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The Digital Human


Aleks Krotoski explores the digital world


United Kingdom




Aleks Krotoski explores the digital world





We have been in an odd dialogue with algorithms from the very inception of the internet. They have been trained to spot offensive words, with the goal of allowing civilized conversation while avoiding trolls, spam adverts and hate speech. But, many of our online spaces now moderate content to suit the needs of advertisers. This can mean a lot of people, especially those from marginalized communities, those with alternative or dissident views, or even a-typically creative people, are silenced - and so valuable voices, and conversations could be lost. But humans are very good with language, better than any algorithm developed until now, and we have always found ways to hack around constraints. The latest instrument in this linguistic arms race? Algospeak. Aleks explores the rise of this new form of social media language, discovers how and why black and queer communities are disproportionately silenced by ‘Ad-safe’ algorithms, and finds out that some of the most effective techniques that could allow us to circumvent AI censorship are rooted in the language of people that had to communicate, and mask themselves, with code, long before the digital world existed.



"Right now, and I mean this instant, delete every digital trace of any menstrual tracking. Please." This is a tweet that went viral in the wake of the repeal of Roe V Wade in the United States. Fearing a clamp down on reproductive rights, suddenly people were looking at their online data in a very new way. What does my fitness app say about the state of my body? What could be divined from the details of what I bought? What about the data of the people around me? This is not the first time a sudden social or political change has thrown up potential problems of big data. But now we live in a world of data brokers, thousands of companies collecting, collating and sharing data around the world - and the data related to pregnancy is the most valuable of the lot. Which means, if there is a sudden change in reproductive rights, there’s a lot of data that could be mined for information if a broker sells it on. Aleks explores what happens when freely given data suddenly becomes dangerous, if it’s possible to keep any secrets in an online maelstrom of information, and why we keep coming up against this problem again, and again, and again…



When the world feels as overwhelming as it has in recent years, it can be hard to fully disengage. Aleks Krotoski discovers the value of retreat, both on and offline. We take a trip to the the Highlands of Scotland, visiting a tiny, powerless bothy on the Inschriach Estate. Writer Dan Richards found that this isolated retreat allowed him to process a traumatic near-death experience when nothing else helped. Artist Laurel Schwulst invites us into the 'Firefly Sanctuary' in Brooklyn, New York. It's her apartment, so it's a personal sanctuary, but it's also a sanctuary for strangers. She shares it online via an appropriately relaxing lo-fi website. It's a sanctuary in a URL. Author and memoirist Katherine May defined her own personal retreat from the world as, 'wintering'. A series of difficult life events pushed her into retreat from the world. At first, she felt overwhelmed by the feeling of the world continuing without her, until she learned to surrender to her own personal 'winter' and saw the value in disconnecting for a while. In East Lothian, a twice-weekly trip to the Macmerry Men's Shed provides a consistent, revitalising sense of retreat. The largely elderly members derive enormous benefits from being seen and seeing others, and their visits allow them to escape from their day-to-day lives and worries, if only for a few hours at a time. Producer: Victoria McArthur Presenter: Aleks Krotoski Researcher: Emily Esson



Online and offline, our world is a hugely complex tangle of modern creations and the legacy of the past. As we build upon the shoulders of times gone by, we are in a constant process of assessing what is still useful, what needs to be adapted and what no longer serves us. Aleks looks at the process of salvaging value from the world around us, looking at the pleasure and pain of sifting through the past, the pressures to preserve, how value can evolve over time, the allure of creating from scratch in the face of complex legacy systems and structures, and how treasure is often in the eye of the beholder. Michael Feathers is a software architect and author of Working Effectively with Legacy Code. Over the years, he advised many different companies on the strategic reuse and modernisation of their legacy code and systems. He is currently the Chief Architect for Globant, a global organisation helping companies transform their businesses. Dr James Hunter is a maritime archeologist and curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum. He is also an avid diver. James has excavated sixteenth century Spanish galleons, wrecks from the US civil war and many vessels sunk in World wars. Kate Macdonald is the director of Handheld Press, which republishes texts from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. She has a particular interest in uncovering works that explore lives lived by women, LGBTQ+ and people with physical impairments. Founder of the urban planning consultancy Zvidsky Agency in Ukraine, Alexander Shevchenko has a background in civil engineering and spatial and urban planning. Since 2022, he has set up the non-governmental organisation Restart Ukraine, which supports Ukrainian municipalities with recovery from the impact of 2014 and 2022 conflicts and with tackling urban regeneration fit for modern society’s needs.



