Author Archives: Alison

Social disruption and ‘ethics in practice’ – workplace disputes in values-led organizations

In March 2023 I received an invitation to become an RSA Fellow. I was, I admit, flattered. The RSA, or “The royal society for the arts, manufactures and commerce” is a 270-year old British institution. It claims a philanthropic mission dating back to 1754, where subscribers to the society funded social projects and technical innovations. Many respected friends and colleagues active in research, design, and innovation had RSA connections – and I was intrigued by an organization that awards a medal for “individuals and organisations uniting people and ideas in collective action.” I also wanted to participate – to be part of an organization that mobilized people to connect and facilitate dialogue amongst themselves.
So I joined, stumping up an annual subscription – enthusiastic about meeting other people working on Regenerative Futures. I attended a few events and reckoned that I’d soon find ways to connect with others around my expertise, which is on rights, values and ethics in technology design, and my interest in supporting groups of people (from citizen groups to start-up companies) to put ‘ethics in practice’.

Then, earlier this month, RSA staff who are members of the IWGB union went on strike. The IWGB was an RSA Future Work Award Winner in 2019, and is known for its devolved decision-making and focus on worker power.

For any organization, announcement of industrial action should give management cause for concern. But how should a values-led organization, especially one dedicated to “enabling people, places and the planet to flourish in harmony” respond? That workers are willing to use disruptive and risky tactics would seem to indicate some misalignment in how values are practiced inside an organization. Strikes, like them or not, are designed to disrupt. In studies of innovation, ‘disruption’ is often celebrated, especially when it comes from technology. Technologies shake things up, and then changes result. What if the current wave of industrial action – touching not only public services but values-driven organizations – can be thought of as this kind of disruption?

My research over the past several years has shown two things that values-driven organizations can struggle with. First is the relationship between means and ends. Hinging the legitimacy of an organization or project on the outcome while ignoring the process can undermine participation, and cause long term damage, even leading to project collapse. Second is the way that many values-led organizations (like the tech-for-good startups my team studied) miss opportunities to enact ethics in practice by focusing only on ethics of consequence – whether the product is ‘for good.” Our study suggested expanding ‘tech for good’ to consider the capacity for work to allow people to develop themselves (virtue ethics), find mutually sustaining ways of working (care ethics) and build their capabilities. 

Managing well in organizations is absolutely essential to creating both flourishing (from a virtue ethics perspective) and economic productivity (which could be a consequential ethical good).  Recent research suggests that bad management has prompted almost one in three UK workers to leave their jobs. Workplace burnout is also an occupational health issue. Better management processes and safer conditions for workers are needed across the board, and social disruptions such as industrial action can create opportunities for values-led organizations to consider how to align means and ends and how to develop virtues, capabilities and care in ways that benefit people inside the organization as well as those it serves.

As a Fellow, I’d also like to make more space to discuss these issues. In an age of many disruptions, values-led organizations are incredibly important. With 31,000 Fellows, the RSA has a lot to contribute.


It’s such a privilege to have a digital identity archived for such a long time, but inevitably life intervenes. This site needs an update and I have been otherwise distracted.

In particular, the research pages no longer reflect where I’m at, and so as a placeholder while I sort this out, here’s a list of what I’ve recently written and what I’m interested in right now. Once I have a new site I’ll start posting current research again….and probably some poems too.


Associate Professor, Department of Media and Communications London School of Economics and Political Sciences

Director: JUST AI Network:



Community-based research. Ethics and participation in technology development. Digital citizenships. Data and AI ethics; cultural and policy implications of data and AI. Queer and feminist theory. Research creation, design methods and participatory methods in research and public engagement.


If you were looking for some dark optimism
From a walk among the tower blocks, in the gloaming
What would you miss, in the long low seduction of the light
Waning pink behind the clouds, behind the towers?

The river moves; the air’s scent of flowers
Floats past as I hang on the concrete
(was it always so thick with lichen?)
And weep.

The corner store is closed, shutters down.
No milk or old onions, no sweets.
I saw an ambulance there last week.

By the Thames a couple arm in arm
Springtime romance blooming, their masks fitted tight.
He jokes about throwing himself in the river
“But” she says, “you’ll be at work”.

In the yellow evening I want to hope
Passing through the square with the bunting
The open pub (landlord in gloves)
And the jolly blonde families in deck chairs
2 metres apart, on their front lawns,
The stylish young arrayed with plastic cups
Celebrating victory 75 years ago.

