Interview with Annette Zimmermann

by James Messina
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in a place called Tubingen which is close to the French and Swiss border in Alsace.
Q: When you were a kid, were there any inklings that you would become a philosopher?
A: I think I always asked myself philosophical questions, and predominantly ethical questions. I think I was always drawn to questions that seem obvious to people. I think it’s really important to give serious consideration to issues that ostensibly seem straightforward. Tons of people will look at morally objectionable phenomena in the world and say obviously that’s bad, but it’s important to tell a good story about why that’s bad.
Q: Did that ever annoy anyone in your life?
A: Yes. I think my parents found it slightly annoying, but they’ve gotten used to it.

Q: What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
A: When I was a smaller kid, I was really sure that I was going to be a painter. Then for a bit, because there are a lot of doctors in my family, I toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor. You have to do a 2 week internship. I hated it, I fainted multiple times. Being surrounded by death and sickness was not for me.

Q: How did you decide to become a political philosopher?
A: In my high school, there was an option of taking philosophy but only every other year, and I was in the year where you couldn’t take it, so I bullied the teacher into letting me into the class. I did get the opportunity to read a lot of Kant, which you do in German high schools. Kant and Rawls, that was my first exposure to moral and political philosophy.
In college, I basically spent 2.5 years just reading Foucault and Deleuze which for an analytic philosopher is not a usual trajectory. I found that really interesting but eventually I started thinking about questions that typically weren’t answered in that literature. What is a right, what are the normative foundations of a right, how do we determine which kinds of obligations correlate with rights, and so on.
So I started independently reading a lot of Joseph Raz and Ronald Dworkin, which is why I applied to Oxford for my Masters and PhD because Oxford was the worldwide hub of philosophical jurisprudence.

Q: Who are some other philosophers that have influenced you?
A: Jeremy Waldren was my MPhil adviser. I think he definitely convinced me of the idea that political philosophy should be political, ensuring that our work as contemporary analytic philosophers doesn’t become too abstracted away from actual real social conditions.
I think I’m also really influenced by my philosophical grandfather GA Cohen, analytical Marxist extraordinaire. Very funny person. I admire his ability to do pathbreaking philosophy but also make that philosophy engaging and accessible. It’s always been important to communicate ideas to people who don’t study philosophy all day.

Q: How did you get interested in your current field of tech ethics?  
A: I’ve always been interested in questions about states exercising systematic power, which looms as a risk of domination. My parents fled from a communist dictatorship in Romania. They talked about this feeling of state domination being a possibility at all times. A lot of people at the time would tinker with radio antennae to listen to Radio Free Europe and learned to use technology in a DIY way to get access to information, and I’ve always admired that.

Q: How did you get involved in doing public philosophy and writing for non-academic audiences?
A: I thought I’d have nothing particularly new or important to say. During my postdoc at Princeton, this unnamed tech company wanted to work with me and essentially wanted some AI ethics consulting. I was considering it, but then I saw their NDA. It would restrict my ability to speak publicly, and that’s when it became clear to me how important it was to speak publicly about the things I care about. Instead, I immediately submitted a piece to the Boston Review, it got accepted, and I just kept going.

Q: Any cool stuff in tech ethics that you’re currently thinking about?
A: There are some really cool art projects that flip the script on state uses of technology. Copmap has created this app that allows you to surveil law enforcement officers who are engaging in police violence, so the app creates a heat map, much like one that police to predict areas that will potentially experience clusters of crime. Instead, they apply it to police brutality that allows individuals to create a map based on reports. Can we use local data collection in real time to diagnose more accurately what kinds of social problems might make institutions less just.

Q: You and your wife have both joined UW. What does your wife do?
A: My wife, Leonie, is a linguistic anthropologist. She will be starting here in August in the anthropology department. She works on language integration policies in Germany, on policies that offer free language classes to refugees and immigrants coming to Germany, but they’re also mandatory. As Leo has found out, these classes are onerous and often counterproductive.

Q: What are your impressions of Madison so far? What has surprised you the most?
A: It surprised me that it was incredibly sunny and warm for the first few months I was here. Being able to go on day hikes around the lake in mid-October, and paddleboarding outside my office after office hours was great.

Q: Any projects in progress?
A: Right now, my wonderful, amazing colleague Jimmy and I are scheming to create a research group together on the philosophy and political economy of AI. I think that’s a really underresearched but very important perspective on AI. It’s exciting to do it at a place that Madison that has a long history of labor organizing and progressive politics, especially as we’re seeing a wave of tech worker activism.