In 2018, an estimated 4 million mobile phones were sold every day—a figure which does not include phones that were manufactured but unsold. Once you include phone charges, computers, and tablets, the scale of our technology waste is astronomical. And since most of these products are encased in plastic, they’ll take hundreds of years to decompose.

This has been on Nathaniel Stern’s mind for a while now. The Wisconsin-based artist has always been fascinated by technology, ecology, and design, having received a BA from the school of human ecology from Cornell University and a PhD from the department of electronic and electrical engineering from Trinity College Dublin. In his most recent exhibition, entitled The World After Us, Stern creates sculptures, installations, prints, and photographs that weave together plant life with electronic waste to help us imagine how our devices will live on in the world even after we’ve discarded them for the next device-of-the-moment.

Stern was inspired by a book by journalist Alan Weisman of the same name, which invites readers to imagine how our massive technological infrastructure would crumble and fossilize once humans no longer walk the earth. Stern has given us some visual cues about what would happen to our everyday objects. There are many curious items on display, including a piece cleverly called Photosynthesis that features a small plant growing out of a Panasonic Lumix camera. There’s a large wall covered in plants whose tendrils snake around open laptops, keyboards, cassette tapes, and pieces of a motherboard that have been hung up. There are even pieces of electronic equipment that have long been out of use: An old-fashioned corded phone has leaves growing out of the dial pad.

Everything about the exhibit—including its title—reminds us of our own eventual demise. But it also forces us to consider that while we’re organic creatures that will return to the earth, we have fashioned materials that will long outlive us. And we don’t give enough thought to how these items will live on—and perhaps take on new lives of their own—once plants and animals find a way to live around them.

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Author: Elizabeth Segran, Fast Company
Photo: Nathaniel Stern