What you need to know
This is the first of a three-part interview with Taiwan’s ‘genius hacker'.
Audrey Tang (唐鳳) this month started in her new role as Taiwan’s first “digital minister.” Officially, she is a minister without portfolio in Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Cabinet with responsibilities for the digital economy and open government.
Tang, 35, “retired” from the business world in 2014 after a successful tech career, which included time working with companies in Silicon Valley. Over the past two years she has been dedicated to public service and her new position will see the continuation of her work using her advanced programming skills and passion for open democracy. She is also Taiwan’s first transgender politician and the youngest member of the Tsai administration.
In this interview series with The News Lens International, Tang describes the crucial behind-the-scenes role she played in the Sunflower Movement, how Taiwan’s digital community has continued to create new avenues for citizen participation in the years since, and her beliefs about how assistive technology will benefit society in future. She also explains her views on different types of hackers, and why, actually, she is still an anarchist.
The News Lens International (TNL): I would like to start by going back to 2014 and hearing a little bit about your personal role in the Sunflower Movement, and perhaps your reflections on the role that technology, the hacking circle and the people involved in that space, what role they ended up playing?
Audrey Tang: My role was one of many. Before the Sunflower Movement there was a parade that took place about 10 days earlier. For the first time the organizers of the parade asked for support of the civic hackers because they needed Internet connectivity for the media – one year earlier at the same event, a quarter of a million or 100,000 people came, but there was no Internet for the media and all the media had to wait until the night, or even the next day to publish anything about the day. That was quite unfortunate from a PR standpoint for the people organizing the event; many people came but there was no real-time news.
For that year, 2014, they wanted some dedicated Internet connectivity for the media booth, so that people could publish in real-time about the parade. But that day had heavy rain and almost typhoon-like weather, so not many people showed up. The media were in the booth with a cover that protected them and their equipment from the rain. We brought all the equipment – mostly home-use level equipment – that connected the media to this HiNet, which is a one-day line, and then to whatever press that they represented. Civil society largely provided the SDI [serial digital interface] video for the media to use. Because of the low turnout, really there wasn’t much too report – there was still some rallying and so on – but we had a lot of bandwidth and not many people using it.
We were a team of maybe 20 people, and I was the first person to commit to take my equipment and set it up. But the real work was done by much more professional people, people who set up infrastructure for all of the open-source, large-scale conferences in Taiwan. I wasn’t really playing much of a role, other than being the first person to form the team. We had a lot of extra bandwidth, and it occurred to us we could use that extra bandwidth to not just provide to the media, maybe we can be the media ourselves. The civic hackers used the same SDI video line, and they used my laptop, and then some civic media people set-up an impromptu YouTube cast, and then we had a live feed of whatever was happening on stage. It provided a real, close to the stage view of the rallying and the shows happening on the stage. Because of the way the camera was positioned, [despite] the fact that the seats were not really occupied, you see a full crowd – it is exactly like how the parliament camera works.
A lot of people wanted to come [to that protest], but due to the weather, they could not come to the event. Even though [the live video link] wasn’t preannounced – it was just posted on the event’s Facebook – very soon we had more confirmed viewers than people immediately in the front row of the stage, and attracted a secondary audience. Because it was really high-quality people could make out a lot of what was happening, and were criticizing or chatting among themselves in the chatroom next to the YouTube live video. I was also helping to moderate the discussion there, so it becomes a more constructive conversation.
All of that happened before the Sunflower Movement. When the occupy movement started 10 days later, our equipment was ‘hot’ so to speak, we had just had a dress rehearsal of how to make this kind of thing work. Because it was at night when parliament passed the reading of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, we didn’t have time to contact HiNet to have a dedicated line to the protest area, and it was originally scheduled to be just one night.
At the request of the civil society organizations organizing the Sunflower protest on the side of parliament, I brought my phone and because I was switching to the high-speed connection at the time, I was providing the connectivity. A student from the Black Island [Nation Youth Alliance] provided his laptop as the bridge between my phone and the “indie” media person, who was getting the SDI [video] from the camera on a desktop computer. We connected through this gateway, and then from my phone it was then broadcast to YouTube. It was then announced that people can see what is going on, on YouTUbe, and have a conversation.
I was the first to supply the network equipment. I didn’t stay long – maybe two or three hours – and when it was night I left my phone there. They promised they would return it to me – that didn’t happen! – and then civic media people followed.
