Visiting Professor David Berry on Explainability and Interpretability as Critical Infrastructure Practice

David Berry is currently visiting the Department of Digital Humanities as Visiting Professor of Critical Theory and Digital Humanities. The following post from David introduces some of his current research on explainability and interpretability. He is giving a talk about this work at the Infrastructural Interventions workshop on Tuesday 22nd June.

I am very excited to be a Visiting Professor of Critical Theory and Digital Humanities at KCL in the Department of Digital Humanities in 2021 as KCL not only has a great research culture, but also really exciting projects which I have been learning about. Whilst I am at Kings, I have been working on a new project around the concept of Explainability called “Explanatory Publics: Explainability, Automation and Critique.” Explainability is the idea that artificial intelligence systems should be able to generate a sufficient explanation of how an automated decision was made, representing or explaining, in some sense, its technical processing. With concerns over biases in algorithms there is an idea that self-explanation by a machine learning system would engender trust in these systems. [1]

Trust is a fundamental basis of any system, but it has to be stabilised through the generation of norms and practices that create justifications for the way things are. This is required for automated decision making, in part, because computation is increasingly a central aspect of a nation’s economy, real or imaginary. I argue that this is important under conditions of computational capitalism because when we call for an explanation, we might be able to better understand the contradictions within this historically specific form of computation that emerges in Late Capitalism. I have been exploring how these contradictions are continually suppressed in computational societies and generate systemic problems borne out of the need for the political economy of software to be obscured so that its functions and the mechanisms of value generation are hidden from public knowledge.

I argue that explainability offers a novel and critical means of intervention into, and transformation of, digital technology. By explanatory publics, I am gesturing to the need for frameworks of knowledge, whether social, political, technical, economic or cultural, to be justified through a social right to explanation. Explanations are assumed to tell us how things work and thereby giving us the power to change our environment in order to meet our own ends. Indeed, for a polity to be considered democratic, I argue that it must ensure that its citizens are able to develop a capacity for explanatory thought in relation to the digital (in addition to other capacities), and able to question ideas, practices and institutions in a digital society. So this also includes the corollary that citizens can demand explanatory accounts from technologies, institutions and artificial intelligences in the digital technologies they rely on.

The notion of explainability offers a critical point of intervention into these debates. By addressing the problem of creating systems that can explain their automated decision-making processes, the concept of justification becomes paramount. However, many current discussions of explainability tend to be chiefly interested in creating an explanatory product, whereas I argue that an understanding of the explanatory process will have greater impacts for algorithmic legitimacy and democratic politics.

[1] Within the field of AI there is now a growing awareness of this problem of opaque systems and a sub-discipline of “explainable AI” (XAI) has emerged and begun to address these very complex issues – although mainly through a technical approach.

New ERC Project Exploring the Intersection between Surveillance and Morality

‘Smart cities’, ‘employee assistance programmes’, the pervasive language of ‘security’ – the implementation of surveillance technologies has consistently been framed in relation to moral ideas. This ambiguity has been observed by surveillance scholars for many years, David Lyon once describing the alternating ends of ‘care’ and ‘control’ which these technologies serve. Yet the study of surveillance has predominantly concerned itself with the latter. This ERC-funded project, recently initiated through the Department of Digital Humanities, opens up a different range of questions. If morality is the medium through which surveillance technologies have so often been popularly legitimized, then what if there is a history of the phenomenon yet to be written – in which surveillance proliferates not as a lever in power relations – but through these accepted notions of ‘the good’.

The project is anchored in the discipline of anthropology, involving four ethnographies that explore everyday relationships to digital monitoring. This shapes its epistemological approach in two important ways. The first is a conceptual collectivism. Although many of the ethnographic encounters will be with individuals, the focus is not on individuals per se, but on the role that digital monitoring plays in the mediation of their wider relationships, both intimate but also potentially very abstract. The second is a sensitivity to cultural difference. With two studies in each country, the project erects a binary contrast between Germany and Britain, as places with visibly distinct histories and attitudes towards surveillance. Aside from modest opposition to the introduction of ID cards, the response to the intensification of surveillance in Britain has been placid, even sympathetic. By contrast, Germany has witnessed widespread civic mobilizations against monitoring over the past forty years: from the census protests of the 70s and 80s, to more recent protests against the retention of data by mobile phone companies, or the boycotting of image collection by Google StreetView. Through this comparison the project aims to problematize this question of the good further. What kinds of collective experiences are being drawn on when people support or oppose surveillance?

