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. (See series page for announcements of future workshops.) The first workshop in the series, “Infrastructural Interventions,” brings together leading thinkers in Digital Humanities (DH) to critically interrogate the economic, political, and socio-technical dimensions of contemporary infrastructure. The workshop will take place on the Microsoft Teams platform. (How to join a Teams meeting.) Registration for this event is open on Eventbrite. (Get a ticket!) If you have any questions about the event, please don’t hesitate to contact the CIS collective: .
The growing body of literature on the concept of infrastructure — in science and technology studies, media studies, cultural studies, and DH — prompts questions about why infrastructure is essential for studying people’s practices, what kinds of subjects are embedded in infrastructural systems, and, in particular, how the world can be transformed through infrastructural interventions. A focus on infrastructure reveals the materiality of practices, as a set of conditions that are laid down by various actors: academic institutions, cultural units, technology companies, publishing houses, and governmental bodies. Surfacing the relationships between these heterogeneous entities can give us an insight into the manufacture of substrates that are not fixed, but relational objects. Infrastructure is an articulation of materiality that is constantly in formation across space and time, as Nikhil Anand et al. argued in The Promise of Infrastructure (2018). A thing is therefore in the process of becoming infrastructure and composed of socio-technical assemblages that emerge from tensions between institutional actors, policies, and knowledge practices. These tensions — expressed as a clash between functionality and sustainability, standardisation and resistance to universality, open and closed technologies — located in infrastructure make it a valuable object of critical inquiry. DH can contribute to debates about modern infrastructure by offering unique humanities-centred theoretical and practice-led analyses of infrastructure and possessing the capacity to unlock a range of technical, socio-cultural, and political perspectives
In this workshop, DH theorists 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?
21 June, Monday – 17.00 – 20.00 (UK time)
17.00 – 17.10
Introduction by Urszula Pawlicka-Deger, King’s College London, UK
17.50 – 18.05
18.05 – 18.10
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
19.20 – 19.25
19.25 – 19.55
This session will be devoted to the presentation and discussion of infrastructure-focused DH projects. How can DH projects (e.g., digital archives, collections and tools) address critical and social issues through the perspective of infrastructure? What are the project’s main contributions to Critical Infrastructure Studies?
- Advanced Research Consortium (ARC) – Laura Mandell, Texas A&M University, US (https://arc.dh.tamu.edu)
- Canadian Writing Research Collaboratory (CWRC) – Mihaela Ilovan, CWRC, University of Alberta, Canada (http://cwrc.ca)
- CUNY Digital History Archive (CDHA) – Stephen Brier and Chloe Smolarski, CDHA, City University of New York, US (https://cdha.cuny.edu)
- Enslaved.org – Dean Rehberger, Matrix, Michigan State University, US (https://enslaved.org)
- Humanities Networked Infrastructure: HuNI, Australia – Toby Burrows, University of Western Australia, Australia (https://huni.net.au)
- Ticha Project – Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, Haverford College, US (https://ticha.haverford.edu)
All projects will be published on a newly created YouTube channel of CIstudies.org Initiative. Check out for the above projects and more:
- BlackWords: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writing and Storytelling – AustLit: Discover Australian Stories, Australia (https://www.austlit.edu.au/blackwords)
19.55 – 20.00
22 June, Tuesday – 17.00 – 19.10 (UK time)
17.00 – 17.05
Introduction by Urszula Pawlicka-Deger, King’s College London, UK
- 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
18.10 – 18.15
- 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
19.05 – 19.10
“Towards Critical Digital Humanities: Explainability and Interpretability as Critical Infrastructure Practice”
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, amongst other advantages. Taking this as a stepping off point, I argue that explainability might offer a novel and critical means of intervention into, and transformation of, digital infrastructure and, further, as a practice for undertaking critical infrastructure studies. Although still at an early stage of development, explainability raises interesting questions about how a digital infrastructure might “self-document” or “explain” itself to such an inquiry. Indeed, by mapping and understanding theories of explanation related to software and algorithms, an “atlas of explainability” might provide a useful means of critique for infrastructures.
These observations come from within attempts to create infrastructure from a feminist intersectional perspective, from engaging in platforming as means of amplifying marginalized scholarly voices, underrepresented content, and non-hegemonic perspectives. Platforming invokes online infrastructure’s dynamic presentism and need for ongoing care, repair, and rebuilding. Replatforming suggests precarity as a significant aspect of academic infrastructures for cultural work which carries specific challenges when it comes to critical making. It also recalls deplatforming as a controversial strategy for dealing with proponents of hate speech and conspiracy theories. Deplatforming highlights the ethical questions involved in providing a (new or added) platform for historical or contemporary materials imbued with racism, sexism, classism. What does it mean to translate content into new forms that may make it findable, accessible, and usable in new ways? How can critique be embedded in the policies, processes, and products of scholarly knowledge infrastructures to mitigate possible harm?
