David M. Berry

Professor of Digital Humanities, University of Sussex, UK

Resident at the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften:
September 2019, November 2019

Research topic at the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften:
»Critical Theory, Artificial Intelligence and Explainability«

Project outline:
In this research I plan to explore the implications of explainability for the critical theory, and particularly the concept of explainability it gives rise to. This is increasingly relevant to the growing public visibility of artificial intelligence and machine-learning projects and the potential for the application of machine learning drawn from these approaches. This is an extremely difficult requirement for computational systems to achieve. By situating the questions over explainability in terms of theories and concepts drawn from critical theory, such as notions of instrumental rationality, the dialectic of enlightenment, standardisation and related problems of the political economy and commodity fetishism will create an extremely deep set of philosophical and theoretical questions. For example, the question of interpretation is hugely simplified in the proposals over explainability, the question of an interpreting subject, its capacities and its relation to assumed notions of truth are also suggestive. This research explores how power and life chances are redistributed where cognitive capacities themselves are subject to the market and therefore unequally available to the public. I therefore propose to explore explainability as a normative justification and as a technical project in light of these questions, and extend the debate over explainability into questions of interpretation through a notion of »understandability«. That is, to understand how justifications from the domains of a formal, technical and causal models of explanation have replaced that of understanding and thereby give rise to tensions and social conflict. The aim is to situate the current debates over explainability within a historical constellation of concepts but also to provide an immanent critique of the claims and justifications of »smart« technologies that build on artificial and machine-learning techniques, particularly in light of their impacts on cognitive proletarianisation, political economy and what we might call the structural transformation of the informational and cognitive capacity of societies under conditions of digital technicity. (David M. Berry)

Research partner:
While at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, David M. Berry will be working together with Klaus Günther (Professor of Legal Theory, Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure Law, Goethe-University).

Scholarly profile of David M. Berry

David M. Berry researches the theoretical and medium-specific challenges of understanding digital and computational media, particularly algorithms, software and code. His work draws on digital humanities, critical theory, political economy, social theory, software studies, and the philosophy of technology. As Professor of Digital Humanities, he is interested in how computation is being incorporated into arts and humanities and social science practice. In relation to this he is currently exploring how artificial intelligence and machine-learning are articulated in relation to arts and humanities knowledges – particularly notions of augmentating, automating and informating. More particularly, he is interested in how knowledge, organisation and computation are formed into new constellations of power.

Further information about David M. Berry can be found here.

Main areas of research:
Algorithms, Code, Computation, Critical Digital Humanities, Critical Reason, Critical Theory, Philosophy, Political economy, Social and political theory, Software Studies

Selected publications:
  1. (with Anders Fagerjord) Digital humanities: knowledge and critique in a digital age, Cambridge: Polity Press 2017.
  2. Critical theory and the digital. Critical theory and contemporary society, New York: Bloomsbury 2014.
  3. The philosophy of software: code and mediation in the digital age, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2011.
  4. Copy, rip, burn: the politics of copyleft and open source, London: Pluto Press 2008.