Ever had that gnawing feeling that there’s some unfinished business you have an itch to resolve? Maybe it’s a friendship you’ve let drift or a task at work left incomplete. Maybe it’s that sense of having too many tabs open at once on your computer. Our hyper-connected modern lives facilitate multi-tasking and the expansion of our social circles, and it could be argued a by-product of this is that we have more unfinished business than we had in the past. In this episode of the Digital Human, Aleks Krotoski asks how might we adapt to this - and whether it always a bad thing. Producer: Lynsey Moyes



In recent months anxiety around what algorithms will do to the arts has become a hot topic. Art, Literature, Music, all are being generated by AI systems. Even we explored what these algorithms may do to how art is created - just one episode ago. But, we missed something. Algorithms are not just changing how we create art, they’ve been curating everything we see and hear online for years. But they don't explain why. How have these bits of code reshaped our relationship with culture? In this episode Aleks discovers the very different values and meanings in what a human, or an algorithm chooses to present to us. Unpacks the anxiety of what our raw data tells us about our desires, compared to what we believe about ourselves. Finds out how gaming the algorithm to succeed may result in creative stagnation, and a narrowed view of the world. But also how some algorithms could break us free of the boxes we have been slotted into, if things could be done a little differently.



Art has, since time immemorial, been viewed as something quintessentially human. Many utopian visions of a technological future are based on the idea that machines will automate all the mundane, monotonous tasks of life, allowing humanity to fully indulge itself in creative expression. Certainly, artists would not be made obsolete by number crunching machines. But in the past few years, AI Art Generators, specifically Text-to-Art Generators such as MidJourney and Dall-E, have taken the world by storm. Users simply write a prompt, and the Algorithm takes knowledge amassed from images all over the internet, to create beautiful images. A mermaid basking on the shore of Loch, on a moonlit night, in the style of Van Gogh? Done. Cubist Unicorn? Have four. With a little practice, anything you want you can get with the right text? But what does this mean for human artists? We’ve already seen push back from artists worried about their livelihoods, existential worries about human creativity and self-expression, and concerns about the moral and legal issues around masses of artwork being used without consent in order to train AI Generators. In this episode, Aleks explores why art is so core to some people’s existence, why these Generators have such wide appeal, uncovers the story of a pioneer who grappled with the place of human and machine in art making for decades, and finds out why wonky AI may offer the most opportunity for human imagination to bloom.



What’s going on when we scroll through our social feeds finding momentary happiness in the mishaps of celebrities or politicians whose views we dislike? Or delight in the stupidity of everyday people on 'epic fail' sites? Aleks Krotoski explores whether our digital habits, alongside increasingly polarised attitudes, have ushered in a new age of schadenfreude... and asks if this is always a bad thing? Aleks hears from author Tiffany Watt Smith who suggests that, whilst schadenfreude is not a new emotion, online platorms may create the perfect conditions for it to flourish; Dr Lea Boecker suggests schadenfreude may have an important role in boosting self-esteem and encouraging group cohesion; fail video aficionado Olly Browning confesses the particular frisson of schadenfreude he feels when justice is served; whilst researcher Emily Cross shares the results of her recent experiments measuring levels of schadenfreude felt towards robots; and Dr Sa-Kiera Hudson invites us to consider whether schadenfreude is always a passive emotion or whether its addictive qualities might sometimes lead to harmful behaviours towards marginalised groups. Producer: Lynsey Moyes Researcher: Juliet Conway



Aleks Krotoski asks how far we can trust digital technology implanted in our bodies


Bona Fide

Aleks was once asked by a friend to track down an invisible man - a character with no digital footprint at all. How does someone not exist in this media-saturated moment, and why does that make it seem like he has something to hide? Find the right balance between personal privacy and personal transparency, Aleks speaks with information security professionals who hunt for bad guys by puzzling together the pieces of leaked databases and hacked accounts, digital analysts who peer into our devices to catch us out when we’re acting out of character, and undercover operatives who build believable online legends to slip unnoticed into the daily life of the internet. As we grapple with what it means to be able to edit our personal histories in an age when every moment of our lives is expected to be available at the click of a button, how do we demonstrate that beyond a shadow of a doubt, a fake person is real? In this episode, Aleks stumbles over the line between fiction and reality to see what the people scrubbing themselves clean and the people fabricating entirely new personas can tell us about what we expect a human being to be.