The dead are still dead.
And the living, us
Are waiting.

This is the easy part.
Songs on the air in the flower scented evening
Barbecue and take-out beer.
Next week, tomorrow, the beer must be served
The trash taken out
The children taught.

And how?
To be alive is
Be alive, until
The spring is spring without you.

(In memory of Barbara Powell, November 1950-May 2002)

Machines Explain Things To Me

We’re deep in the mire of a pandemic, and what’s the promise to let us out? A contract with Palantir to process health data and a serious level of investment in AI systems that are meant to move materials between hospitals. An app whose data about your proximity to your neighbour will be processed to find and notify your contacts. Once again, decision-making machines are positioned as helpers.

How deep does it go, our fascination with machines? With numbers, data, the magic of calculation? And now that this fascination is both legitimate and embedded in the designs of social institutions, what are the consequences? This post summarizes the beginnings of my ongoing work on the politics of explanations, reflecting on how information asymmetries are often sustained by the provision of explanations by some for the benefit of others.

Historian of science Lorraine Daston’s work identifies that it might be deeply embedded indeed. She writes “the cults of communicability and impartiality – again, with or without accuracy – also have an almost unbroken history in the sciences as well as in public life from the seventeenth century to the present . . . even when the truth of the matter was not to be had, numbers could be invented, dispersed to correspondents at home and abroad, and, above all, mentally shared: you and I may disagree about the accuracy and the implications of a set of numbers, but we understand the same thing by them” (1995, p. 9).

In these days of disinformation, deep fakes, and governments who structure their decision-making to render it less easy to scrutinize, it seems worth revisiting Daston’s discussions of how and why numbers and expertise are positioned, valorized and legitimated in this way. Daston calls these processes moral economies – the webs of values that function in relation to each other to build up certain legitimate ways of thinking. Philosopher Charles Taylor and my colleague Robin Mansell use a similar notion of social imaginaries to describe the competing but coherent ways that groups imagine and create expectations (including about the ‘natural way’ to build technologies and social systems).

In my own work, I use the term moral orders to evoke the way that these webs of values and practices build up and gain legitimacy, and especially how they are sustained by being described in moral or ethical terms.

As the hot white heat of AI Ethics has irradiated all of the technology space for the past two years, it’s possible to see the debates about ‘tech for good’ and ‘ethical AI’ as evidence of these kinds of moral justification. What’s especially interesting is how these justifications, once they move out into the world, can become so obviously part of the status quo that they become embedded into the design of technologies.

Transparency, or a lack therof, has come to be seen as one of the main risks of a shift towards reliance on machines in automated decision making. We call for ‘design for fairness’ or ‘auditability’ or ‘transparent design’ as if adhering to certain design principles would produce better outcomes. But if it’s possible to see the biased quality of an automated system, it may not actually be possible to avoid using the system, or to otherwise respond to its failings. Transparency has been much discussed as a necessary, if not sufficient condition to enhance public understanding of how automated systems intervene in people’s access to information, capacity to exercise voice within democratic processes.

Here in the UK (as elsewhere) policy advocates struggle to align existing principles of accountability with the new dynamics of algorithmic or automated decision-making (ADM). In relation to public sector decision making, third-sector organization NESTA has recommended that

“every algorithm used by a public sector organisation should be accompanied by a description of its function, objectives and intended impact.  He also called for  every algorithm  to  have an identical sand-box version for auditors to test the impact of different input conditions.” 

In a debate on this topic in the UK house of Lords in February 2020, the shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport),   Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab)  said ” We must have the general principles of what we want to do to regulate this area available to us, but be ready to act immediately—as and when circumstances require it—instead of taking cumbersome pieces of legislation through all stages in both Houses. ”  

He asked whether the Information Commissioner’s Office was  really the only regulator that can handle this multiplicity of tasks , including online harms and the ADM.   

Perhaps a greater risk than a lack of transparency is a problem in relation to explainability. Designing a system so that it’s decision-making process can be explained has now become viewed as an important goal within some of the fields of computer science and analytic philosophy. The expanding field of Fairness, Accountability and Transparency in machine learning (and the associated FaCCT conference) show how much attention is paid to creating ways to structure principles of transparency, bias reduction or well-specified aspects of fairness into computer systems.