“An Open Opportunity: Free Software, Community-Supported Infrastructure, and the People’s University”
Every day brings new reminders of the dangers of proprietary software. Grounded in profit imperatives, engineered for surveillance, built to accumulate personal data in service to capital, proprietary software has become part and parcel of the modern university experience. Colleges and universities across the country, including CUNY, rely on such technology to scale platforms to large groups of users, exposing them to the workings of surveillance capital in the process.But there are alternatives and pockets of resistance. Recent faculty governance initiatives at CUNY, for instance, have emphasized the importance of ethical data practices for technology-related decisions. Separately, the free and open-source software movement (FOSS), which involves the open sharing of code, is community-driven and open at its core.This talk will describe how a growing number of educators at CUNY, the largest urban public university in the US, have created a thriving ecosystem of community-oriented knowledge and community-supported infrastructure. Built by CUNY for CUNY, software platforms such as the CUNY Academic Commons, the Commons In A Box, and Manifold offer a positive and ethical vision for community-supported infrastructure that matches the highest aspirations of the City University itself.
“Missing Data and Making Data: Data Infrastructural Interventions”
How are different actors challenging, contesting and creating alternatives to official data? This talk explores how data infrastructures can be sites of not just official fact-making, but also of broader public intervention, experimentation, participation and imagination around what there is, what matters and who does what to whom. It examines projects which challenge the inadequacy of official representations, and propose alternative public performances – focusing on police killings, multinational tax avoidance and carbon emissions from coal plants. In response to lack of official data, civil society data infrastructures can serve as sites of gathering, embedding and mobilising different accounts; speculating on the organisation of collective life; and stabilising alternative ontologies and enumerated entities. Such infrastructures serve as a way to experiment with other ways of performing collective life, attending to and accounting for injustice with data, and mobilising a range of actors in response.
“What Does Feminist DH Infrastructure Look Like?”
Drawing from Klein’s recent book, Data Feminism (MIT Press), co-authored with Catherine D’Ignazio, which offers a set of principles for doing more just and equitable data science informed by intersectional feminism, this talk will present a set of provocations about what feminist DH infrastructure might entail. 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 might this infrastructure encourage a wider range of DH practices, as well as wider participation in DH? How might DH infrastructure open itself up to outside communities, as well as to issues that extend beyond the academy? Finally, how might the work involved in imagining, creating, and sustaining DH infrastructure be better recognized and valued? Each of these provocations will be explored via an example of a DH (or DH-adjacent) project. Taken together, they will point to how feminist thinking can inform the development and critique of infrastructure in DH and beyond.
“Digital Humanities and Critical Infrastructure Studies: An Overview,”
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:
- CIstudies.org Bibliography
- “CI Studies Primer”
- Syllabus for Alan Liu’s 2020 graduate seminar on “Critical Infrastructure Studies”
“Revitalizing the ARC Infrastructure through Linked Open Data”
ARC, the Advanced Research Consortium (http://www.ar-c.org), is the parent group overseeing and supporting NINES (http://www.nines.org), 18thConnect (http://www.18thConnect.org), MESA (http://www.mesa-medieval.org), ModNets (http://www.modnets.org), and SiRO (http://www.studiesinradicalism.org) as well as newly forming communities focusing on Early American research and Digital Disability Studies. These period-specific and thematically driven online finding aids and scholarly communities provide peer review for digital projects and guidance about best practices. ARC forms the infrastructure for this important work and has attempted to bake into its design feminist / intersectional critique. Thanks to the LINCs project spearheaded by Susan Brown (lincsproject.ca), ARC is transforming our metadata and its visualization (bigDiva.org) into Linked Open Data. I will ask, how can we preserve and enhance ARC’s critical infrastructure as our work shifts from “agile metadata development” (DH2016, https://dh2016.adho.org/abstracts/233) to creating and using LOD ontologies?
“The Fragility of Data and the Right to Infrastructures”
Critical studies on infrastructures recover the imaginaries, values and power relations associated with infrastructures. On the one hand, it is assumed that infrastructures have a materiality, a spatiality. On the other hand, they are discursively constructed as an invisible physicality. Infrastructures are a fundamental political, epistemological, ethical and social dimension of any HD project. In this work, we discuss the fragility of data infrastructures in digital humanities projects and the right to infrastructures as a necessary condition for reversing infrastructural inequalities. We argue that institutional policies on infrastructures should be based on values that promote equity, autonomy, sovereignty, and sustainability of infrastructures. An ethical position to democratize and decolonize data infrastructures with distributed and community governance must also be considered.
“Rewinding our Assumptions: Digital Infrastructure as Emergent Phenomena”
Recent work that seeks to interrogate the relationship between humans and technology using interdisciplinary approaches as diverse as the philosophy of technology and computing, critical theory, artificial intelligence, and evolutionary biology, offer powerful new ways to conceive of digital infrastructure. At the core of these approaches is a refusal to accept the alienation of humans from computational technologies, however tempting that might be when we consider the rigorous logics and natural physical limits that define them. This talk proposes a thought-experiment based on biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s ‘evolutionary tape’ (1989). Applying the experiment to digital infrastructure forces us to ask some fundamental questions about the philosophy of computing and the nature of digital infrastructure. How, precisely, did our contemporary digital infrastructure evolve? Was it a natural and inevitable expression of mathematical, physical, and social factors or (more radically) does it hint at a Platonic ideal? What mathematical, physical, and social boundary conditions determined its current form? These questions intersect in confounding ways with recent work by commentators such as Beatrice Fazi and Katherine Hayles who point to the entanglement of humans with computers and infrastructure, the undetermined nature of even basic binary logic, and the similarities between computational and human modes of cognition. This talk seeks to explore new ways of understanding contemporary digital infrastructure – at planetary scale and at the intersection of ontology, epistemology, and human cognition.
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.