Taiwan’s extraordinary Digital Minister Without Portfolio offers hope of re-booting democracy and promoting effective climate action
We seem to be stumbling towards a Cold War reboot, with re-designed team kit.
Some still sport the retro ‘Capitalism’ v ‘Communism’ shirts, but that’s almost ironic these days. Not even the world’s surviving communist regimes actually practise communism.
Most are gravitating towards the new franchise, with different branding depending on which side you’re on.
One side wears ‘Democracy’-themed gear, casting themselves against ‘Autocracy’.
Pitched against them are those wearing ‘Traditional’ shirts, though they also engage in some clever mind-games. Some have mischievously appropriated the oppo’s name and called themselves ‘Managed Democracies‘, others are toxifying their rivals’ brand by casting them as ‘Western Democracies‘.
All the while, both sides keep pumping gas. The distractions of the new Cold War mean neither side is prioritising effective climate action, and continue to burn fossil fuels as if ideological point-scoring were more important than whether we drown, burn and shrivel.
Even when collaborating at COP meetings, inter-governmental debate is mired in past blame, rather than future survival. Carbon molecules are entirely indifferent to who released them into the air, when, or why.
‘Talk to the hand-puppet-master, ‘cos the carbon don’t care’, they might say. But of course they don’t, as they’re just obeying the laws of atmospheric and oceanic physics. That’s exactly the point.
Whether ‘democratic’ or ‘autocratic’, our current models of governance are failing to address climate change.
Fortunately, we have a brilliant beacon of hi-tech digital democracy to inspire us.
Unfortunately, we can’t see it, as we’ve all cast it in the wrong movie.
Taiwan is much in the news these days, as its strategic importance becomes clearer to more people. A pandemic was enough to reveal our dependence on this semi-tropical island in the East China Sea.
Now the new Cold War has shown itself capable of getting Hot, Taiwan’s importance is starting to dawn on us all.
Of course, we’re so anchored into our Cold War mindset, most of the commentary focuses on the impact on economic growth. If we’re having problems losing 10% of our grain from Ukraine, and re-aligning our energy supply so other countries can burn Russian gas instead of us, the prospect of losing 50% of our semiconductors, and more than 90% of the fastest ones that are made in Taiwan, is starting to dawn on us.
Even with all the renewed attention, we’re missing the most important thing about Taiwan.
Forget the impact on mobile phone production and car manufacture, forget whether you want to cast Taiwan as a plucky underdog or a renegade sibling.
Never mind the economics. Look at the governance.
The Smartest People in the Cabinet Room
Architect of Taiwan’s democratic revolution is the extraordinary Audrey Tang. The island’s hi-tech system of governance, and pin-up status as digital democracy exemplar for those paying the amazing developments there over the past few years any attention, is in large part down to their Digital Minister Without Portfolio.
Does it work? Take Taiwan’ success in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic
It’s in large part down to the system of governance Tang has been installing, using the Internet and AI technology to transfer power from the hands of the few, to the many.
Taiwan was one of the handful of countries that protected their citizens from the COVID-19 coronavirus. If it worked so well for a relatively minor global existential threat that required urgent, concerted international action, should we not all be adopting this best practice to deal with the ultimate global crisis, Global Heating? Why don’t we want to have what they’re having?
In 1996, aged 15, Tang convinced her teachers the internet would be a better way to learn. Tang quit school and began an auto-didact programme using online resources.
A year later, Tang launched an internet start-up. Many more followed, in diverse fields, but they all sought to empower ordinary people via open-source software.
In 2014, alarmed at the prospect of their government passing a trade bill that would bind them ever closer to Beijing, a citizen movement occupied the parliament chamber in a peaceful protest. Tang was a leader of the Student Sunflower Movement, and was among the first to enter the chamber.
Then, as now, Tang was a mild-mannered missile, a devastating combination of pragmatism and idealism. Tang’s backpack was full of ethernet cables to make sure this revolution was televised, or rather live-streamed. Tang’s head was full of notions of ‘Conservative Anarchy’, developed over years of internet study and real-world observation.
So far, so usual. Student revolutions were quite popular back then. But then something rather amazing happened. Instead of jailing this hacker activist, Taiwan’s government recognised the contribution Tang could make to confronting Taiwan’s local existential threat – invasion by China.