On the next shift, they broke into the parliament. The civic media captured, with professional equipment, the actual process of going into the parliament; [including] the fact there was very few police there, and the fact that it was actually very peaceful. They negotiated a line for logistics, and then they negotiated an agreement with the police. When they were in the parliament and the next wave of police came, we already had a live feed going out, and people in the parliament, independent of us, also set up a broadcasting station. Because of these two broadcasting stations people could see with their own eyes what was really going on. When people came to surround the parliament, more people came to counter-surround the police. That basically defined the topology of the occupation afterwards; it remained that way for 22 days.
Afterwards, my role was pretty much the same as the first day. I looked at the situation to see where we may need more Internet equipment, where we may need a dedicated line. But the actual work, the actual coordination was done by professionals and people who would rather name anonymous – the people who set up the equipment, the power generators, and so on. I was really just a channel to make available, and make visible, what was happening around the parliament. I wasn’t alone either. There was the CPR, the cable power radio team. That was maybe 100 people across the whole occupy movement.
TNL: At the time did you see the role that you were playing as setting up the architecture and infrastructure for whatever was going to unfold rather than actually driving the process or calling for certain policies?
Tang: My idea at the time was about situation application, “sit-ap.” That is what I had always been doing in the open-source society, and also in the private sector; looking at the demands of the day, and coming up with a not-perfect but workable solution. For example, one day there was a rumor people inside the parliament were being evited by police. Well, it didn’t happen. To address that, I decided to have a connection between the occupied parliament and the street; we asked the police, and they allowed a direct Intranet line to a projector. The projector would project to a screen on the street exactly what was going on in parliament. Later, it became bi-directional and then also set up on the next street. Again, I was just tossing up ideas; the actual execution was done by professionals.
But this only showed what was happening on the screen. We couldn’t broadcast the sound from the parliament to the street because it would be overwhelmed by noise on the street, so we really couldn’t do the voice channel. Because of that, we also worked with a stenographer who typed everything she heard inside the parliament and then had a dedicated text channel that converted the audio to the text. So up on the right hand side of the projector there was the real-time text feed. Anybody walking beside the parliament in the street could check with their own eyes what was happening inside, and also read the transcript. Because of this, the actual reality was easier to spread than rumors. Whereas before, in many of the occupy situations, rumors were easier to spread than reality. What we were doing was making reality more communicative, more portable. All this text was typed in Chinese. A colleague organized a different team, independent of us, the Black Island translation team, to translate this Chinese text to different languages, and then broadcast it out.
Everything in the system did not work by an architect; each group decided what application they wanted to use to solve a problem. But because we kept all the communication channel end points – that is to say the inputs and outputs – open, anyone could just hook into those ports, like the text feed, and make extra use of it. We did not plan the international team making use of the real-time transcript. But because we made the transcript open in a very easy to use format, it magically happened. That was just one single day, and every day we had a different system going on.
TNL: Could you give an example perhaps of why this was so important, given what the mainstream media in Taiwan were reporting in the early days, or reported during the occupy movement?
Tang: I think it was especially important in the first days. Because some mainstream media at the time was using the term "mobsters"; accusing the people breaking in for having violent fights, drinking beer, and a lot of that kind of slander in the first couple of days. But we had full, real-time footage of the duration of the occupation and also on the different streets. And again the transcripts and the text flowed faster on social media than mainstream reporters’ video feed and sensationalist headlines. So also organizing the movement’s own Facebook pages, the Black Island page, the anti-Black Box page, g0v’s own page, we reached a comparable sized audience to any mainstream media. Then it was a battle between the two media systems as to how influential they are over people’s imaginations of the occupy movement.
It was not even firsthand reporting. It was “zero-hand” reporting, because it was archived as soon as it happened. It is really impossible to be more firsthand than this kind of reporting architecture, because it is reality itself speaking to you. It became much more convincing than any of the framing that the mainstream media was able to do in the first couple of days. People were able to see it “as is.” After people see it “as is,” they would join on the street and check with their own eyes that this really is what is showing in the live streams.
After two or three days, the people occupying and the people participating on the street also “occupied” the media in the sense they were able to obtain an agenda-setting power. The mainstream media was forced into setting up livestream stations next to us, and sharing with us the same livestream architecture. By the end of the occupation, all the equipment was upgraded by anonymous donors or professionals like Apple News donated a lot of equipment to ensure a stable, high-quality feed. But the overall architecture was determined by people who participated in the occupation.
Editor: J. Michael Cole