Aleks Krotoski explores whether disinhibition, often associated with toxic online behaviours such as trolling, may also have benefits in our digital world? Since the early days of the internet, research into disinhibition, including John Suler’s much-cited paper on the ‘online disinhibition effect’ has recognised that benign disinhibition not only exists alongside toxic but deserves equal consideration. Yet somehow, our fascination with the negative often drowns out more nuanced perspectives. In this episode of the Digital Human, Aleks investigates scenarios where disinhibition might be helpful, examines factors which positively facilitate it and asks whether assumptions that aggressive online behaviours are a result of disinhibition might be a misdiagnosis of the problem. Producer: Lynsey Moyes Researcher: Juliet Conway Contributor Biographies: Ani de la Prida is a psychotherapist and creative arts counsellor and teaches at the University of East London, where she did her master's degree research on the use of digital media in arts therapy. Ani also the founder and course director of the Association for Person-Centred Creative Arts. Tom Postmes is professor of Social Psychology at the University of Groningen. He completed his PhD at the University of Amsterdam. In his research Postmes shows how everyday interactions can lead to such collective behaviour. Judith Donath is a writer, designer and artist whose work examines how new technologies transform the social world. Author of The Social Machine (MIT Press, 2014), she is currently writing a book about technology, trust and deception. Caitlin McGrane is a feminist activist, researcher and academic based in Melbourne, Australia. She works for Gender Equity Victoria leading a project enhancing online safety for women working in the media. Catherine Renton is a freelance writer and culture reviewer based in Edinburgh.



Humans are special creatures, in part because of our relationship with out technology. Our brains are not purely biological, we actually think through our tools. Over centuries, things like the telescope have allowed us to view and understand the secrets of the universe, film and computation has allowed us to manipulate time to see hidden patterns of the world, Augmented and Virtual Reality is allowing us to shape our perception of the world, and Machine Learning could open up boundless untapped knowledge we’ve never been able to process. But in the digital age, the rate of change is happening so quickly, we don’t notice it day to day. We’re so busy we don’t stop to examine, or appreciate, how technology might change the paradigm of the world we all live in. In this episode, Aleks explores some of the technology that has radically changed how humans experience the universe, and learns how we can prepare to adapt to the next technologies that could forever change the world. Producer Elizabeth Ann Duffy, Researcher Juliet Conway, Engineer, Malcolm Torrie.



Aleks discovers how the digital world has reshaped social class and the rights of workers, and finds out how those workers are using lessons of the past to redress the balance of power in a world where the giant companies are have grown to be more powerful than nation states.



The internet began as an academic tool, made to share information, bring people together and spur on advances that would benefit humans across the world. When it was shared with the masses, the dream was that with enough shared information, enough connection from human to human, we would be able to put aside differences, solve global problems, and prosper more as a species. That didn’t happen. Over the the ten years of Digital Human, we have observed communities sharing harmless, odd beliefs and tongue-in-cheek hoaxes for fun, not realising the same technology would be used to share the kind of malignant lies and trolling that has lead to persecution, murder, and even the storming of the US Capitol. Somewhere along the way, the digital world was flipped on its head, with the giants of social media acting as a hub of misinformation, strife and simmering hostility across political and cultural divides. In hindsight, many people were shocked that so many people would use the technology in ways that went against its original purpose… but it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Aleks explores how similar reversals have happened with technology from the time we began to explore mass communication, what lessons we should have learned from the earliest days of online communities, and how as more mature and alert consumers of the internet, we could still make things better.



Aleks Krotoski explores what it means to be solitary in our digital world and whether we should be more nuanced in our approach to the complex human emotion of loneliness. To mark the 10th anniversary of the Digital Human, we’ve been reflecting on some of the questions that have stuck with us over the years. When 'Isolation' aired in 2013, the phrase 'loneliness epidemic' often appeared in the press with digital technology regarded as a key culprit in increasing isolation. Aleks interrogated...