These principled, structured interventions go some way to addressing specific forms of bias and transparency. However there is much that they can’t address – including the aspects of automated systems that cannot be effectively explained, including forms of machine learning where the associations made between different elements are dynamic , modulating and based on mathematical abstractions and principles that are not amenable to straightforward causal explanations. This means that ‘explanation’ as commonly understood, cannot apply to all of the aspects of certain types of automated systems. This is one of the challenges in building ‘explainable AI’ and one reason why I have argued that questions about data governance need to be part of the discussion; rather than focusing only on explanation and narrow interpretations of transparency.

Furthermore, the existing research on explanations overlooks an important element of explanation and explainability: the way that revealing or obscuring information operates to direct explanatory power to some actors rather than others. Are designers of machine learning systems the beneficiaries of explanations advocated by researchers who thought they were advocating for public understanding of technology?

This is one among several important questions to consider when looking at the politics of explanation. Others might concern what’s normatively valuable about explanation, the the ways that the history and culture of machine learning systems illuminate values.

Daston’s view of the history of science identifis that what counts as a fact depends on which historical moment you find yourself in. In the current moment, when scientifically verified facts are framed as debatable in part as a means of undermining their influence, and when not only quantifiable but machine-processed information is held as decisive (even when it is not), what can be made of our fascination with AI?

Sacrifice Poem (who is at work?)

When I twisted my ankle
During the permitted morning run
On Westminster Bridge
(the sound of the tide rushing out with no boats)
I delicately walked past
The hospital where the prime minister
(don’t say dying).

Police at the gates
Panic on the faces of people rushing in
ID cards held aloft, to face the day.

In front, a rainbow floral display
Perpetual plastic flowers
Reads I [heart] NHS

A worker gives it a glance, rushing.
Does she think, like me
That this effusion seems too close
To a funeral display?

Behind, three ambulances
Are lined up
In the emergency bay.

Across the road, a dozen cameras
A dozen operators
Anchors in suits
Producers on the phone

Later their broadcasts speak
Of war and “fighting spirits”
Of bravery and sacrifice.

Down below, in the playground
Of the hospital daycare
A woman runs with a stroller
Mask on her face
Through the doors
With the child
On her way to work.

Who battles:
Who sacrifices?

Skipping Poem

Every day, rope in hand, I

Open the door.

First thing, the soft smell of flowers

And new greening.

Second thing, the birds

Cooing, calling, tussling,

Floating, blasting like torpedoes

Over treetops, above the flats.

Third thing, breathe in

Cool in the morning, and no sound

But swish of rope and slap of feet.

Step step step


At eight thirty

The man from Number Seven comes

Newspaper under his arm and

Fog of cigarette smoke over

Sloping shoulders

In an ancient oiled jacket

Every day:

“Good morning”

“Getting fit?”


“Good morning, y’all right?”

“As well as can be”

“Good morning”

“You’re making progress, girl”

“Good morning”

“Well – we have to stop meeting this way”

Every day, I hold out hope that

I’ll see him tomorrow walking

Share thirty seconds of Cockney greetings,

Keep him alive.

Egg Poem

 “No eggs, you can get them at Lidl but only two”

Says the butcher, handing over bags of chops and mince.

He wonders why I’m not buying more.

No eggs in the supermarket

Someone heard there were eggs at M&S

At Blackfriars, someone’s mum in Lincolnshire had eggs.

We always have eggs.

Eggs in a Tupperware, blanketed in paper towel

Set on the wall on the patio.
Eggs in a box with a decoration drawn by a young friend

Pushed over the road in a doll’s carriage.

“There were no eggs”, my friend says, then

“Eggs from my mum

Eggs offered when I walked down the street”

Eggs at the wholesalers: we can buy them as a group.

Egg discussions in mobile chat groups

Along with stories of coping in a tiny flat

Being worried about health, work, pay, the future.


Standing in the backyard with applause bouncing off the tower block, watching Venus hanging in the air, clapping and yelling for people who can’t hear because they are inside tending the sick, sheltering the dying.

There are no eggs, they say.

We always have eggs.