Overall, the study pivots around the moral ambivalence of surveillance that members of highly technologized societies increasingly find themselves faced with. If surveillance enables forms of care – for the body, the friend, the family, the nation – cannot their insalubrious applications simply be overlooked? It is this moral tangle that, we offer, consistently inhibits restrictions on the growth of these technologies. By studying, through long-term ethnographic fieldwork, how and why people themselves use monitoring technologies voluntarily, we aim to establish greater clarity on those modes of monitoring that support human health, happiness and dignity – and those that are inimical to it.


Surveillance and Moral Community: Anthropologies of Monitoring in Germany and Britain, ERC Project No. 947867, is led by Dr Vita Peacock.



Day of Digital Humanities 2021

This is a collection of blog posts members of the department contributed to the annual Day of Digital Humanities, a global online event which was this year themed on ‘multilingual digital humanities’. These were originally published on the Language Acts & Worldmaking website at and


Introduction by Paul Spence

This year’s Day of Digital Humanities event Day of DH 2021 presents another opportunity to engage with the wider digital humanities community through a series of interactions channelled through Twitter and Instagram with the hashtag #dayofdh2021. The focus this year is on ‘multilingual DH’, a topic which has been at the centre of my research in the last four or five years, and which has thankfully started to gain traction in recent years through initiatives such as the multilingual Open Methods initiative, multi-language versions of the Programming Historian and multilingual DH. As Quinn Dombrowski remarked recently, “Multilingual DH is suddenly blooming”.

I asked colleagues from the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London to describe research they are doing on multilingual digital studies. What follows are a few examples of their work.

Continue reading “Day of Digital Humanities 2021”

“Infrastructural Interventions”: Digital Humanities & Critical Infrastructure Studies Workshop, 21-22nd June 2021

The Department of Digital Humanities, King’s Digital Lab and the Critical Infrastructures Studies Initiative ( are co-hosting an event on “Infrastructural Interventions” on 21-22nd June 2021, organised by Urszula Pawlicka-Deger, Marie Curie Research Fellow at King’s.

The event includes talks and discussions with Urszula Pawlicka-Deger, Alan Liu, Laura Mandell, Matthew K. Gold, Susan Brown, Lauren F. Klein, Paola Ricaurte Quijano, Jonathan Gray, James Smithies, Arianna Ciula and David M. Berry.

Participation is free and you can register here. Further details are copied below. Full abstracts and bios can be found on the Critical Infrastructure Studies website.

The Digital Humanities & Critical Infrastructure Studies Workshop Series aims to enliven discussion about infrastructure from the perspective of Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, as a contribution to the emerging field of Critical Infrastructure Studies. The first workshop in the series, “Infrastructural Interventions,” brings together leading thinkers in Digital Humanities (DH) who interrogate the nature and fragility of infrastructure at individual, social, and planetary scales, and attempt to reconfigure their nature from social justice, feminist and decolonial perspectives. The following questions will guide us through the discussion: How, precisely, did our contemporary digital infrastructure evolve? How are different actors challenging, contesting and creating alternatives to official data infrastructures? How can DH infrastructure be informed by an analysis of power—and even actively challenge existing power imbalances? How might DH infrastructure reject the hierarchical and other divisions that currently structure DH work? How can digital humanists reimagine and rebuild the world differently through infrastructure?

The workshop will take place on the Microsoft Teams platform. (How to join a Teams meeting.) Registration for this event is now open through the Eventbrite. If you have any questions about the event, please don’t hesitate to contact the CIS collective:


21 June, Monday – 17.00 – 20.00 (UK time)

  • 17.00 – 17.10: Introduction by Urszula Pawlicka-Deger, King’s College London, UK
  • 17.10 – 17.50 : Keynote by Alan Liu, University of California, Santa Barbara, US – “Digital Humanities and Critical Infrastructure Studies: An Overview,” 40min (chair: James Smithies)

Abstract: In this talk, Alan Liu provides an introduction to “critical infrastructure studies” and the place of the digital humanities in it. What have been the main approaches to infrastructure that today make the topic of such compelling socio-political, technological, media-informatic, cultural, historical, and artistic interest across the disciplines? How are the digital humanities positioned in relation to those approaches; and what is “critical” about that relation?

