An Interview with Postdoctoral Fellow in Technology and Democracy Josh Simons


By: Alexis Jimenez Maldonado 
April 5, 2022 


This conversation happened on April 5, 2022. The transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity.  

Josh Simons is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Technology and Democracy at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. His research explores the political character of predictive tools like AI and machine learning and how those tools should be governed to support the flourishing of democracy. He focuses on two areas of law and policy: equality and civil rights law, and the regulation of technology companies through anti-monopoly and public law. He has written widely on equality and discrimination, platform regulation, privacy and digital rights, and public understanding of technology.  

Alexis Jimenez Maldonado: You joined the Center in 2019 as a Graduate Fellow but had been in the Center’s orbit before that. What drew you towards pursuing a fellowship with the Center? How did your fellowship influence your graduate work? 

Josh Simons: What was there not to love about the Center? One of the things that drew me to it, among many, was the interdisciplinary mode of conversation that the Center hosts. I had watched a Fellows in Residence seminar and thought the interdisciplinary conversation was awesome and could be much more widely used. I was able to subject my own work to that kind of interdisciplinary conversation and scrutiny in such a positive and supportive environment. The goal isn’t to make the respondents or the other people in the room feel big and important, but instead to really interrogate the substance of the work in an empathetic and thoughtful way. 

AJM: You are now a Postdoctoral Fellow with our JHD Impact Initiative and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at HKS. Can you tell me about the work that you are doing this year? I know that you have a couple of projects underway.  

JS: My PhD was about how democracies should govern and regulate the design and use of predictive tools. One of the things that I found in writing my PhD is that it's a space that both requires multidisciplinary work, but it also requires conversation and engagement across different sectors. Scholars need to sit down with decision makers and both of them need to sit down with policy experts. Because if you have a particular institution that's thinking about using a machine learning system or an AI system, they have to figure out how to design it, how to use it, and how to integrate it into their existing systems. To do that, you need to get the right people around the table, having the right kind of conversation, and asking the right kinds of questions. That requires both multidisciplinary work and also cross sectoral work.  

My job, as a Technology and Democracy Fellow and as Postdoctoral Fellow is to do that in different ways and in different contexts. One piece of that is developing and disseminating a white paper series, which is a rapid peer review process in which each paper and author takes on a particular interdisciplinary, cross sectoral question in technology and democracy. It then gets reviewed by scholars from different disciplines and put into the public domain. The other piece of it is also working with our Mayors network who are facing a lot of these questions about how to design and adopt technology. We are developing a process to support them in doing that while answering the research questions that emerge along the way. 

AJM: Your research explores the political character of predictive tools like AI and machine learning and how those tools should be governed to support the flourishing of democracy. Could you talk about how that work developed during your time as a fellow and also how those interests connect to the mission and work of the Center?  

JS: They connect in practical terms in my research and as a practitioner. What motivates the substance of my research is different aspects of democracy and what it means to be an engaged and critical citizen in a democracy. That is the theme and motivation which has grown out of different aspects of my work and relationship to the Center. A lot of the fellows and faculty that I've worked with and engaged with, like Danielle Allen or Chiara Cordelli, are interested in different democracy questions, but also have a certain commitment to democracy and to being an engaged citizen. Working on machine learning whilst being around them was a big part of why I came to think and believe that predictive tools like machine learning are political and building them involves the exercises of thinking about how we should regulate them. That kind of starting point was not sufficiently widely recognized. 

AJM: You and your wife Leah Downey both contributed to the Political Economy and Justice three-stage workshop. Congratulations about the upcoming publication of the edited volume, A Political Economy of Justice! Can you talk a bit about your experience with this project? Do you see the PEJ workshop as a precursor to the work happening now in the JHD? 

JS: In a way, Leah and I owe our wonderful marriage to the Center and to that project! Not really, but we were both graduate fellows at the same time and spent a lot of time together through the process of doing that project.  

I'm proud of the book, I think it's a great piece of work. But one of the most important things about the project was not the actual book, but the process that led to it. Danielle led an innovative process of coming together at three different stages: convening a group of multidisciplinary scholars, who then peel off into subgroups that are thematically similar. That produces a really intensive way of listening to one another across disciplines and identifying areas of shared questions.  

Both the substance of the book and the wider project was a precursor to the JHD because it's about how disciplines listen and talk to one another. It’s also how they produce work that leverages their knowledge and disciplinary skills that speaks to the set of quite urgent and pressing questions, either policy or institutional questions. The Center has been a leading home for this work. 

