Digital explorer and presenter Aleks Krotoski muses on the potential of the internet and AI, the symbiosis between humans and machines, and how we might cope with the next steps in technology

Back in 2000, broadcaster and social psychologist Aleks Krotoski was on an exercise bike in her local gym, feeling disenchanted with life. On the cusp of resigning from her job presenting gaming review shows, she was frustrated with the niche realm of video game culture and craving a change. As she pedalled, she caught sight of the gym’s wall-mounted television, which happened to be showing an advert for tampons, and it struck her that the aesthetic was designed to mimic a video game.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Hold on a second… this is a lot bigger than what I’m doing right now’,” she recalls, speaking from her home on the East Coast of the United States, where she lives with her technologist partner Ben Hammersley and their young child. “‘This is not going away. This is not for a small audience – this is actually the future’.”

Suddenly, video games had edged into everyday reality, intersecting with mainstream culture. It was at this moment that Krotoski felt several different universes collide. Most significantly, the online and the offline, the human and the digital. But rather than abandon tech journalism, she stuck with it to bear witness as the online world shifted from niche to ubiquitous.

Aleks Krotoski has been reporting on the seemingly infinite realm of digital technology for the past two decades. Her career as a TV presenter began when she came to our screens as presenter of two late-night video game review shows, both on Channel 4 – ‘Bits’ (1999-2001), which she co-hosted with Emily Booth and Emily Newton Dunn, and ‘Thumb Bandits’ (2001-2002), co-hosted with Iain Lee.

Since then, she has been a resident researcher and curator at the British Library, a documentary presenter for BBC Two, and host of The Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast. Her book, ‘Untangling The Web’, was released in 2013 to critical, academic and popular acclaim, while her BBC Radio 4 series, ‘The Digital Human’, which has been running since 2012, is both awe-inspiring and comforting. Its gentle format, complete with ambient sound beds and field recordings, presents huge contemporary concepts, warmly inviting you to explore the expansive and often daunting digital world.

The show is certainly futuristic, both aesthetically and conceptually. It often feels like it’s reporting on a sci-fi future that has already arrived. Covering everything from trolling, AI and automation to artists minting their thoughts and heartbeats as NFTs, ‘The Digital Human’ is as vast as the material it covers and takes listeners on a journey into the strange recesses of the internet, with Krotoski acting as guide.

Her enthusiasm for discovery is infectious. She tells me about a 2017 episode of the series, in which she reported on a story about a non-existent film called ‘Shazaam’. The movie was the subject of numerous online discussions in the mid-2000s, when a group of Redditors became convinced they had the same memory of a children’s film from the early 1990s about a wish-granting genie. Members of the Reddit thread recalled entire scenes and even renting the video, describing the promotional poster and cassette cover in detail.

In fact, the movie was never made. Precipitated by the internet, a whole group of people truly believed they recalled something that had never happened. The episode examines the fascinating way in which the medium can offer a breeding ground for falsehoods, collective invention and conspiracy.

“I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something about this story’,” says Krotoski. “It’s a group of people who are using the technology to make something not real, real. Isn’t that amazing?”

AI, art directed by Mark Hall

She didn’t expect to be revisiting the same ideas just a few years later, though. This time, to explore the darker side of collective memory – the way in which the internet fosters misinformation and how that leads to an increase of hatred and violence in the real world. Instead of fake movies, she says, technology is now helping people to create fake governments.

The digital realm can undoubtedly be an alarming place. As Krotoski reports on these stories, does she feel the internet is becoming a frightening space, a labyrinth of dark alleys?

“Humans are always going to be human, for better or worse,” she asserts.”But we go down sunny alleys too.”

‘The Digital Human’, prior to the pandemic, was what Krotoski describes as a ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide’ to the digital universe – a wander through a space which was beyond comprehension for most of us, busily navigating our everyday lives. But in 2020, everything changed.

“We’d been saying, ‘Look at all this stuff that’s happening, that we’ll all become aware of in the next 10 years’,” recalls Krotoski. “And then, boom! In just one year, everyone accelerated onto the internet, and it all became normal.”

That sudden tidal wave of enforced online life propelled a wider understanding of our entanglement with the internet. This was not just for those with a vested interest, but for everyone.

