Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance
IN EARLY FEBRUARY, Taiwan had a mask supply problem. Howard Wu, a 35-year-old software engineer, watched as Covid-19-induced stress levels rose in his social media feeds. Friends and family were swamping LINE, Taiwan’s most popular messaging app, with up-to-the-minute reports saying which local convenience stores still had masks in stock—or were completely out.
So Wu started hacking. In the space of a single morning, he put together a website using Google Maps to coordinate the crowdsourced info pouring in from the messaging app. Anyone could contribute. Convenience stores stocking masks showed up in green. Out-of-stock stores turned red.
At the time, the World Health Organization was still a month away from declaring a global pandemic. But as soon as the first reports of trouble in Wuhan began trickling out on social media in late December, Taiwan had started organizing one of the world’s most successful mobilizations against Covid-19. By February, with dozens of deaths being reported in Wuhan every day, Taiwan was on high alert. The mask map was an instant hit.
But there was a catch. When a developer integrates Google Maps into a web application, Google charges a few dollars for every 1,000 times the map is accessed by users. On the afternoon of the first day after the web site went live, Wu received a bill for $2,000. The next day, the total jumped to $26,000. “Continuing in that direction was not acceptable,” Wu wrote in a document he posted to HackMD, a publicly hosted collaboration tool popular with Taiwan’s “civic tech” sector—a loosely organized community of hackers and computer-literate citizens dedicated to civic engagement.
Enter Audrey Tang, the Taiwan government’s digital minister.
Tang was one of the thousands of Taiwanese who had pounced on Wu’s map. In a Skype interview from Taipei, she laughs as she recalls the moment. “I contributed to his bill!” Tang says. But then she went to work.
Tang is a fervent believer in open data, open governance, and civil society-government collaboration. Wu’s mask app offered a path to putting her principles into action.
The day after the mask map went viral, Tang met with Taiwan’s premier to discuss ways to improve the country’s mask-rationing system. She suggested that the government distribute masks through pharmacies affiliated with Taiwan’s National Health Insurance system, Taiwan’s government-run single-payer health insurer. As Tang explained it, the key advantage of doling out masks via the pharmacies was that NHI maintains a database of all the products that pharmacies keep in stock, updated in real time. Tang proposed that NHI make the mask data open to the general public. Instead of relying on ad hoc crowdfunded reports, Taiwan’s citizens would gain easy access to more accurate and comprehensive data.
The proposal was greenlit. After receiving approval, she posted the news of the new tracking system to a Slack channel frequented by Taiwan’s civic tech hackers. She invited them to take the data and play with it as they pleased. At the same time, while holding her regular open-to-anyone visiting hours, she whipped together her own websiteto serve as a central clearinghouse for an ensuing profusion of mask availability apps. (Google also helped out by waiving Maps charges in the interest of fighting Covid-19.)
Although Tang is an accomplished software programmer with a long record of significant contributions to international open-source software projects, she was quick to minimize the extent of her technical contributions to the mask app project. For Tang, the significance of the mask map portal was its function as a space for others to participate in. She hearkened back to first principles: The portal was an example of her “Daoist approach” to political and social action.
She pulls chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing, a 2,500-year-old classic of Daoist philosophy, up on her monitor, and starts reading:
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.
… So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.”
“All I did was to hollow out the clay to make a pot,” Tang says. “I didn’t do anything afterwards.”
One of the fun things about Tang is that no one who knows her is at all surprised when Daoist philosophy pops up in a discussion of governmental Covid-19 containment strategies. It’s like her habit of closing presentations by quoting from the songwriter Leonard Cohen (“There’s a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in”). She is simultaneously whimsical and serious, a butterfly who doesn’t shy away from heavy lifting.
It’s safe to say that most governments are not staffed by officials who share much in common with Tang, a trans woman, open-source software hacker, startup entrepreneur, and the youngest (at 35, in 2016) person ever to be appointed a cabinet member in Taiwan. But when the topic is the successful integration of civil society, technological progress, and democratic governance, it’s also safe to say that most countries don’t share all that much in common with Taiwan, either. At least not yet.