Tang’s solution was not closer economic ties with Beijing. Nor was it more business as usual: buying more missile systems and warships, or out-bribing China to woo minor Pacific and Caribbean islands for diplomatic recognition.
Tang’s strategy was to make Taiwan so damn democratic, no one supporting team ‘Democracy’ could ever abandon it. They never say it out loud – that would be rude – but Taiwan is shaming Western democracies into putting their aircraft carriers where their mouths are.
In 2016, aged 35, Tang became Taiwan’s youngest cabinet minister. Tang transitioned from hacktivist to Digital Minister without Portfolio. This happened a decade after Tang transitioned from male to female, another sign that Taiwan is way ahead of countries that consider themselves more progressed and ‘advanced’ when it comes to representation.
It may be true that intelligence isn’t a useful or meaningful measure of ability in leading or governing. Unless you’re independent-minded or a quick learner, some experience of politics is probably more useful than not.
Still, when you look at the calibre of leader that current democratic systems throw up, it’s hard not to believe many governments, would be improved by the addition of maybe one or two cabinet members with an exceptional intellect and/or a hinterland that stretched beyond mass media or hedge funds.
If nothing else, it would provide a helpful diversity of perspective.
Take Covid. Like many democracies, Taiwan put their №2 in charge of pandemic response. In the US, this was Mike Pence, in the UK, Michael Gove, both of whom were routinely barged aside by their bosses if there was some limelight to occupy.
What expertise did these leaders personally bring to the table? TV entertainment host, radio talk-show host, newspaper columnist, newspaper columnist.
Taiwan’s pandemic panjandrum was Vice-President Chen Chien-jen. You may not have heard of him, but Chen entered politics after a distinguished career as a world-leading epidemiologist. If you reckon all that power must have corrupted him, Professor Chen recently stood down after one term because he considered his work done, and wanted to return to research. But not before waiving his right to his Vice-Presidential pension.
Of course, smart people can be too clever by half, but some of the things that emerge from the mouths of our current politicians do demand serious questions about whether it’s really a powerful sense of ideology that drives them, or cognitive impairment. A more obvious explanation would be a lack of the mental capacity to handle basic scientific concepts, or arithmetic.
Half as clever as Tang wouldn’t actually be too bad. 100 is an average IQ score, and Tang’s is reckoned to be 180, but when our current leaders are unable to count new nurses or hospitals, or appear to be negotiating with a virus, it’s not clear that they’d all crack double figures.
Respect for Tech
If Western Democracies were to simply appoint a ‘Digital Minister Without Portfolio’’ as a full cabinet member, and consider the job done, they may as well not bother. It’s hard to imagine such a techy, speccy role carrying much weight in the current status quo. No one would really know what do to with their Digital Minister – maybe supervise broadband rollout, or setting up an incubator for the next Google or something?
Tang’s secret is no secret. Another of Tang’s mantras is Radical Transparency. In Taiwan’s cabinet, Tang collaborates across a broad range of government departments, with the basic mandate of bridging the gap between Taiwan’s technically savvy young and its governing old, and using the internet to innovate new forms of democracy.
It sounds almost naïve, as innocent as the hopeful early days of the internet, as if the rise of social media and the Dark Side of the Web never happened.
Yet, in this official role, Tang has pioneered an astonishing array of progressive democratic experiments.
There’s g0v.tw, an open source social media platform that makes government websites so much easier to access and interact with, that more than 6 million citizens, especially young ones, now use it every month.
This ‘shadow government website’ is much more than a one-way, top-down information conduit, it’s packed with opportunities for feedback, interaction, commentary, suggestions and proposing concrete improvements.
What’s The Best Kind of Democracy?
As a percentage of the voting population, the number of Taiwan’s citizens who choose to interact with their government every month to improve democracy in granular detail, is almost exactly the same proportion of British voters who tick a box with a stubby pencil in a local election polling station every couple of years, i.e. around 1 in 3.
If Westminster is the Mother of All Parliaments, always banging on about Magna Carta in 1215, what does that make Taiwan, which emerged from martial law in 1987? Which is more democratic?