Before 2020, Krotoski says we were in the “growing pains stage of online life”. Now, with the pandemic having pushed us in deeper and deeper, things have changed and our identity as “internet people” is beginning to solidify.

Krotoski believes this is a positive thing. Essentially, the more of us there are online, the more perspectives feed into the digital space and the better potential there is for the future of the internet and our online selves. Sounds good.

It’s all a far cry from our vision of the future back in the late 1990s. When Krotoski’s game review team were starting out in 1999, there was one computer in their shared office. At that point, for most of us, the idea that interconnected computers would be in the palms of almost everyone’s hands across the world in just a few years was unthinkable.

Today, the reality of living with the internet means we now have all of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, but this experience is different to that projected image of an imagined future. While Krotoski had a good vantage point for seeing how technology might expand to augment our lives, it was still impossible to predict how this constant connectivity would impact the human experience.

“I don’t think I realised what the world would be like,” she admits. “That we would be connecting online, having significant relationships there. That we’d be exploring who we were because we had the opportunity to play around with our identities in a safe, secure space that would have a massive impact on our offline selves.”

What this has meant, it seems, is that people have been able to understand more about themselves. This has had an enormous effect on our offline lives, both for better – as we saw in the pandemic, when technology meant we could stay in touch with loved ones while isolating for months at a time – and for worse, as we’ve seen with the surge in violent extremism that is propagated at breakneck speed via the internet. To paraphrase Krotoski’s earlier words, humans are just going to be human.

With all that in mind, what does the future hold? How will the internet, technology and AI – among other things – further expand over the coming decades? And what will our entanglement in the digital world of 2100 and beyond look like? Krotoski predicts that what we have to look forward to is a greater symbiosis with the technology we create.

“As we move into more of an AI future, even more than we’re in now, our technologies will become partners with us,” she says. “At the moment, the partnership is very one-sided. The technology does our bidding – we ask it to do something and if it doesn’t do it, we get angry at it.”

This is true – how many of us have shouted at the satnav for taking us down the wrong road, or at our computer for crashing and losing the document we were working on? But, as Krotoski points out, while we ask a lot of our technology and are reliant on its integration and support in our lives, we don’t yet have the capacity to allow it to work in tandem with us.

“We’re not allowing for the reverse,” she says. “We’re not allowing for the technology to be tired, worn out, burned out, excited… we don’t have the capacity or empathy for our technologies because we’re humans. It’s ours and we built it. But I’m imagining that, because of the way machine learning and AI are evolving, we will have to develop a more symbiotic relationship with it.

If it doesn’t get the answer right away or if it leaves something unfinished… well, that’s how we are as humans, and it has to be sympathetic to us.”

Krotoski’s energy is infectious. It feels like she’s on a roll now, fully getting into her stride as she relays a new story.

“There’s another brilliant thing I can’t wait to play with,” she enthuses. “Something I just found out about yesterday. Somebody who’s doing a PhD art project created a watch, a heart monitor you wear on your wrist. However, the only way for it to monitor your heart is if you have a living wire that you slot in. It’s like a living Tamagotchi that produces this heart rate, but inside there’s a ‘slime mould’ allowing the electronic connection to pass through it and get to the other circuit.

“But the slime mould has to be cared for. You actually have to take it out of the heart monitor and give it water and oatmeal so it will grow and flourish, because if it dies, there’s no connection – the electronics will not connect and you can’t get the heart rate on your watch. When it was being tested with users, people worked with the slime mould for longer than expected and even gave it names. And I thought, ‘This is the first step in creating empathy’.”

Perhaps the idea of an advanced form of technology with which we are required to show compassion sounds a litte too sci-fi, or the idea of a deliberately fallible, more human-like digital world feels too weird. But there is this sense when talking to Aleks Krotoski – whether it’s about the future, music, NFTs or whatever – that everything is in a constant state of evolution.

This should feel disorientating, but it’s difficult not to be drawn into her sense of awe and wonderment at these huge paradigm shifts, and to become excited for a digital future full of empathetic possibility.

“I think that symbiotic thing is something we’ll advance into,” says Krotoski. “There’s going to be a lot of resistance, but I love the idea of being vulnerable and of ‘ego sacrifice’ – those are such great words when talking about digital technology.”

‘The Digital Human’ is available on BBC Sounds. For more, see

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