On Mar. 12, CNN took a remarkable step forward on a few levels. With the premiere of Mostly Human With Laurie Segall, the network launched its first CNNgo original series. Unlike anything else on CNN, the new series is led by the two women who run tech at CNN, Laurie Segall and Erica Fink. Mostly Human is best described as a “real-life Black Mirror,” exploring groundbreaking topics in the tech world.
The show’s namesake, Laurie Segall, was recently named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30, having won awards for her investigative coverage. Executive producer Erica Fink has been within the CNN realm for nearly a decade, following a run as Editor-in-Chief of her alma malter’s newspapaper, the Cornell Daily Sun. Downtown had the pleasure of speaking with both Laurie and Erica about Mostly Human and plenty more. Their interviews were done individually, yet the closeness of the two writer/producers shows as their responses were often similar.
How did you two first meet?
Erica Fink: I think the best working relationships develop by filming at swinger parties and hacker conventions. Sex, Drugs & Silicon Valley was our first in-depth series together and it took us to some interesting places — including a swinger party where attendees were scoping out prospects by app ahead of time. Let’s just say, it wasn’t the easiest place to mic guests. Since then, we’ve gone to lots of strange corners of the world in pursuit of stories about the weird ways tech has changed our lives, and the people behind the products. Mostly Human, CNN’s first streaming show, basically takes that approach and puts it on steroids.
Laurie Segall: Erica has been my partner in crime for some time. We started working with each other when I was making my way into the TV world. You get close when you do the work we do, especially the types of stories we cover. I’ll never forget when we were doing a piece on high tech sex workers in Silicon Valley. Years later, we shot a series called Sex, Drugs & Silicon Valley about polyamory, swinger parties, and drug experimentation in the Bay Area. My favorite Erica moment was watching her mic someone up at the swingers party. We’ve been in storms, protests, outside the home of a notorious kidnapper, inside hacker conferences, and at swinger parties — for work, of course. Lots of life happens in between.
You both started out as a general reporter and producer, what led you both to covering tech?
Erica Fink: For fashion or Wall Street or most other industries, the interesting story that gets people talking is about a person or event that happened behind the scenes. But for tech, so much of the coverage is focused around product specs and app updates. There’s a unique opportunity to cover tech through the lens of culture. We’re living in a time where tech has changed everything about life — from love to war — and what’s exciting is the prospect of telling the stories of the people behind the innovations, and the weird and unexpected ways those innovations are changing lives.
Laurie Segall: I was fascinated by tech in 2009. I was covering business news and but in my free time started gravitating to tech events. It was a small community of weirdos in the best sense. We were coming off the financial crisis, and all of a sudden, you had this group of creative people who didn’t feel like they had to go to Wall Street to get a job. There was this group of people who just thought they could take an idea and code it into the hands of millions. I loved the creativity in all of it. And I loved the underdogs. I ended up getting to know a lot of folks as they were starting out. Some of my first on-camera interviews were with the founders of Twitter, Instagram, and Uber. It’s been fascinating to watch these ideas shape culture and shift industries.
How would you describe your new series to someone who hasn’t seen it yet?
Erica Fink: Mostly Human is basically the real-life Black Mirror. It’s about the strange and sometimes uncomfortable things that happen when tech and humanity intersect.
Laurie Segall: One episode also feels very Westworld. In the series, you see everything from people turning their dead friends into chatbots through artificial intelligence, to folks falling in love with robots. You’ll see Laurie infiltrate hacker parties, get her life threatened, and get propositioned by a robot. It’s a show about our increasingly-complicated relationship with technology. We ask some more philosophical questions like how much control does your phone have over you and take on topics people don’t really talk about. Behind every fringe story we bring you, there’s humanity. One of our favorite moments of the series is when a French woman is describing how she’s fallen in love with a robot. When asked why, she told me it’s because it would always be safe. It would never cheat, or lie. She prefers errors in script and code — not human flaws. There was something incredible human and vulnerable in that moment no matter how you judged her for her choices.
Do you have a favorite episode of the series?
Erica Fink: “I love you, Bot” is about the most extreme relationships between tech and people. We meet a woman who is madly in love with her robot and attend their engagement party, complete with champagne and macaroons. Later, we visit a pedophile ward where they’re evaluating risk by showing offenders images of children in virtual reality. It has a pretty high quotient of gut-punch moments.
