Visiting scholar: Tobias Matzner from the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities in Tübingen

Last week Tobias Matzner visited the 3TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology for a colloquium and the “Privacy in Public Spaces” workshop. Tobias is a post-doctoral researcher at the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities in Tübingen, where he works on an interdisciplinary research project on privacy and the digital life. In this interview I asked Tobias about his career, his experiences in academia, and his views on privacy and technological development.

Tobias, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Who is Tobias Matzner?

Well, I started studying computer science and I got my degree (MSc equivalent) in computer science, working on automated reasoning. So I was already interested in the limits or boundaries of what computation could or could not do. Quite early on I went and started to visit philosophy lectures and during the years this became more and more intense. In the end I decided I wanted to be a philosopher and not a computer scientist. I worked for half a year as computer scientist after my graduation, but I still wanted to do philosophy.

With the philosophy courses I followed I was allowed to start a PhD in philosophy. I also had an interest in philosophy of science and epistemology, but I decided to do political philosophy. And somehow my thesis connects all of them. It is about “processes of politicisation” as I call them. When something that is a fact of life, something given, turns into something made and thus a political problem (e.g. gender-roles, climate change). I was interested in that shift, how nature becomes politics. I used Hannah Arendt and Wittgenstein to get a grasp on what goes in those shifts and to form an ethical stance. Because if it can be different, how should it be different?

Then I got this offer to work in Tübingen on a project on automated surveillance that really tied in both my knowledge about computer science as well as my knowledge of philosophy. I had to understand how this pattern recognition worked and at the same time the political perspective and problems. So I work at a centre for ethics of technology but very often really what we, or I, call ethics is much more a political or critical view on society. More than the narrow view of ethics, what should a single person do, but the broader view on what is a good state of a socio-technical configuration.

Despite your background in computer science and your well-documented interest in application-oriented ethics, you decided to write your PhD thesis on a more theoretical matter. Why did you decide to do so? And would you recommend this approach to other potential PhD students?

What I did was very theoretical, but it was theory that clears the ground for the practical. In both Arendt and Wittgenstein contingency is important. You do not have a definite perspective, it always depends on context. In Wittgenstein there would be no meaning without other people and these are not general people, these are concrete people. And for Arendt there would be no reality (as we just discussed in the seminar) without the perception by others. But this again is not generic either, it is the very concrete other in that very public setting. A very theoretical approach coming from the classical theoretical questions of philosophy shows the necessity to pay attention to the context and to the practical. You look at the practical differently if you have that theoretical background. You have to connect philosophy to reality. I have the intuition that philosophy always needs practical input, empirical input.

We already talked about the different kinds of work you do Political Philosophy, Feminist theory, Philosophy of Technology, Ethics – I even read Critical Phenomenology somewhere. Isn’t there a risk that you are not able to keep up with the developments in all these different fields?

This risk is always there, but philosophy is such a broad and international field that even when you are within a discourse it is hard to catch up. Of course I am not the specialist that can add a particular detail to a particular debate. So I take that risk, yes. But I think what I gain is being able to transfer knowledge from one field to the other and vice versa. For me this is much more beneficial than having read every single paper on an issue.

While my work is quite diverse it is not as if I work exclusively on one field at one particular moment, they inform each other. Everything I am interested in, I became interested in because of other work I already had been doing. For example feminist theory has a lot to say about privacy and technology. Donna Haraway’s thought wouldn’t have been possible without Marxist and feminist political thought. The interesting positions come about when different perspectives intersect.

In you work you cooperate extensively with engineers, stake-holders and „end-users“. Are there any tips for young scholars on how to prepare for such inter- and trans-disciplinary work?

In my own experience this really depends on who you work with. It very much depends on the persons and not so much their field. But one thing that is really important is a consciousness of the particular framework that you work in, a particular language game if you will. You have certain concepts and very basic presuppositions, and so do others you will be working with. For example, to put it bluntly, when I work with legal scholars I tell them that one of the most basic presuppositions in their theory, the free autonomous human being, does not exist. So how can you collaborate if you tell a person that the very pre-condition of what they do does not exist? You cannot, so you have to accept that everybody has certain presuppositions that necessarily are there. The idea that in inter-disciplinary work you can have this coherent meta-frame is misleading. You learn how others see this, and learn the value of the other perspectives. And take on the challenge to frame your view in a language of which you know the others can understand.

Whenever you do an inter-disciplinary project and you have the time. Take the time to establish this understanding, telling each other what certain concepts mean from your perspective.

You are part of a larger German initiative on privacy („Forum privatheit“). From a Dutch perspective it is a bit puzzling why such an initiative exists, because there is this strong tradition of data protection in Germany. Is there still a clear need for such an initiative in Germany?

Definitely. It is a very big research consortium that was very much a data protection thing when it started. Now it has evolved to a much broader view that privacy is much more than data protection. There are many facets of privacy. And very much privacy is now an international issue, it is both defined by local tradition and  by transnational and international communication and corporations. And even within a country technologies change the way we act and we change the technologies by the way we use them.

The old bourgeoisie perception that the state looks after us and our privacy no longer works. Many people in our society don’t have the same rights for example. Society never has been that single unstratified blob, but at least now we are conscious about that. Now we have to find concepts of privacy that do justice to that situation.

Looking at the progression of technological development. What keeps you up at night? And what makes you excited?

This a particularly though question. Especially because I am so opposed to any kind of technological determinism. I have always had this kind of hacker background from when I was a teenager. And I am still excited by the niches and many possibilities that people find to do cool things with technology. And I think it is amazing we have operating systems such as Linux now that are complete professional working environments build independently from any mainstream commercial software companies. But at the same time I am a bit worried about smartphones, since there is a lot to do there but there is not much happening. Many of the smartphone hackers just want a different interface or a longer battery-life. This old-fashioned idea to own the device and do whatever you want to do with it, is not so much there.

One thing that really interests me right now is the entire artificial intelligence debate. And my personal stance on this is that we do not have to be so much afraid of the AI, because there is still a long way to go before they will rule us because they are intelligent. The problem is what machines already do to us because they are not intelligent, and also what machines allow humans to do. Because I think the sub-text of this entire AI-debate is that the old-fashioned dream of this autonomous rational being, which the human is not, still can become true. And this would then rescue all those discourses that say they have the solution, because they now have this rational technology that solves our political problems.

This is not only illusionary, this is dangerous. This is a legitimisation of power. This entire discourse of AI helps legitimizing this liberalist solutionalist approach of using technology as a solution for social problems. And this is really something that worries me.

You can find more about Tobias and his work on