What if data-intensive technologies’ ability to mould habits with unprecedented precision is also capable of triggering some mass disability of profound consequences? What if we become incapable of modifying the deeply-rooted habits that stem from our increased technological dependence?
On an impoverished understanding of habit, the above questions are easily shrugged off. Habits are deemed rigid by definition: ‘as long as our deliberative selves remain capable of steering the design of data-intensive technologies, we’ll be fine’. To question this assumption, this book first articulates the way in which the habitual stretches all the way from unconscious tics to purposive, intentionally acquired habits. It also highlights the extent to which our habit-reliant, pre-reflective intelligence normally supports our deliberative selves. It is when habit rigidification sets in that this complementarity breaks down.
This book moves from a philosophical inquiry into the ‘double edge’ of habit -its empowering and compromising sides- to consideration of individual and collective strategies to keep habits at the service of our ethical life. Allowing the norms that structure our forms of life to be cotton-wooled in abstract reasoning is but one of the factors that can compromise ongoing social and moral transformations. Systems designed to simplify our practical reasoning can also make us ‘sheep-like’. Drawing a parallel between the moral risk inherent in both legal and algorithmic systems, this book concludes with concrete interventions designed to revive the scope for normative experimentation. Far from confined to a philosophical audience, this book should appeal to any reader concerned with our retaining an ability to trigger change within the practices that shape our ethical sensibility.
Examples of Concrete Interventions:
Ensemble contestability features are put forward as a way to not only enable but incentivize the collective contestability of algorithmic tools. Bottom-up data trusts’ are another example of the kind of infrastructure that needs to be in place if we are to counter increasingly powerful habits of civic retrenchement.
The emphasis on the non-deliberative underpinnings of ethical agency complements my previous book, Legal norms and normativity: an essay in genealogy (that book won the Peter Birks second prize for outstanding legal scholarship 2008).
There is one key thread that runs across the varied themes at the heart of my research: agency. My research seeks to unearth the factors that can compromise our capacity to question the way things are and project ourselves into the future. This question often brings me right at the intersection between law and ethics.
Sometimes it is to criticise existing legal frameworks. My article on professional responsibility (OJLS) for instance criticises the courts’ delineation of obligations meant to address lay vulnerability: the perduring focus on knowledge asymmetry misses the extent to which the vulnerability at stake has to do with a patient’s / client’s / pupil’s ongoing ability to (re)construct their ‘sense of self’. A professional’s stance can have a considerable impact on my ability to not be defined by my illness, or my being accused of murder.
Sometimes my interest in agency leads me to put forward novel legal mechanisms. The data trusts framework I developed with Neil Lawrence is meant to complement top-down regulation. As bottom-up empowerment mechanisms, data trusts enable groups to pool together the rights they have over their data and task an intermediary – the data trustee - to leverage those rights. The data trustee may then be in a position to obtain better terms and conditions with service providers and/or monitor data sharing agreements.
Sometimes my interest in agency does not intersect with law as such, but rather with the ambient, data-intensive technologies we have become so reliant on. In a series of recent publications, I question the logic underlying the optimisation tools at the heart of these data-intensive technologies. When the foods we eat, the people we meet and the books we read are all streamlined according to the traits and desires inferred from our past behaviour, have we gained a greater degree of agency?
In a distinct, but related vein, my most recent work on Machine learning interpretability calls for the introduction of what I call ‘ensemble contestability features’. This work underlies a concrete, cross-disciplinary project that compares concrete ways of implementing contestability features for ML systems deployed in ethically or legally significant contexts.
At other times my interest in agency is (almost) self-contained: while my forthcoming Habitual Ethics? book investigates the non-deliberative underpinnings of ethical agency, a recent publication on Turing on Lovelace looks at the relationship between agency, originality and surprise (probably the most fun I’ve had writing a paper for a long time).
The cross-disciplinary dimensions of this focus on (pre)-reflective agency and the role it plays in our ongoing capacity for transformation was highlighted in a cross-disciplinary conference on the role played by our pre-reflective intelligence within our ethical lives that I organised on 29th June 2023.