, Carlo Ratti, in response to an email to Yours Truly from my an old pal, Jim Puckett, Executive Director of Basel Action Network.  BAN's parterner status with MIT is described in MIT's MoniTour website. You know,

**** static ****

EDIT:  The website is restored now, and may have been unavailable only via my chrome browser which appears to be failing at several sites.  Speculation that MIT had taken the site down was wrong.

The site is 404, not available.  Could be a fluke, a temporary outage. But has been at least 3 days now. It might be premature to correlate MIT's shuffle with the written correspondence I've recently received from Basel Action Network and MIT's Legal Office.  But I predicted in my first response to the @KCTS PBS 9 airing of the "sting" on overseas electronics reuse, repair and recycling - MIT does not have a dog in this fight.  MIT has thousands of international students who know intimately the warts, beauty, sweat, and ingenuity across the oceans, and we predicted that MIT Ethics Committees would hold Carlo Ratti's Senseable City to a higher standard than to draw inferences on the "circular economy" based on BAN's notorious geography-baiting.

It's not exactly race baiting, since we don't know who in the USA owned or touched a device.  But BAN's descriptions of Hong Kong Province - which is wealthier per capita than the USA - with words like "primitive" and "rice paddy" should have been caught internally by MIT, without the help of a Vermont junk dealer's blog.

Someone commented that MIT might be engaged in a "cover up", but my friends in academia share my optimism.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's gravitas was clearly accepted as peer review and diligence by the reporters, and from MIT Senseable City Lab's response, it clearly was not merited or intended as such.

Google cache of the MIT-based webpage shows the original text which described the now AWOL web page as "A joint project between the Basel Action Network and the MIT Senseable City Lab".  And that's not BAN's claim, it's MIT Senseable City Lab indicating it's a "joint project" partner.  (copy and paste below, so you can recreate your own 404).

Monitour / MIT Senseable City Lab

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
A joint project between the Basel Action Network and the MIT Senseable City Lab ... this site in graphic form and will also be released in a series of reports by BAN. ... City Lab 2. a PDF copy of the publication is sent to
You've visited this page 2 times. Last visit: 8/27/16

Carlo Ratti's only direct response to my 14 pages of inquiries was 2 paragraphs. It could have been even shorter:  "It's BAN's project, not MIT's".  Or "People don't track People, GPS devices track people," or "GPS tags don't track people, they track peoples stuff".  "MIT just gave BAN the tools to track unwitting, unwilling participants, we didn't do it ourselves."

But Carlo Ratti spoke to PBS and clearly reviewed the pages on the now AWOL website stating that destinations, like Hong Kong, were "previously unknown".  The gist of my letter was:
"how did MIT determine my business transactions were 'previously unknown', unless it meant 'unknown to MIT and BAN', which isn't much of a defense of the ethical 'unwitting subject' test."
In fact, I'd been to Hong Kong (and Taiwan) one month before the PBS story aired.  Here's Video of Hong Kong from April 2016 below - with my 15 year old son, who I had taken to meet and have dinner with one of the best and brightest video display engineers I'd ever met (in Taipei).  Does the wifi-enabled, air-conditioned luxury ferris wheel ride among skyscrapers depict "typical Hong Kong"?  Of course not. Nor does +KCTS 9 film of a printer scrap yard in Yuen Long.  "Geographical Profiling" shortcut of the necessary effort to track each and every recyclable through each and every technician, and not to depict Asians as "primitives" with just obscured little points on a map.

You can't "obscure" destinations in Hong Kong on your website and then use photos of one location to "profile" anyone who does business with Hong Kong.  That's Geography-Baiting journalists and readers, appealing to their worst fears about recyclers and refurbishers in emerging markets.  You didn't show the Geeks of Color.

You can show Deliverance to depict America, but you've got to show Big Bang Theory, too.  Otherwise, it's propaganda, which BAN has been accused of for a long time, plenty long enough for MIT to vet them as a "joint partner" in describing emerging market "shantytowns" and "rice paddies" and "orphans" and "Sodom and Gomorrahs" and "E-Waste Hell" etc., etc., etc.

How does MIT's partner characterize the people who live and work in and built this location?

Value Added By Reuse, Repair, Recycling and Mining

Not much value added (wikipedia anti-art)
My epiphany came sometime between my experience in Cameroon Peace Corps, my ~5 year term as a truck driver / consultant at Earthworm Recycling, and my MBA at Boston University.


I realized that the recycling I was dedicated to was preserving value once added to rocks by mining and smelting them, value added to trees by cutting and cutting the bark off and bleaching them to fiber.  I realized that the Africans I met who were fixing stuff discarded by others were, with their intellects, capturing added value.  I realized my grandfather in the Ozarks was preserving otherwise depreciating added value by fixing expensive stuff like car engines rather than discarding them.   I realized the "Hillbilly Highway" between poor places and rich cities was a two-way street, with value of labor flowing out and value of devices flowing in.

The dirtiest recycling is cleaner than the cleanest forestry/mining/extraction.
The dirtiest repair is cleaner than the cleanest recycling.

Geographical relocation of devices has to do with the value of the "value added".  In America, I could save $100 by keeping my smart phone or my CRT display just a year longer.  But at a certain point, $100 isn't worth the deferred satisfaction.  That economy is a privilege, which may be earned or may be inherited.

Someone in a poor country may not have that privilege.

The $100 I forgo is 5% of total annual household income for 3 billion people.

Here is what a printer looks like going through a shredder.

Now, the shredding pretty much ruins the plastic.  When the prices of metal is high, that's more than worth the cost of manual disassembly.  When the price of metals falls (as is the case the past 18 months), the value of the plastics becomes relatively important, and the price of labor to hand dismantle the devices becomes more salient.

Liability takes away from added value.  So NGOs are funded by industries that provide less Value Added in order to impugn reuse or recycling industries which have an advantage in adding value.  Effectively, the value of your "stuff" depreciates faster when it crosses a national border.