Useful links for citations and other material mentioned in the talk:

– Bibliography:

– “CI Studies Primer”:

– Syllabus for Alan Liu’s 2020 graduate seminar on “Critical Infrastructure Studies”:

  • 17.50 – 18.05: Discussion
  • 18.05 – 18.10: Break
  • 18.10 – 19.00: Session (chair: Urszula Pawlicka-Deger)

Laura Mandell, Texas A&M University, US – “Revitalizing the ARC Infrastructure through Linked Open Data”

Matthew K. Gold, CUNY Graduate Center, US – “An Open Opportunity: Free Software, Community-Supported Infrastructure, and the People’s University”

Susan Brown, University of Guelph, Canada – “(Re:)platforming”

  • 19.00 – 19.20: Discussion
  • 19.20 – 19.25: Break
  • 19.25 – 19.55: Projects discussion

Showcasing infrastructure-focused DH projects. More details soon!

  • 19.55 – 20.00: Conclusion

22 June, Tuesday – 17.00 – 19.10 (UK time)

  • 17.00 – 17.05: Introduction by Urszula Pawlicka-Deger, King’s College London, UK
  • 17.05 – 17.50: Session 1 (chair: Urszula Pawlicka-Deger)

Lauren F. Klein, Emory University, US – “What Does Feminist DH Infrastructure Look Like?”

Paola Ricaurte Quijano, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico – “The Fragility of Data and the Right to Infrastructures”

Jonathan Gray, King’s College London, UK – “Missing Data and Making Data: Data Infrastructural Interventions”

  • 17.50 – 18.10: Discussion
  • 18.10 – 18.15: Break
  • 18.15 – 18.45: Session 2 (chair: Arianna Ciula)

James Smithies, King’s College London, UK – “Rewinding our Assumptions: Digital Infrastructure as Emergent Phenomena”

David M. Berry, University of Sussex, UK – “Towards Critical Digital Humanities: Explainability and Interpretability as Critical Infrastructure Practice”

  • 18.45 – 19.05: Discussion
  • 19.05 – 19.10: Conclusion

You can find more details and abstracts on the Critical Infrastructures website.

The workshop is part of the MSCA project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 891155.

The MSCA research project website:



New Book: ’Yesterday’s News: The Future of Long-form Journalism and Archives’

A new book by Marco Braghieri entitled ‘Yesterday’s News – The future of long-form journalism and archives’ has been published by Peter Lang.

The book focuses on two entities (long-form journalism and archives) which sit at the intersection between journalistic production and the digital. While framed within digital humanities, this book deploys a number of methods, including text analysis as part of critical discourse analysis, case-study, digital methods, data profiling and data cleaning and semi-structured interviews in order to develop a new framing for long-form journalism and archives within the digital. The latter is the starting point of the book, which is defined as ‘digital landscape’, comprising three main entities (individuals, crowds and platforms). Their interactions have defined and influenced not only the media industry, but also have created new, possible connections between long-form journalism and archives, which are both relevant over time, digitised but not yet datafied entities and share possible new forms of aggregation and curation.

Yesterday's News Cover

The original image used for the cover is the original cover by the Italian graphic designer Giovanni Pintori, who designed the cover of ‘Musica per Parole’, a promotional record sold with the Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter in 1959.
The original image is courtesy of Archivio Storico Olivetti.

The book starts with a definition of the ‘digital landscape’ as “sets of interacting ecosystems”, based on two main features, such as “its nature as constant flux and a disruption enhancer”. Moving on to assess the relationship between this framework and media production, the book provides a definition of long-form journalism and two case studies. It then focuses on digital news outlets archives and their evolution over time. A final case study is then used to assess the possible new forms of aggregation and curation which could be connected to the datafication process regarding both long-form journalism and archives.

While this book tries to establish a framework for the digital and its relationship with contemporary media production, it also attempts to connect digital journalism and platform studies, in order to provide a framing for a multi-method analysis approach to media production in the digital age.

Further information on the book can be found here.

Georgian and Hungarian speaking data assistants needed on the DH project at King’s

We are hiring Georgian and Hungarian speaking data assistants for short-term positions to work on the cross-linguistic project ‘Distant Reading across Languages’ ( The deadline of applying is 15th May 2021. Please apply via King’s Talent Bank here:

If you have any questions about the positions, do not hesitate to contact Dr Gabriele Salciute Civiliene, PI and Lecturer in Digital Humanities Education, at

Marking work available at KCL in digital media & technology + digital culture

The Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London is looking for hourly paid lecturers to mark essay assignments in the areas of:

  • digital societies and platforms
  • digital economy & innovation
  • internet culture
  • social media and marketing
  • games and virtual realities
  • digital content management
  • digital curation in cultural institutions.