Another Tang innovation is vTaiwan, a kind of official Facebook for digital petitions. Anyone can start an online petition, and, if it amasses more than 5,000 signatures the Premier and relevant minister are obliged to formally consider it. vTaiwan has also proved hugely popular.
Real policy changes implemented include everything from access to income tax software for non-Windows computers, to changes to cancer treatment regulations.
Some of Taiwan’s elected Parliamentarians complain vTaiwan is sidelining them, with ordinary citizens now having a better chance to change laws than they do.
And the problem is…?
Tang’s current democratic innovations include developing sharing economy software that makes it easier for citizens with a glut of resources of some kind, to freely exchange goods or services with each other, bypassing conventional middlemen like traders, government, and even the money economy.
Its a kind of online mashup of Swap Shop, Amazon, Facebook, Uber and AirBnB, except no one owns your data, and our Silicon Valley Overlords, and governments, are cut out of the loop.
If you find yourself frustrated by the opacity and knee-jerk secrecy that shrouds any attempt to shed light on how your government spends our tax money and how they decide who gets it, you might like the sound of Tang’s philosophy of ‘Radical Transparency’.
All of Tang’s meetings are recorded, transcribed and uploaded on a public website.
Should that not clear up any of your questions or concerns, you can just email Tang, who’ll publicly respond.
If you’re curious about what happens when all this airy-fairy idealism meets the real world, just take a look. You can literally view it from anywhere on the planet. It’s real, and it’s been happening in Taiwan for years.
Everyone in Taiwan knows that every Wednesday from 10am to 10am, anyone can go to Tang’s funky office in Taipei and have a chat about a law or regulation they’d like to introduce, tweak, or abolish.
Tang’s only condition is that they consent to having the meeting filmed and uploaded. That’s Radical Transparency in action — no more smoke-filled rooms or brown envelopes.
If you can’t make it to the capital, it won’t be long before democracy comes to you, because every Tuesday Tang takes one of Taiwan’s high-speed trains to visit somewhere on the island. The remoter and more underrepresented the better, as Tang prefers to see things in person, and hear local opinions, ideas and grievances.
How To Kill the Trolls – Just Delete The ‘Reply’ Button.
Tang has come up with a jaw-droppingly simple solution to the torrent of abuse, meted out with impunity by armies of online trolls. The kind of thing we’re told we just have to accept as the cost of freedom of speech.
The kind of thing our Silicon Valley Overlords, in Congressional hearing, regret but claim is inevitable, promise to do their best to mitigate, expect to receive credit for any feeble attempts to rein in the keyboard warriors who drive their business model. While they wash their hands, our politicians dutifully wring theirs.
But Taiwan has demonstrated it’s really not a very hard problem to fix.
On Tang’s interactive sites, there’s a broad menu of options from which to select one that best expresses your area of disagreement. But – cue drum roll for our SVOs- there’s no Reply button.
It turns out that when you have to attack the idea, and not the person, internet trolls rapidly lose interest.
Taiwan – From Police State To Pol.Is State
If you’re still wringing your hands about how polarised everything is nowadays, but we’re powerless to do anything about it, check out Pol.is, and AI-driven conversation moderator Tang has used to aggregate public opinion.
Pol.is is a virtual whiteboard, which an AI-powered robot moderator divides into two sides – stuff we agree on on one side, stuff we disagree on on the other.
By focusing on areas of agreement before hiving off points of difference, participants realise they agree on most things. Once you realise that, the few things you disagree on suddenly don’t seem to be such a big deal in the great scheme of things after all.
Take that, Twitter. In your face, Facebook.
Without their algorithms optimised to maximise 50/50 conflict on everything, we turn out to behave online just as we do in real life. We seek consensus, and look for ways to mitigate or avoid conflict.
After all, when we meet people for the first time in the real world, at parties or bus-stops, we tend to shake hands rather than punch each other in the face, seek points of agreement rather than conflict.
Having removed the Reply button, the pol.is whiteboard moderator reflects this, Most issues come out 90/10 rather than 50/50, i.e. if they’re presented neutrally, we agree on 90% of things. Is that really so surprising?
Remember Good Internet, before it all went aggro?
