Beginning to read “Smart Technologies and the End(s) of Law” (Notes on: Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, Sections 7.1-7.2)
by Sebastian Benthall
I’m starting to read Mireille Hildebrandt‘s Smart Technologies and the End(s) of Law (2015) at the recommendation of several friends with shared interests in privacy and the tensions between artificial intelligence and the law. As has been my habit with other substantive books, I intend to blog my notes from reading as I get to it, in sections, in a perhaps too stream-of-consciousness, opinionated, and personally inflected way.
For reasons I will get to later, Hildebrandt’s book is a must-read for me. I’ve decided to start by jumping in on Chapter 7, because (a) I’m familiar enough with technology ethics, AI, and privacy scholarship to think I can skip that and come back as needed, and (b) I’m mainly reading because I’m interested in what a scholar of Hildebrandt’s stature says when she tackles the tricky problem of law’s response to AI head on.
I expect to disagree with Hildebrant in the end. We occupy different social positions and, as I’ve argued before, people’s position on various issues of technology policy appears to have a great deal to do with their social position or habitus. However, I know I have a good deal to learn about legal theory while having enough background in philosophy and social theory to parse through what Hildebrandt has to offer. And based on what I’ve read so far, I expect the contours of the possible positions that she draws out to be totally groundbreaking.
Notes on: Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, §7.1-7.2
“The third part of this book inquires into the implications of smart technologies and data-driven agency for the law.”– Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies,p.133
Lots of people write about how artificial intelligence presents an existential threat. Normally, they are talking about how a superintelligence is posing an existential threat to humanity. Hildebrandt is arguing something else: she is arguing that smart technologies may pose an existential threat to the law, or the Rule of Law. That is because the law’s “mode of existence” depends on written text, which is a different technical modality, with different affordances, than smart technology.
My take is that the mode of existence of modern law is deeply dependent upon the printing press and the way it has shaped our world. Especially the binary character of legal rules, the complexity of the legal system and the finality of legal decisions are affordances of — amongst things — the ICI [information and communication infrastructure] of the printing press.– Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, p.133
This is just so on point, it’s hard to know what to say. I mean, this is obviously on to something. But what?
To make her argument, Hildebrandt provides a crash course in philosophy of law and legal theory, distinguishing a number of perspectives that braid together into an argument. She discusses several different positions:
- 7.2.1 Law as an essentially contested concept (Gallie). The concept of “law”  denotes something valuable,  covers intricate complexities, that makes it  inherently ambiguous and  necessarily vague. This  leads interested parties into contest over conceptions. The contest is  anchored in past, agreed upon exemplars of the concept, and  the contest itself sustains and develops the concept going forward. This is the seven-point framework of an “essentially contested concept”.
- 7.2.2 Formal legal positivism. Law as a set of legal rules dictated by a sovereign (as opposed to law as a natural moral order) (Austin). Law as a coherent set of rules, defined by its unity (Kelsen). A distinction between substantive rules and rules about rule-making (Hart).
- 7.2.3 Hermeneutic conceptions. The practice of law is about the creative interpretation of (e.g.) texts (case law, statutes, etc.) to application of new cases. The integrity of law (Dworkin) constrains this interpretation, but the projection of legal meaning into the future is part of the activity of legal practice. Judges “do things with words”–make performative utterances through their actions. Law is not just a system of rules, but a system of meaningful activity.
- 7.2.3 Pragmatist conceptions (Realism legal positivism). As opposed to the formal legal positivism discusses earlier that sees law as rules, realist legal positivism sees law as a sociological phenomenon. Law is “prophecies of what the courts will do in fact, and nothing more pretentious” (Holmes). Pragmatism, as an epistemology, argues that the meaning of something is its practical effect; this approach could be seen as a constrained version of the hermeneutic concept of law.
To summarize Hildebrandt’s gloss on this material so far: Gallie’s “essentially contested concept” theory is doing the work of setting the stage for Hildebrant’s self-aware intervention into the legal debate. Hildebrandt is going to propose a specific concept of the law, and of the Rule of Law. She is doing this well-aware that this act of scholarship is engaging in contest.
I detect in Hildebrandt’s writing a sympathy or preference for hermeneutic approaches to law. Indeed, by opening with Gallie, she sets up the contest about the concept of law as something internal to the hermeneutic processes of the law. These processes, and this contest, are about texts; the proliferation of texts is due to the role of the printing press in modern law. There is a coherent “integrity” to this concept of law.
The most interesting discussion, in my view, is loaded in to what reads like an afterthought: the pragmatist conception of law. Indeed, even at the level of formatting, pragmatism is buried: hermeneutic and pragmatist conceptions of law are combined into one section (7.2.3), where as Gallie and the formal positivists each get their own section (7.2.1 and 7.2.2).