Most assignments are generally 4,000 words long and we calculate the lump sum of an hour (£20.99) per assignment. The work will be available beginning of May with four weeks to return the feedback and marks. The marker will need to demonstrate expertise in their areas and/or a PhD to take on work and have the right to work in the UK.

We look forward to hear from markers who are willing to take on 10/20/30 or 40 assignments. Please contact mercedes DOT bunz AT if you are interested or feel free to forward this blogpost if anyone comes to mind.

The international Martha Cheung Award for research excellence in the paper on cross-linguistic modelling and computing received by Dr Gabriele Salciute Civiliene

Dr Gabriele Salciute Civiliene, Lecturer in Digital Humanities Education at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London, has been announced the winner of the 2021 Martha Cheung Award for Best English Article in Translation Studies by the SISU Baker Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies, Shanghai International Studies University. The Award is established in honour of the late Professor Martha Cheung, formerly Chair Professor of Translation at Hong Kong Baptist University, for her seminal contribution to the reconceptualization of translation from non-Western perspectives. The Martha Cheung Award is one of the top awards in the field.

Gabriele Salciute Civiliene

Gabriele’s article “Between Surface and Depth: Towards embodied ontologies of text computing across languages”, published in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 45/2 (2020), has been praised on the Award page as a highly original, interdisciplinary contribution that offers new insights into the study of translation. It provides a critical consideration of what underlies the epistemo-methodological impasses of the mainstream approach to repetition in translation studies, and considers the possibility of a new practice for cross-linguistic quantitative reading. The article demonstrates how data visualization based on the computational analysis of translated text can illuminate our understanding of cognition and perception. Translation theory is shown to present an interesting problem for the Digital Humanities, one that fundamentally complicates text computing and challenges the flat dimensions of quantification. Dr. Salciute Civiliene draws on her research into the design of cross-linguistic distant reading and the modelling of repetition strings as equivalents of dynamic translatorial response to argue for and demonstrate the possibility of thick computing as suspended between textual surfaces and depths.”

New edition of Data Journalism Handbook now open access with Amsterdam University Press

This blog is cross-posted from which also includes additional images and media. These can also be viewed in this thread.

Today The Data Journalism Handbook: Towards a Critical Data Practice (co-edited with Jonathan Gray) is published on Amsterdam University Press. It is published as part of a new book series on Digital Studies which is also being launched today. You can find the book here, including an open access version:

The book provides a wide-ranging collection of perspectives on how data journalism is done around the world. It is published a decade after the first edition (available in 14 languages) began life as a collaborative draft at the Mozilla Festival 2011 in London.

Book sprint at MozFest 2011 for first edition of Data Journalism Handbook.

The new edition, with 54 chapters from 74 leading researchers and practitioners of data journalism, gives a “behind the scenes” look at the social lives of datasets, data infrastructures, and data stories in newsrooms, media organizations, startups, civil society organizations and beyond.

The book includes chapters by leading researchers around the world and from practitioners at organisations including Al Jazeera, BBC, BuzzFeed News, Der Spiegel,, The Engine Room, Global Witness, Google News Lab, Guardian, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), La Nacion, NOS, OjoPúblico, Rappler, United Nations Development Programme and the Washington Post.

An online preview of various chapters from book was launched in collaboration with the European Journalism Centre and the Google News Initiative and can be found here.

The book draws on over a decade of professional and academic experience engaging with the field of data journalism, including through my role as Data Journalism Programme Lead at the European Journalism Centre; my research on data journalism with the Digital Methods Initiative; my PhD research on “news devices” at the universities of Groningen and Ghent; and my research, teaching and collaborations around data journalism at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London.

Further background about the book can be found in our introduction. Following is the full table of contents and some quotes about the book. We’ll be organising various activities around the book in coming months, which you can follow with the #ddjbook hashtag on Twitter.

If you adopt the book for a class we’d love to hear from you so we can keep track of how it is being used (and also update this list of data journalism courses and programmes around the world) and to inform future activities in this area. Hope you enjoy it!

Continue reading “New edition of Data Journalism Handbook now open access with Amsterdam University Press”

Ethics of vaccine passports and COVID status apps by Btihaj Ajana

In response to Ada Lovelace Institute’s call for public evidence regarding the vaccine passports and COVID status apps, Dr Btihaj Ajana, Reader in Media and Digital Culture at the Department of Digital Humanities, recently submitted some critical reflections on the ethical implications of these technologies and proposals.

