top of page
Seth Lazar
Seth Lazar

Australian National University

Governing the Algorithmic City


A century ago, John Dewey observed that '[s]team and electricity have done more to alter the conditions under which men associate together than all the agencies which affected human relationships before our time'. In the last few decades, computing technologies have had a similar effect. Political philosophy's central task is to help us decide how to live together, by analysing our social relations, diagnosing their failings, and articulating ideals to guide their revision. But these profound social changes have left scarcely a dent in the model of social relations that most (analytical) political philosophers assume. This essay aims to reverse that trend. It first builds a model of our novel social relations—as they are now, and as they are likely to evolve—and then explores how those differences affect our theories of how to live together. I introduce the 'Algorithmic City'—the network of algorithmically-mediated social relations—then characterise the intermediary power by which it is governed, and contrast that intermediary power with the top-down power of the state in the physical city. I show how algorithmic governance raises new challenges for political philosophy concerning the justification of authority, the foundations of procedural legitimacy, and the possibility of justificatory neutrality.


I am a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the ANU, where I am Principal Investigator for the Machine Intelligence and Normative Theory (MINT) Lab, and an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow. I’m also a Distinguished Research Fellow of the University of Oxford Institute for Ethics in AI and General Co-Chair for the ACM Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency conference 2022. I am director of a Templeton World Charity Foundation project on ‘Moral Skill and Artificial Intelligence’, lead CI of an ARC Discovery Project on Ethics and Risk, and lead CI on an ARC Linkage Project on Socially Responsible Insurance in the Age of AI. I’m an author of a study by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, reporting to the US Congress on the ethics and governance of responsible computing research. In 2021, I was program co-chair for the ACM/AAAI AI, Ethics and Society Conference. I was founding lead of the Humanising Machine Intelligence grand challenge, a multidisciplinary project at ANU on the morality, law, and politics of data and AI. In 2023, I will give the Tanner Lectures on AI and Human Values at Stanford University, and in 2022 I gave the Mala and Solomon Kamm Lecture in Ethics at Harvard.

bottom of page