AJM: Can you talk about the work you’ve done as a researcher at Facebook, a fellow at the Leverhulme Centre at Cambridge University, and a political organizer with the Institute for the Future of Work in the UK? 

JS: The running thread in my work is a sense that our world is changing and part of that change concerns how technologies shape the possibilities of collective action and ultimately, democracy. Too often the public debate assumes that technologies are fixed and the job of policymakers and politicians is to mitigate the impacts of those technologies. I don't think that's true or helpful as a way of constructing the problem. The agency that policymakers, politicians, and citizens have is much greater and further upstream. It's about how we design technology and how we integrate it into our social world and our public institutions. That's something we have a lot of control over, but we don't always recognize it because we think of technology as fixed and our agency in terms of dealing with its effects. The work I've been doing at Facebook is about how to structure a big technology company to exert that kind of control early on in the process of designing machine learning systems to make sure that you surface the right policy and ethical questions in the design.  

Similarly, my work with the Institute for the Future of Work posed the question of if we had control over how technology is integrated into the workplace and deployed, what do we want that to look like? What do we want the future of work to be like? How we want it to improve and how can technology and how we regulate it helps support those goals? I focused on these questions instead of thinking about the impact of technology on work as fixed, and the policy questions which have been centered on how to compensate people for lost jobs. You get a binary debate between how many jobs AI is going to take destroy or whether that even matters. All of those positions are connected by that overarching goal to empower citizens and policymakers to think about regulating technology. 

AJM: You ran for public office last year in greater Manchester in the UK. What was that experience like? Were you comparing notes with Danielle while she was on her own political pursuit?  

JS: I am loath to compare my local government run to Danielle’s bid for Governor! But it's been funny how our paths have developed at the same time. There's no greater model of commitment to democracy than Danielle and everything she's done over the past several decades. It was kind weird independently deciding to put myself forward for running for office in a similar time to her and we did compare notes. One anecdote about the kinds of things we shared is about time management. Academics run their lives on email. They spend a lot of time replying to emails and scoping out work via email. It's an email driven job. Whereas if you're a political organizer, your time is spent on phone calls and you don't know who's going to pick up. You don't know who you're going to speak to, but that's okay. So you have to manage time for emails versus phone calls differently. We swapped stories about things like that.  

For me, the experience of running for office shed a whole new light on things that do and don't work about our democracies, as they currently operate. We've been talking a lot about that as well as how it is really helpful to think about democratic reform as a practitioner, having previously thought about it from the perspective of an academic. 

AJM: I hear that you are a man of many projects. What’s next on the horizon? 

JS: My first book is coming out early next year with Princeton University Press. It is about how to regulate technology if what you care about is a flourishing democracy. So I'm going to be finishing off the copyediting work to do that for that. I’ll also be working in the JHD project at the Centre to set up a Technology and Democracy workstream. And I have started a second project, which is about democracy and generations, and how the two interact over time. But for me, I’m committed to running for political office when the time is right, and it’s always on the back of my mind, so I'm sure that will be a goal in the not too distant future. 

AJM: What do you do in your spare time, do you have any hobbies? 

JS: Keeping fit and staying healthy is important to me, I tend to do that a few times a week. Leah and I also have a one year-old daughter called Essie. So, that takes up quite a bit of time. And Leah and I also love to be outdoors. We do a lot of hiking, and some fishing. I'm not very good at it, but Leah is.  

AJM: Do you have a podcast that you are listening to or a show that you are watching? 

JS: I love podcasts. I'm actually sad about a podcast that I've listened to for many years ending. 

The podcast is called “Talking Politics” and it's a British based podcast. They've done a few shows with “FiveThirtyEight.” The podcast was set up by my two earliest intellectual mentors, David Runciman and Helen Thompson at the University of Cambridge. It was just a fantastically historical, thoughtful, knowledge-informed analysis of what was going on in politics over a very long, turbulent period from 2016. It has unfortunately just ended. So, I'm mourning the loss of that. 

AJM:What are you looking forward to in the next few months?  

JS: In the UK there are some local elections coming up, which are always important. I'm helping out with a group of UK democracy sector and political organizing folks coming over to the US over the summer and before midterms. I'm excited to start more effectively connecting the UK democracy sector, the European democracy sector, and the American one. For a long time in the 90s and 2000s, there were active and flourishing links between progressive parties in the developed democratic world, especially the UK and the US, the two countries I care most about -- and those links have withered a bit. I'm excited to play a part in rebuilding them.