Taiwan and Audrey Tang occupy a unique spot in a world, where the ascendance of the internet and digital technology is marked by the twin dystopias of “post-truth” information chaos in the United States and China’s totalitarian, technologically mediated surveillance-and-censorship regime. With Audrey Tang as the symbolic figurehead, the island nation is making the radical argument that digital tools can be effectively used to build stronger, more open, more accountable democracies. Whether the challenge is fighting disinformation campaigns orchestrated by hostile powers or the existential threat of a virus run amok or simply figuring out how to regulate Uber, Taiwan is demonstrating the best ways technology can be used to marry the energy and talents of civil society with the administrative powers of government bureaucracy.
“In these times of dark uses of technology and disillusionment with technology,” says Nick Monaco, an expert in online disinformation at the Institute for the Future think tank in Palo Alto, California, “Taiwan is a good objective reminder that these tools can be put to service for humanity and government.”
“Audrey Tang,” he adds, “is obviously inspiring.”
The “internet and democracy evolved together, spread together, and integrated with each other,” Tang wrote in a 2016 manifesto. The question is: Can Taiwan’s model be duplicated elsewhere? Or is it specific to Taiwan’s unique history and culture?
TANG WAS BORN in 1981 with a congenital heart defect, and doctors said it was imperative for her to keep her temper and emotions under control. One of her earliest memories, she says, is of practicing Daoist meditation and breathing techniques designed to maintain a steady heartbeat.
The lessons stuck. Along with ubiquitous paeans to her intelligence, one of the most common things you hear from people when they are asked to share their impressions of Tang are tributes to her preternaturally unruffled nature. It is simply impossible to imagine Tang engaged in a flame war.
But life at public school in Taiwan in the 1980s wasn’t all that nurturing for a shy and retiring child who was battling health issues. She acknowledges being regularly bullied and teased, and stories of her rocky passage through elementary school are a staple of Taiwanese newspaper accounts of Tang’s life. With the permission of her parents, she ended up dropping out of junior high school at 14 to pursue her own self-directed, internet-aided course of study.
A voracious reader, she likes to joke that her relatively optimistic view of life was influenced by her early exposure to out-of-copyright classics uploaded to the Gutenberg Archive. Everything published after World War I, she says, was still under copyright and unavailable, so she avoided being indoctrinated by accounts of the bleak disasters of the early and mid-20th century.
Regularly referred to by the Taiwan press as a child prodigy with a reputed 180 IQ, Tang says she started learning how to program when she was 8 years old. By 12 she was coding in Perl, an all-purpose programming language that was the tool of choice for many architects of internet-related services in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At 15, she started her own company, serving as chief technical officer for a team of 10 Perl hackers who carried out contract software development in Taiwan. She subsequently became a significant contributor to the international Perl community.
“Audrey is intensely intelligent,” wrote Allison Randal, a former director of the Perl Foundation and past president of the Open Source Initiative, via an email to WIRED, “and passionate about solving problems, but not in the obnoxious ‘top dog’ way that our industry seems to admire so much. (Elon Musk, for example.) I was always deeply impressed with how unfailingly nice she was, even in the middle of difficult conversations. She inspires people to strive to become better—not just doing better work, but also building strong, healthy communities who actively support each other.”
In 2005 Tang began transitioning to female. In interviews, Tang has noted that changing her gender identity gave her a valuable “experience of vulnerability,” but she tends not to focus on whether there was any blowback from general society due to her transition. On the contrary, Taiwan’s popular press seems to treat her trans identity as a point of pride, much like it does the country’s legalization of same-sex marriages in 2019 (the first such legislation in Asia.)
In 2014 she retired from the business world and began focusing primarily on civic engagement. An opportunity to play a key role arrived almost immediately. In spring of that year, Tang provided technical support to protesters who stunned the nation by occupying several government buildings for nearly a month. Originally sparked by outrage at the incumbent Nationalist Party—also known as the Kuomintang or KMT—administration’s attempt to fast-track a trade bill with China, the Sunflower Movement demonstrations turned out to be a landmark event in Taiwan’s politics, eventually paving the way to the election of the Democratic Progressive Party government led by Tsai Ing-wen in 2016.
