This is a conversation between Ketagalan Media’s editor in chief Chieh-Ting Yeh and Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang, in January. It has been edited for length. CC0 license. 

Read Part 1 here.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: What we do is a little bit more different from say you have a news media in Taiwan reporting about Taiwan issues to the Taiwan electorate. What we do is try to, in a sense, brand Taiwan to the rest of the world. I’m just curious if you have any thoughts on how that should or shouldn’t be done. What are some of the better ways or maybe not so great ways that we could do that?

Audrey Tang: Whatever that you think are fun is the best! (Laughter)

It really depends on the character and the cognitive mode of the entire team. Taiwan is just this geographic island. Everybody can project whatever they want on it. I don’t really have a preference.

My approach so far is just to engage people in this huge rich history of Taiwan, which spans for like four million years, if you count from the rising of this convergent boundary of the tectonic plates.

Really it is a useful view. Then you see that it’s something that’s larger than humanity, that there are living beings here and there are cultures here. There are layers of populations, the beginning of the Austronesian population, and so on. It is one pivotal stage on which the entire Pacific history happened. I think it is a useful view, but I wouldn’t impose it on anybody else. It’s a very geographic view, but it’s my perspective.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: Actually, that’s the first time I’ve heard it. Taiwan as a geographic feature. When you think about it in terms of how Taiwan began when the geographic feature…

Audrey Tang: Yeah. The tectonic plates started.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: …came into existence.

Audrey Tang: They are raising 5 centimeters every year.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: Instead of arguing which ethnicity, linguistic group, or which regime’s historical view of when they started…

Audrey Tang: Yeah. Compared with four million years, these are very short times.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: Exactly. We’re all just coming and going here. Coming back to the work in the government, I tried to ask this question last time too, I hear a lot of people complaining about all Taiwanese bureaucrats. The stereotype is they’re resistant to change.

Audrey Tang: Yeah. They’re risk‑averse.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: They’re risk‑averse. I think you talked about re‑characterizing the risk for them. How has that been going? I imagine you run into push back on a regular basis.

Audrey Tang: No. We only work with volunteers. You never run into push back. (Laughter)

By definition. People who are resistant, they never come to me anyway. I don’t even know them.

I don’t run into push backs because I don’t give commands. That’s true so far for the past few months. Also defining risk, I think especially time-boxing. This 60 days. If you handle it well, well it’s gone in 60 days.

This provides a kind of psychological assurance to public servants in a sense that there is now a time frame, a mechanism. They don’t really have to fight politically to get a proper dialogue or something done in sufficient time. Now, the time is bounded. It’s 30 days to do this, 60 days to this. That provides a time frame which is a great assurance.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: My mental image is a downward ladder (下台階). They have steps where instead of jumping off the cliff, there are steps where they can gradually…

Audrey Tang: Right. It’s much more gradual. It’s less like a waterfall or something.

Open Government?

Chieh-Ting Yeh: Also a lot of people ask me to definitely check in with you on how the Paris meeting…How did you feel about that? How did it go in Paris?

Audrey Tang: It went well. I got a lot of inquiries afterwards of the methodologies and the progress that we’re making. There’s a flurry of Parisian media. One just came an hour ago. It’s definitely got a lot more visibility of the work we’re doing. Also for me personally, more importantly, it convinced a lot more people that this is possible. In many old democracies, things like this has been tried too many times.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: True.

Audrey Tang: Sometimes you just lose hope because of too many previously failed attempts. But really, we are in a convergence of very high bandwidth, real time live streaming, and artificial intelligence that takes a lot of burden away for things like this. We’re now in a time point where you can realistically run this.

It’s just like virtual reality. It’s been around for decades. Now it’s the first time it’s affordable. This kind of convergent deliberative democracy was always available back to the Greek times, but it’s now finally cheap enough that we can run it as part of standard procedure.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: Even say 100 years ago, in the constitution here, there was the National Assembly, which was almost a technological workaround.

Audrey Tang: Yeah. It’s like the electorate. Right?

Design for a new Constitution?

Chieh-Ting Yeh: They’re supposed to be representing the people, because technologically they couldn’t go vote in a timely enough of a fashion. There was one question from the interview that we put in that we had to cut because of time, which is, “If you were to design a new constitution for Taiwan, what kind of features would you put in it?”

Audrey Tang: There is actually a bill in the Parliament now that talks with this. It’s a bottom‑up constitutional reform law. As I’m not MP, I’m not supposed to talk about the specifics. I do agree with the spirit, in a sense that because it’s the covenant between all the people.

It should definitely take in the technological reality. We’re not in the time of telegraph anymore, so we need to take telecommunication into account. As of what features they would demand out of the constitution, I really have no preconceptions… I can live with anything. [laughs] Whatever people want…

Chieh-Ting Yeh: As long as the process of it was…

Audrey Tang: As long as it is transparent, and most importantly that it’s convergent. What we don’t need is a process that excludes more people out of the way, that more people feel disenchanted along the way, that more people feel that it’s just a few constitutional scholars or a few politicians doing all the process. (Laughter)

Chieh-Ting Yeh: A few lawyers.

Audrey Tang: A few lawyers doing the whole process. Worse, a few programmers doing all the process. (Laughter) It could happen with things like blockchain. You’re end up taking things that were in a law domain and putting into the code domain, which is even less accountable if you don’t put in safeguards into it.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: That makes sense.

Audrey Tang: Neither code makers nor law makers should monopolize the process. That’s the only thing I would ask for.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: Last thing. We’ve been talking about, at least on the liberal media side in the West, there’s this lamenting of the right rise of the ring wing nationalists. You’re talking about Brexit, Trump, Marie Le Pen, Turkey, and all this stuff.

Intuitively that seems to run counter of the spirit of open government, transparency or maybe not. I don’t know. What do you think?

Audrey Tang: I wouldn’t say so. I would say it’s the same outrage that drives both these phenomenon and the Occupy Movement. I would say it’s both. All of them are manifestations of the 99 percent trying to get some more dialogs going.

It’s just that on the Internet, especially on social media, outrage spreads much faster than any other emotion. Any political movement that can capitalize on that gets an automatic…

Chieh-Ting Yeh: Boost.

Audrey Tang: …boost, or even a privilege in engaging people emotionally. What outrage does best is generating counter‑power. When the counter‑power had its day, something has to fill the vacuum. Then basically anyone who can make the best of the narrative and outrage ends up filling the vacuum, whether they can deliver or not.

I think it’s natural. I wouldn’t say democracy is declining or anything. I would say it’s part of the process, where every region is trying its own experiment, just as we are trying here. Experiments that will end up solving actual democratic governance problem will actually spread in the long run, evolutionary speaking.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: Somehow if somebody could basically build a system where instead of outrage you have thoughtfulness, compassion…

Audrey Tang: Or you can channel outrage into an outrage against ignorance, which is better than an outrage against one specific person.

Chieh-Ting Yeh: That is very interesting. That is very insightful. Thank you so much for your time. That was like a roller‑coaster ride, as one of my friends warned me about. Thank you so much.

(Feature photo of Audrey Tang speaking at National Cheng-Kung University, Wikicommons, CC BY-SA 2.0)


About The Ketagalan Project

History and culture are the frames that prescribe how we understand the world around us. Our co-hosts present in-depth interviews on how art, culture, history and politics intertwine throughout time and space to connect us. Find out about the cosmopolitan modern Taipei downtown in the 1920s, regional trade, the future of aboriginal culture and more.