Taiwan, via Audrey Tang, is re-drawing a vision of the internet that recalls the excitement of its early democratic promise, rather than the oppression of its current authoritarian darkness.
It’s only technology, after all. A hammer can tap in the last hand-hewn peg in a no-nail eco-lodge, or smash in a stranger’s skull. It’s just a hammer. We’re the ones who decide how to use it.
Citizens Assemblies – Poor Relations
All of this makes other attempts to re-invent democracy timid, unambitious, and ineffectual. Take Britain’s much-trumpeted, but little-heeded, first trial of a Citizens Assembly on Climate Change.
You may well have missed it, as its report was published in September 2020, when the consequences of the UK government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme, and re-instating all those summer holidays the travel industry was so relieved to have finally flogged, were beginning to be seen in hospital ICUs as Covid deaths shot up again.
Here’s what happened.
By all accounts, it was a life-changing experience for the Assembly’s 108 participants. They were carefully selected to fully represent Britain’s diversity, covering all ages, genders, ethnicities, regions, political affiliations and degrees of climate scepticism or acceptance.
Over six weekends in 2020, they all heard lectures from 47 expert speakers from academia, industry and policy-making. Participants got to question them, back and forth, in as much detail as they wanted. They than had to come up with a slate of policies that would get Britain to zero carbon by 2050.
They drafted their own proposals, and voted on them by secret ballot. Their final report was so bursting with radical policy proposals, organisers were every bit as surprised as the participants.
The media lapped up inspiring stories of former climate sceptic participants who now wanted to ditch their day jobs and start planting trees, set up car clubs and grow organic veg for their local communities. Volunteers developing See Through News’s The Learn Game, players of GRIBbage, or anyone paying attention to Project Drawdown’s Table of Solutions, will note these all involve changing individual behaviour, and not government regulation.
Government representatives warmly congratulated these ordinary citizens on their collective wisdom. They thanked them for their sacrifice for the common good, and generally declared themselves humbled and inspired by this revolution in participatory democracy.
After posing for the money-shot grip-and-grin photo-op with Sir David Attenborough, the politicitans tossed down the dregs of the champers, and bunged the report in the bin on their way to the club.
Over more champers at the club, they probably reckoned the Attenborough photo-op alone was worth every penny of the half-million quid the Assembly had cost.
Just as well they’d made sure the report was non-binding, or they’d all be eating raw lentils and mung beans instead of tucking into their game stew and sirloin steaks. How they must have guffawed at this cost-free feeble democratic experiment.
Choices – The Red Pill of Climate Inaction or the Blue Pill or Climate Action?
We started this series of articles walking along the real Ring Road in Salisbury, and have ended up in an imaginary private gentlemen’s club in Mayfair.
Along the way, via separated-at-birth tea-drinking island nation twins, we’ve seen two very different visions of how we can govern ourselves. These alternatives may not have been so apparent back in 2016, when David Cameron announced a referendum, and Audrey Tang was appointed to Taiwan’s cabinet.
But the pandemic has now turned a spotlight on them. Our choices are looking quite stark.
Do we want to shiver outside a cave, impotently watching a scrum of portly Union Jack-suited Old Etonians inside tell each other off-colour jokes and quaff champagne, mocking a couple of grammar school clever clogs as they crouch at their feet, taking desultory turns to try to ignite a pile of coal with a flint and steel?
Or would we rather warm our hands at the roaring fire in the eco-house next door, laughing in delight with Audrey and their staff of fifteen prodigies, when with a flick on their solar-powered iPad, they reveal the fire to be a 3-D hologram image that they’d coded for a bit of fun while you were in the compost toilet.
So who will it be; Audrey Tang, or our current leaders?
There’s nothing wrong with patriotism if it reflects values you can be proud of, nor of optimism if it’s based on reality. Underpromising and over-delivering is OK. Speaking to citizens like adults can work.
The antidote to the common enemy may be the common good. Being an island is a massive advantage in a pandemic, as Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia and Japan can testify, but only if you control your borders.
Let’s not even start on that irony.
This is an edited version the final part of a 7-part series of articles comparing the Covid responses of Taiwan and the UK written in Feb 2021. Part 1 here