But even before Tsai’s victory, in a clear nod to the growing influence of Taiwan’s emerging civic tech sector, the KMT’s digital minister, Jaclyn Tsai, asked Tang to help orchestrate a community approach to figuring out how to regulate Uber. This led to the creation of vTaiwan, a method of tapping what Tang calls the “collective intelligence” of civil society with open-source software tools for the purpose of building popular consensus on how the government should approach controversial topics. In the case of Uber, the vTaiwan consultative process resulted in the formulation of a set of proposals that were then codified in law by Taiwan’s legislature. (Uber initially found the regulations too onerous and abandoned the Taiwan market, but it later returned.)
In 2016 the incoming Democratic People’s Party administration appointed Tang digital minister. As the youngest-ever Cabinet member, she became the embodiment of a weaned-on-the-internet Taiwanese generation just starting to get real traction in politics.
For those of us who lived through the internet’s emergence as a major cultural force in the 1990s, the experience of watching Tang give TED talks or explaining digital democracy to audiences, or simply listening to her in person, is like traveling back in time to a halcyon era where the very word “internet” conveyed utopian promises of liberation.
This is especially true when Tang talks about the free and open-source software movement. In the late ’90s, the argument that sharing code freely on the internet was not only a more efficient way to create software but also a template for a progressive reorganization of society writ large, packed an intoxicating punch for idealistic nerds. The rhetoric soared: Open-source democracy would usher in a new era of progressive politics. The geek rapture was at hand.
From the vantage point of 2020, the validity of the open-source software development model as an efficient method for writing codehas been well established. As for upending dictators and spreading nirvana? Today’s conventional wisdom suggests otherwise—perhaps the opposite. Authoritarianism is proliferating across the globe while disinformation reigns supreme. The conclusion is difficult to avoid: The internet has failed to deliver on its early promises.
Except, possibly, in Taiwan, where hackers like Tang are not only reprising the rhetoric of the 1990s but doing their best to make that rhetoric hard-coded reality.
In the wake of Taiwan’s extraordinarily successful containment of Covid-19 (as of this writing, 455 confirmed cases and only seven deaths), Taiwan’s international profile has soared. Suddenly, everyone is curious: What’s Taiwan’s secret? How can we duplicate its success?
The differences between a country like the United States and Taiwan are so vast as to make any comparison tricky, if not hopelessly quixotic. But there are clear themes that emerge from a close look at Audrey Tang’s approach. Promoting openness and transparency nurtures mutual trust—and when the people and the government trust each other, new possibilities for collective action blossom. So the question becomes: How can digital tools be deployed to engender trust?
Taiwan’s success at dealing with Covid-19 has many roots. But the existence of the kind of trust necessary to allow something like the mask map portal to exist goes back, Tang believes, to the Sunflower Movement. In her view, the successful occupation of Taiwan’s legislature was a crucial moment in the emergence of a new relationship between the government and people.
“After 22 days of ‘occupy‘ in the parliament, there is nobody dead, no one missing,” Tang says. “It’s all very civil. Anyone who participated in that changed from within, so that they are much more willing to trust that a bunch of strangers in a well-facilitated place can produce something like a rough consensus out of differing positions. We took that and then designed the administration to fit the new political mandate, the new societal norm, the new societal expectations. In a sense, we’re just channels of that post-occupy energy.”
The mask app, she argues, is a technical project playing to the strength of Taiwan’s evolving societal norms. The government trusted the people not to abuse access to NHI data, and the people responded to that trust by creating a multitude of applications that went far beyond Howard Wu’s initial experiment, doing things such as adding inclusivity-expanding features like audio assistance for the visually impaired. “If that kind of participatory mechanism design eventually becomes the norm,” Tang says, “then you will see a sea change, and people will start to think about how to collaborate with different people, rather than to cast them as others.”
Fairly straightforward design changes, she says, can play a crucial role in that process—things as simple as removing reply buttons from interface designs so users don’t have easy opportunities for ad hominem trolling, or as complicated as the four-week-long vTaiwan process to regulate Uber. It’s fair to question whether such strategies could easily apply to a society as polarized as today’s United States. Because at least one thing seems clear—to have any chance making civic technology practices work, you need a critical mass of citizens who are willing and able to participate.
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Thanks for this, Shaun.