Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
Web Science Institute

Impact of data-driven agency on life and the law explored in new book

Published: 10 March 2020
Front cover

Leading scholars in computer science, law, philosophy and politics have assessed the momentous impact of data-driven agency on society in a newly published book.

The cross-disciplinary book, edited by the University of Southampton's Kieron O'Hara and Vrije Universiteit Brussel's Mireille Hildebrandt, explores how new types of agency are transforming democratic practices and the meaning of individual choice.

Life and the Law in the Era of Data-Driven Agency considers the latest innovations in big data, artificial intelligence and algorithms and their impact on the understanding of concepts such as agency, epistemology, justice, transparency and democracy.

The book includes contributions from Electronics and Computer Science's Professor m.c. schraefelDr Richard Gomer and Dr Enrico Gerding on the re-thinking of transparency for the Internet of Things. The chapter explores the concept of apparency - the making visible of hidden states of data transaction – as it builds on Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council funded projects Meaningful Consent in the Digital Economy and the AutoTrust platform.

The book's first five chapters looks at how human agency operates in a data-driven environment, before a second group of six chapters looks at political and legal implications.

"Algorithms are increasingly determining our choices in many spheres of life, based on the giant quantities of data gathered about us, and about people like us," Kieron says. "Our behaviour, and the behaviour of others, can affect the way that information is presented to us, can highlight some alternatives and conceal others. The collection and processing of this data are hardly transparent, and so it is hard to question or resist the outcomes.

"We clearly get many valuable services via such algorithms, so the effects are not entirely negative. However, when choices are constrained, then we may be losing access to interesting and information new experiences and contacts. We may find ourselves in echo chambers or filter bubbles, where our own opinions are merely fed back to us in amplified form. And when digital architecture is designed so that certain choices are ruled out, then we lose some freedom."

Kieron is a Director of Southampton's Web Science Institute and has authored several books covering the discipline and British political theory.

"The law also restricts but it can be challenged," Kieron says. "These challenges come in a number of forms: via democratic politics, so governments can be removed if they regulate poorly or heavily; via the law itself, through appeal and judicial review; and via our behaviour, as with civil disobedience, where citizens simply break the law and accept the consequences.

"Hence the Rule of Law means that the law is authoritative and applied fairly and equally, but can also be challenged. Where technology constrains, none of these three routes exist to allow challenges. Furthermore, the law is visible, whereas technology is not (always). If my behaviour is wrong, confront me with it; don't work to prevent it surreptitiously."

Life and the Law in the Era of Data-Driven Agency is available now from Edward Elgar Publishers.

Privacy Settings