Quarantine Poem

“Your meeting attendees are waiting!”
Maybe, everyone has been waiting
for my time and toil to be delivered
on time and seamlessly through video chat.
No need to heat the office or water the plants I brought back
stuffed into a bag on the side of my bicycle.
The letter from the school is printed in Comic Sans
which easier to read if you have a disability:
“A large amount of the learning will need to be carried out online so will therefore obviously need to be supervised by an adult at all times.”
And then,“Your meeting attendees are waiting!”
“Call for papers”
“Call for research grants on issues related to the current crisis”
“Join our live stream”
“Remote event!”
I am not a brain on a stick;
I am a body in a house.
The bodyhouse for a child who is here, hot in the sun
Wanting something, wanting nothing
Wanting to leave, wanting to be held tighter.
Tighter, against the fear, the knowledge
that a sunny day was never going to promise a day of adventure
that a trip outside the house was illicit
that your friends couldn’t be trusted, only images on the screen.
Fall into my arms.
Hold me.
Will it ever end?

In the Time of Corona 3: Silence

The foxes are yelling. The neighbours let out the bath water at the same time as me. But no cars. No planes. The lockdown is coming; the schools are closed now (but my daughter decided this morning that she couldn’t go to school. I could not have forced her, not with the safety of everyone else at school in mind) and soon we will be required by law to stay at home.

The silence has come. Eastenders has stopped filming. There is no Eurovision song contest. No plays performed, no orchestras filling halls with people rustling their sweet wrappers in the moment before the downbeat. This withdrawing is painful, and the silence in central London is both thrilling and terrifying. What fills that silence? Opportunistic crime? Internal mourning?

The silence is also the premonition of death. The very fact that London will soon be under lockdown is because the deaths have outpaced the models. The hospitals are full, and the doctors are struggling. I read the Imperial paper too, and I can see myself, my neighbourhood, on that curve.

Southwark has the most (recorded) cases in the country, and it looks from the numbers (as I understand) that the doubling of the case rate is happening within 48 hours. Mathematically speaking that is f**ing terrifying. I hope my math skills are poor and the reality is not that the healthcare system is already dangerously overloaded and about to collapse.

The silence is an oddity in this busy place. It seems almost shocking. I want to write that it bodes ill, because it does. Because being locked down without people, without song, without solidarity is dangerous. However, the silence is also a space for something else to grow. We stay away, stay in, stay quiet as a huge effort to spare those we love. Our neighours, our friends, our people.

And we hope. We hope that out of the silence will emerge a quieter life, an easier life. This is my hope, although so far I feel far from being able to achieve it.

In the Time of Corona 2: Sustaining

Today was the first day of teaching online, and between the many online meetings with students and those with research team members here, there, and everywhere I spent the entire day at my desk, facing my small screen!

Into my day, and my house, passed a number of people: a delivery person dropping off a package. The BT engineer who was tasked with fixing my jittery broadband, who alternated between crawling around under my desk and pulling out wires from the cabinet at the corner of the block. My friend, who is a builder and was finishing the tiling and carpentry in my kitchen. Into my house they come, still working (because still needing to be paid, and because the jobs were still on their docket). The engineer asked me at the door, before he came in, whether anyone in the house had the corona virus. No, I said. Well, as far as I know. That I didn’t say. He washed his hands before he left.

My friend finished his work swiftly, drank a cup of tea while I sputtered on Skype and then vanished with a wave. His wife is home, but his work can’t be done remotely. In usual times, he renovates fancy kitchens for clients in Kensington and Chelsea. This week, he’s mostly sorting out the jobs for friends that he usually fits in on evenings and weekends.

Picking up my daughter at school the head teacher is nervous. He is not a nervous man. There has been no information he said, on when they are to close. The school is half empty, with many staff at home, already unable to come to work because of failing immune systems or sick relatives. He’s worried about keeping them safe, about continued access to the right equipment and supplies to keep the school clean.

As my work shifts to being undertaken in different areas of an 11-inch optical screen, these men sustain the physical, digital and social infrastructure of my life. And in the current moment they put themselves at risk to do so. We think of caring work as women’s work, but sustaining infrastructure, caring for the physical environment and the strategic level of the social environment is also care. And right now those carers are at risk.

On the other side of the world, my brother is taking unpaid days off from work, to avoid being on building sites and in busy buildings in his immune-compromised state. Is he too a care worker? In his case, the risk seems too high, for this virus could kill.

Care, risk, sustaining. These acts, these jobs, these responsibilities and relationships seemed so easy to take for granted. Before.