Aleks Krotoski explores what it means to be solitary in our digital world and whether we should be more nuanced in our approach to the complex human emotion of loneliness. To mark the 10th anniversary of the Digital Human, we’ve been reflecting on some of the questions that have stuck with us over the years. When 'Isolation' aired in 2013, the phrase 'loneliness epidemic' often appeared in the press with digital technology regarded as a key culprit in increasing isolation. Aleks interrogated this idea, exploring ways in which technology might facilitate as well as disrupt connection, speaking to inventor Joanna Montgomery whose prototype project 'Pillow Talk' had become an internet sensation. Things shifted during lockdown when enforced separation from loved ones and, conversely, a lack of personal space, effectively mainstreamed loneliness, with technology reframed as an important tool in keeping us connected. In this follow-up programme Aleks wonders what insights the pandemic revealed about loneliness and how we might future-proof ourselves against it? She finds out what happened next for Joanna Montgomery and talks to writer and historian Fay Bound Alberti who suggests that there is a distinction between transitory and chronic loneliness. 'Wellbeing smuggler' Antony Malmo talks about how the language we use around loneliness can be counter-productive whilst Maff Potts of the Camerados movement explains how setting up 'public living rooms' can remove stigma and encourage community connections. Produced by Lynsey Moyes in Edinburgh. Contributors: Joanna Montgomery is an interaction designer, founder of technology company, Little Riot and the creative mind behind the internet phenomenon "Pillow Talk”. Her work explores how humans engage with technology and the impact it has on society. Antony Malmo, Director of Change and Capability at Allos Australia describes himself as a ‘wellbeing smuggler’ and ‘jargon cutter’ and is an accomplished educator across the fields of management, finance, health, engineering and manufacturing. Fay Bound Alberti is a writer, historian and consultant. She is UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and Professor in Modern History at the University of York. Her books include This Mortal Coil (2016) and A Biography of Loneliness (2020). Maff Potts is founder of the Camerados movement which believes that the simple human act of looking after each other can be transformative.



Aleks Krotoski asks if we've all become techno-fundamentalists, unquestioningly accepting the latest innovation into our lives without thinking about potential downsides. Perhaps we could learn from a society who think much more carefully and critically about adopting new technology - the Amish. Unlike what many people believe, it's not that they reject technology outright but they make careful community based decisions about they what they permit. It's a thoughtful, democratic and yes scientific approach. They'll see how a modern innovation effects the community by allowing it to be trialled and if they don’t like what they see, they reject it, How many of the negative unintended consequences of digital technology could have been avoided if the rest of us took a page out of their book?



Economics has always been complicated, but the day to day stuff was always pretty straightforward. Make money from working, exchange that money for goods and services, save a bit for a rainy day if possible. The online world changed things. Not so long ago, people were afraid to give their banking details to eBay, now people trade in currencies they will never hold in their hands, and are investing in non-fungible tokens. NFTs, put simply, are items that are unique and can’t be replaced with something else. In comparison, a coin would be seen as fungible - traded one penny for another and you still have something worth a penny. NFTs can be traded for different NFTs - like trading cards - or eventually sold off for cash when the owner thinks they can get the best price. Until recently, NFTs have been mostly made up of digital art, some music, even a Jack Dorsey Tweet, but we’re on the cusp of a new era in digital economics, one where everything could be made into a token - the likes and comments you leave on social media, the hobby you dive into on your off time, even your heart, or your mind. Aleks finds out how the digital economy has changed so much in the last decade, and explores a future where everything - from your likes, your hobbies, even your heartbeat - could be Tokenised and up for trade.



Aleks Krotoski asks if AI companions will be like imaginary friends of childhood. And if so will they afford the same benefits - making us better, more social human beings. To mark the 10th anniversary of The Digital Human we're answering some of the questions that have stuck with us over the last ten years. In 2017 we spoke to Eugenia Kuyda who used her AI startup in San Francisco to help her create a chatbot version of her late friend Roman. Using all the texts she and her friends had ever received from him they made an AI that could text in voice. But it's where she wanted to take the technology that intrigued us. She wanted to give everyone their own Roman, an AI bot that would be a constant companion, infinitely patient and understanding. It would be taught by the user using their own texts and so would speak to them in their own voice. She called it Replika, and five years on the chatbot has 20 million users across the globe. The idea made us instantly think of imaginary friends from childhood. In this programme Aleks sets out to find out if this is more than an interesting metaphor but perhaps a key way to understanding our relationship with these soon to be pervasive technologies. Producer: Peter McManus



This year, The Digital Human celebrates its 10 year anniversary. During that time, we have explored all corners of the digital realm, and told hundreds of stories that have revealed how we as humans have been shaped by the technological world we have created, and what we may become in the future. Some of those stories have always stayed with us, because they have generated more questions - questions that we’ve always wanted to have answered, and in this series, we finally will. In one of our all time fan-favourite episodes, Altruism, we told stories of online kindness, and how the internet could be used to bring out the best of human nature. But in the last decade, we have seen the online environment become more fractious, less community based, and in some cases, outright hostile. Aleks sets out to find out why some online spaces can bring out the best in us, while others the worst, and discovers how we could actually tailor our technology to become a real force for good.