This is odd, because the resonances between pragmatism and ‘smart technology’ are, in Hildebrandt’s admission, quite deep:
Basically, Holmes argued that law is, in fact, what we expect it to be, because it is this expectation that regulates our actions. Such expectations are grounded in past decisions, but if these were entirely deterministic of future decisions we would not need the law — we could settle for logic and simply calculate the outcome of future decisions. No need for interpretation. Holmes claimed, however, that ‘the life of law has not been logic. It has been experience.’ This correlates with a specific conception of intelligence. As we have seen in Chapter 2 and 3, rule-based artificial intelligence, which tried to solve problems by means of deductive logic, has been superseded by machine learning (ML), based on experience.– Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, p.142
Hildebrandt considers this connection between pragmatist legal interpretation and machine learning only to reject it summarily in a single paragraph at the end of the section.
If we translate [a maxim of classical pragmatist epistemology] into statistical forecasts we arrive at judgments resulting from ML. However, neither logic nor statistics can attribute meaning. ML-based court decisions would remove the fundamental ambiguity of human language from the centre stage of the law. As noted above, this ambiguity is connected with the value-laden aspect of the concept of law. It is not a drawback of natural language, but what saves us from acting like mindless agents. My take is that an approach based on statistics would reduce judicial and legislative decisions to administration, and thus collapse the Rule of Law. This is not to say that a number of administrative decisions could not be taken by smart computing systems. It is to confirm that such decisions should be brought under the Rule of Law, notably by making them contestable in a court of law.– Hildebrandt, Smart Technologies, p.143
This is a clear articulation of Hildebrandt’s agenda (“My take is that…”). It is also clearly an aligning the practice of law with contest, ambiguity, and interpretation as opposed to “mindless” activity. Natural language’s ambiguity is a feature, not a bug. Narrow pragmatism, which is aligned with machine learning, is a threat to the Rule of Law
Before diving into the argument, I have to write a bit about my urgent interest in the book. Though I only heard about it recently, my interests have tracked the subject matter for some time.
For some time I have been interested in the connection between philosophical pragmatism and the concerns about AI, which I believe can be traced back to Horkheimer. But I thought nobody was giving the positive case for pragmatism its due. At the end of 2015, totally unaware of “Smart Technologies” (my professors didn’t seem aware of it either…), I decided that I would write my doctoral dissertation thesis defending the bold thesis that yes, we should have AI replace the government. A constitution written in source code. I was going to back the argument up with, among other things, pragmatist legal theory.
I had to drop the argument because I could not find faculty willing to be on the committee for such a dissertation! I have been convinced ever since that this is a line of argument that is actually rather suppressed. I was able to articulate the perspective in a philosophy journal in 2016, but had to abandon the topic.
This was probably good in the long run, since it meant I wrote a dissertation on privacy which addressed many of the themes I was interested in, but in greater depth. In particular, working with Helen Nissenbaum I learned about Hildebrandt’s articles comparing contextual integrity with purpose binding in the GDPR (Hildebrandt, 2013; Hildebrandt, 2014), which at the time my mentors at Berkeley seemed unaware of. I am still working on puzzles having to do with algorithmic implementation or response to the law, and likely will for some time.
Recently, been working at a Law School and have reengaged the interdisciplinary research community at venues like FAT*. This has led me, seemingly unavoidably, back to what I believe to be the crux of disciplinary tension today: the rising epistemic dominance of pragmatist computational statistics–“data science”—and its threat to humanistic legal authority, which is manifested in the clash of institutions that are based on each, e.g., iconically, “Silicon Valley” (or Seattle) and the European Union. Because of the explicitly normative aspects of humanistic legal authority, it asserts itself again and again as an “ethical” alternative to pragmatist technocratic power. This is the latest manifestation of a very old debate.
Hildebrandt is the first respectable scholar (a category from which I exclude myself) that I’ve encountered to articulate this point. I have to see where she takes the argument.
So far, however, I think here argument begs the question. Implicitly, the “essentially contested” character of law is due to the ambiguity of natural language and the way in which that necessitates contest over the meaning of words. And so we have a professional class of lawyers and scholars that debate the meaning of words. I believe the the regulatory power of this class is what Hildebrandt refers to as “the Rule of Law”.
While it’s true that an alternative regulatory mechanism based on statistical prediction would be quite different from this sense of “Rule of Law”, it is not clear from Hildebrandt’s argument, yet, why her version of “Rule of Law” is better. The only hint of an argument is the problem of “mindless agents”. Is she worried about the deskilling of the legal profession, or the reduced need for elite contest over meaning? What is hermeneutics offering society, outside of the bounds of its own discourse?
Benthall, S. (2016). Philosophy of computational social science. Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, 12(2), 13-30.
Sebastian Benthall. Context, Causality, and Information Flow: Implications for Privacy Engineering, Security, and Data Economics. Ph.D. dissertation. Advisors: John Chuang and Deirdre Mulligan. University of California, Berkeley. 2018.
Hildebrandt, Mireille. “Slaves to big data. Or are we?.” (2013).
Hildebrandt, Mireille. “Location Data, Purpose Binding and Contextual Integrity: What’s the Message?.” Protection of Information and the Right to Privacy-A New Equilibrium?. Springer, Cham, 2014. 31-62.
Hildebrandt, Mireille. Smart technologies and the end (s) of law: novel entanglements of law and technology. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015.