INTERVIEW: Taiwan's 'Digital' Minister, Audrey Tang (Part 3)

INTERVIEW: Taiwan's 'Digital' Minister, Audrey Tang (Part 3)
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What you need to know

This is the third of a three-part interview with Taiwan’s ‘genius hacker.'

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Audrey Tang (唐鳳) last 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.

▶ See also: “Audrey Tang, Part One”

▶ See also: “Audrey Tang, Part Two”

The News Lens International (TNL): A lot of what you have talked about is very positive; trying to improve Taiwan society for the benefit of Taiwan. To go back to your teenage years, I have read you came across anarchism and liked some of those ideas, and then moved through your passion for computer software and programming into the civic hacking space. Can you talk about your views on hacking, and whether that has changed now that you are in government?

Audrey Tang: I am still a hacker. Hackers are people who are deeply immersed with a system, and then when a new situation comes, they invent new tools out of it. It is unfortunate that in English, hacker has a double meaning.

There are people who are into cyber-security, and people who are able to find loopholes in existing systems. We say there are hackers with hats: we have “white hats” who report or fix those issues; we have “black hats” who exploit those issues for their own benefits; and we have “grey hats” who kind of fall in between.

TNL: And which do you wear?

Tang: I am not any of these. I am what you call a constructive or creative hacker. We do not wear hats. When we see flaws in an existing system we do not talk with the system; we make new systems. This is why I am not a cyber-security hacker; I have basic cyber-security knowledge, but it was never my interest.

A creative hacker includes anyone who immerses herself or himself in a system, and is able to see its potential, like [19th century mathematician] Ada Lovelace. When Ada Lovelace first encountered the “differential engine” that was built by Charles Babbage, she saw in it something that nobody else saw. She said, “We can make art, we can make poems, we can make music out of this machine,” – [the machine] was originally designed just to calculate tax or a mathematical formula, it was the first computer ever designed.

We creative hackers, when we see a machine we don’t think, “Okay, Charles Babbage designed this machine, how can I evade my tax, or how can I make it so other people are not able to evade their tax,” which is what the cyber-security people spend their lives thinking about. We say, this machine was originally designed to calculate tax, but maybe we can use it to make music, to make art. This is the proud tradition of hackers that I belong to.

In terms of anarchism, the Internet really was built in an anarchistic fashion. As I described with the Occupy movement: every individual is not under the command of another individual. We joined people in the streets, and everyone decides what is best for the people around them. We swarmed over the situation, stayed open in our communication, and formed a system that was better than anything that could be designed.

Anarchism is basically localizing the design to each and every situation. When the design is localized and shared in this way, this is what anarchists call “syndicating” between different practitioners. It is our belief this will result in a much more harmonious relationship between people, compared to people who are commanding others and those who obey the demands of others. That was the early debate between anarchists and the Marxists; whether we need someone to command other people who are not aware, not capable or not awake yet.

It is my belief that everybody is as awake as anybody else, but just in different ways. We need this attitude to work with others, without commanding others. So, I am still an anarchist.

TNL: But that ability to see a system is flawed and to be in a position to build a new system, that comes with access. So you have to have open access to information. Take something like WikiLeaks, and its role in society. Now that you are in government, do you look at WikiLeaks from a different point of view than you did before?

Tang: WikiLeaks is a media organization company. This is indisputable. It is just run in a very peculiar way. My role in the cabinet is not in “new media” – the administration has its own “new media” team. What we are in is the public digital innovation space.

Our mandate, is just said as you said, open access. It is making public as early as possible anything that the administration is willing to have a dialogue on with the civil society and the private sector. We use digital tools to enable that, to save humans from having to do repetitive work. If we see a system bottleneck, we work with that person – often a public servant – to see whether we can assist them with alternative tools.

The way we do this is through a standard innovation cycle. We start with design methods, like brainstorming, business origami. We do a full service experience design flow, and maybe user surveys and user profiling. We work with people from different ministries to explain to us how exactly each ministry works and what challenges they are facing in terms of their information flow. Because this is a “space” – it is not an office – it is defined by the people who join, so we use a lot of open space technology. By making our process open and by sharing where our experiments succeed and fail, we are able to not only work with people in Taiwan, but with people with a similar mandate in the U.K., France and the United States who are doing very similar work to us.

I am conservative, I am not progressive. Conservatism means we have a human tradition, and we respect this tradition, and the tradition should not be radically changed without being comfortable with it. A conservative anarchist is almost an oxymoron. But it is not, because, being an anarchist is really about believing that people out of their volition can collaborate. Being a conservative means, only when people are ready. So I don’t think they are really an oxymoron. But it is rare for a person to have these two together.

TNL: Finally, you are very well connected internationally. I am interested to hear where you think Taiwan is on the spectrum of countries using these new tools for democracy and participation? Is it the leader or are others ahead of Taiwan?

Tang: Every space has a different dimension. To reduce this to a single dimension is something as an anarchist I refuse to do.

There are countries like Estonia. The Estonian people founded their constitution after the Internet. They didn’t really have paperwork. They designed the entire government system around electronic systems. Not many can say that, most were founded before the Internet. On that dimension, the electronic dimension, really no other place compares to Estonia. But it also means that when Estonia wants to communicate with other countries, their ambassadors have to figure out how to convert the paperwork into their system. It is oversimplifying things to take one thing in a culture that works really well, and then judge other countries or other places based on that culture.

Taiwan is the best in doing the Taiwan model, but that doesn’t really mean anything. What I look toward to is, “how open we are to share those processes and those tools.” This is why I refer to "process" as “common.” That is to say, to make the process public; to make sure people inside the country, outside the country or “people” that are not humans, are still visible in the process.

In this regard, I think Taiwan has a pretty good ecology or even folk religion system that allows this culture. Our emphasis on consensus and on emotional intelligence, are not competing but are coming together. And, the ability to build diversity out of a somewhat digitally-enabled place. All of these are the strong suits of Taiwan. But then, I refuse to judge other countries, using the metrics of Taiwanese culture.

Editor: Olivia Yang