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 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.
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 good and services, save a bit for a rainy day if possible.
The online world changed things. Not so long ago, people were afraid to put 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 a different NFT - 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 10 years. In 2017 we spoke to Eugenia Kuyda she 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 firends had ever received from him they made an AI that could text in voice.
But its where she wanted to take the technology that intrigued us. She wanted 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. Five years on Replika 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 more than an interesting metaphor but perhaps a key way to understand our relationship with these soon to be pervasive technologies.
Producer: Peter McManus