Laurie Segall: “Dead, IRL” was probably my favorite episode. It was incredibly-personal. In the episode, I explore what death means in the digital age and start thinking about my digital legacy. I don’t wan’t want to give too many details but there are some incredibly-uncomfortable moments. A technologist took my personal conversations with my best friends for the last four years and using artificial intelligence, created a chatbot based off of me. Let’s just say my bot went on a bender at one point, saying some pretty insane things. It’s an episode with a lot of heart and one I think a lot of folks will relate to.
Your series isn’t entirely positive about technology’s affects on society. But aside from the series, is your life so tech-centric?
Erica Fink: I’ve probably spent too much time thinking about how my soon-to-be-born child will interact with Alexa — I’m insisting he say “please” and “thank you.” But think about that: he’s going to grow up in a time when he can demand an answer to any random piece of trivia and a cylinder in our kitchen will answer it for him. So, I guess, yes?
Laurie Segall: I would say yes. I spend too much time in front of devices and screens. Perhaps that’s why I wanted to do a series looking at our relationship with tech from another lens. I will say, I used to always love to write in notebooks and do that less with all the screens in front of me. While I love technology, I understand a growing nostalgia to take a step back.
This will be the first direct to CNNgo series, available to binge. What makes it binge-worthy?
Erica Fink: The whole thing about Mostly Human is that it’ll make you think. It’s actually hard to believe that some of this stuff has really happened. Once Laurie brings you into this world, it’s hard to get out.
Laurie Segall: The hope is every episode will make you think about something you never thought about. Once you watch one, I think you’ll want to keep going. All the topics are completely different — from the first hacker to be killed in a drone strike to the human impact of the Ashley Madison hack and how a company capitalized on human nature to try to convince people to cheat. The goal with this is for people to see something they haven’t seen, and feel like they’re accessing underground stories that they wouldn’t get anywhere else.
Laurie, a lot of your assignments have had elements of danger to them. Is there one that you are proudest of?
Laurie Segall: I’m most proud of a documentary we did on a growing form of harassment called revenge porn where victims have their intimate photos plastered across the web. It’s a horrific problem and so many people — mainly women — are afraid to speak out and feel like they lose control when it happens to them. I confronted a hacker who hacked into a teenager’s Facebook page took private photos, sold them to a website that posted them for everyone to see. I was able to get him on the phone and talk through why he did what he did. It was a powerful interview. He later spent time in jail. The documentary shed light on this type of harassment and when it came out, there were a lot of changes that happened as a result. That’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve done. You always feel like you’ve done your job right when you give someone a voice, and allow a victim to take control back. I do find myself in some odd situations for this line of work, but I love the weird, underground stories, so it’s part of the game.
Erica, you’re the executive producer of the series. Was it always your plan to be behind the scenes?
Erica Fink: I like the creative process. What excites me is finding an amazing story and shaping the narrative. A really good day is when we’ve stumbled on a nugget that I know will resonate, whether it’s a character with a truly unheard of experience; or something smaller, like a clever way to phrase an idea in a script.
When not working with CNN, how do you like to spend your free time?
Erica Fink: I like to try my hand at fiction whenever the opportunity allows. Especially on days when the news business is heavy, it’s fun to come home and dream up funny conversations and circumstances.
Laurie Segall: I’m pretty biased but I have an incredible group of friends and a great boyfriend. When I’m not working, I’m hanging with my renegades or scheming with my boyfriend. I also love to write. Every so often you’ll find me solo at a coffee shop or bar writing.
What is it that draws you to living in Downtown New York?
Erica Fink: The high density of different chocolate chip cookie varietals.
Laurie Segall: Trees. Water. Cobblestone streets. Low buildings.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in the downtown area?
Erica Fink: I’ve developed an unnatural attachment to the spicy miso ramen at Minca.
Laurie Segall: A friend of mine, Tracy Malechek, was the chef at Untitled at the Whitney for some time, so I go there quite a bit. The food is amazing. I pretty much follow her wherever she goes to eat. And the bartender Rocky is one of my favorite bartenders in New York. It’s just a great place to be. I also love Meme. I dream of their lemon chicken and the people who work there are nothing short of fabulous.
Do you have tickets to any upcoming concerts or events?
Erica Fink: The birth of my child — due this week…?
Laurie Segall: Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway. It’s my third time seeing it. It’s such an incredibly-timely play, the music is beautiful and it combines everything I love — storytelling, heart, and our complicated relationship with technology.
Finally, any last words for the kids?
Erica Fink: It’s a good time to be a content creator. If you’ve got a story you’re passionate about telling, go tell it!
Laurie: Ask for what you want. It’s sometimes hard to do, but it’s led to some of the best things in my life.