Here is a summary of submission:

Discrimination and inequality

I believe that the deployment of Covid-19 vaccine passports and status apps for governing movement and access to certain spaces and services will inevitably create new forms of discrimination while exacerbating exiting ones. First of all, it should be borne in mind that, for the time being, not all countries in the world have equal access to the new Covid-19 vaccines nor the equal economic capacity to acquire the needed doses to immunise the whole population. For instance, many low-income countries will be relying on COVAX which can only achieve 20% vaccination coverage (see This, as scientific studies indicate, is not enough for achieving herd immunity through vaccination. As a result, people from such countries are likely to have their freedom of travel severely restricted as a result of the potential imposition of vaccine passports worldwide.

Also, such developments need to be regarded as part of the historical and social contexts (not just in terms of the current Covid-19 situation). We are already living in a “world apartheid” whereby the amalgamation of borders, passports, and biometric technologies has been instrumental in creating a dual regime of circulation and an international class differentiation through which some nations can move around and access services with ease while others are excluded and made to endure an “excess of documentation and securitisation” (because of their nationality, socio-economic standing, etc. and soon likely, because of their vaccine status). Introducing Covid-19 vaccine passports and status apps as “tokens of freedom” will add yet another layer of inequality and discrimination, the consequences of which are likely to outlive the pandemic itself. 

Digital divide and technological determinism

The proposal for introducing vaccine status apps assumes that everyone has or wants a smartphone. There is a high level of technological determinism currently dominating the debates on these issues and which seems to ignore that the digital divide still exists in the world. Making freedom of travel and right to access services and spaces contingent on having a digital vaccination passport and a status app is inherently exclusionary. Already the deployment of contact tracing apps has revealed the flaws of such technologies. In Spain for instance, Radar Covid, the official contact tracing app, is not operational on older iPhone models. Travellers to Spain must download and use the app, but if their smartphone is an older model, then they cannot use the app. Similarly, and as stated on NHS website, the Covid-19 app does not work on all phones: “Older models of Apple (iPhone 5S and iPhone 6/6Plus or earlier) and Android phones that do not support iOS 13.5 or Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) and higher will not be able to use the app. Windows phones and new models of Huawei smartphones launched from May 2019 will also not be able to use the app. This is because your phone needs access to the Apple App Store, or Google Play Services, to be able to download the NHS COVID-19 app.”

As such, technological affordances also play a role in shaping the use, access and experience of Covid-19 related apps, and can thereby lead to forms of exclusion.  Furthermore, the imposition of digital vaccine passports and status apps also seems to ignore that some people do not wish to have their everyday activities completely dependent on a digital app or a certificate. The right to be disconnected from the digital world and its big data machine, as hard as it is in today’s world, should still be respected and protected.

Function creep

The issue of function creep refers to when a certain technology gets repurposed and used for something other than its intended use. We have seen time and again throughout the recent decades how practices and mechanisms that are initially designed for specific exceptional circumstances end up becoming routine and widespread across the entire fabric of society. One example is to do with the application of biometric technology. The initial social and political use of biometrics was limited to exceptional spaces and extreme cases, such as detention centres and crime investigations. Over the years, biometrics became more widely used so much so that it is now embedded in everyday products and services.  We use biometric fingerprints and facial recognition to unlock our phones or log into our bank accounts; we use MobilePay to purchase our morning coffee; voice recognition to interact with virtual assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, and so on. Technologies that would have seemed intrusive a few years ago are so commonplace today. And with the current technologies being developed to manage people’s health status through biometric apps, we are likely to see a similar function creep and repurposing that may well outlive the pandemic itself, raising questions about privacy, human rights and data protection.

A false sense of protection

Scientific evidence concerning the efficacy of new covid-19 vaccines in terms of preventing infection and transmission is still hazy. As Hodgson et al. argue, assessment of the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccine is particularly complex given that the fundamental understanding of the pathogen is still evolving. There is an urgent need for critical and scientifically rigorous appraisals of the efficacy outcomes of these newly developed Covid-19 vaccines before rushing to implement vaccine passports and status apps. Otherwise, there is a risk that the implementation of these mechanisms might end up giving a false sense of safety and protection while there is not yet a conclusive evidence that someone who is vaccinated cannot pass on the virus to others.

Overall, I believe that the implementation of Covid-19 vaccine passports and status apps carries several risks with potentially harmful consequences for individuals and societies.

Btihaj Ajana, February 2021