Audrey Tang insists that what has torn other democracies apart can help keep Taiwan together: digital tech.
By Ryan Heath, Olivia Reingold and Irene Noguchi
Imagine a world in which middle schoolers fact-check presidential debates and public officials publish transcripts of every conversation they have. That’s the world that Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, has helped create, thereby fortifying Taiwan’s democracy even as it faces increasing threats from China. Tang tells POLITICO’s Ryan Heath what it’s like to govern and live in the shadow of China.
On how Taiwan’s Internet culture compares to China’s
“I believe this is fundamentally about empowerment — whether technology is there to empower the people closest to the pain to the suffering, or whether technology exists to take power away from them and centralize it either in a surveillance state or in some surveillance capitalist.” — Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, who says, as part of the Taiwanese government, they don’t have the security clearance to travel to China.
On Facebook and Silicon Valley’s ‘move fast and break things’ attitude
“There’s no shortage of social entrepreneurs in both Silicon Valley and in Taiwan. I think the difference here is about a sense of disruption in Silicon Valley. We still have the startups that build with this mentality of taking away everything that existed before them in a certain segment. They say move fast and break things as if it’s somehow a virtue. We do believe in being swift and safe at the same time to move fast, start, help repair things, to fix things. And that’s the main difference.”
On how they deal with online hate
“I hug the trolls — it’s my hobby. … There’s a lot of people on the internet that just calls me by name and write mean things for 100 words or more. But if I can paraphrase or interpret just five words within that hundred into something that’s constructive, something that by sharing their own experience, it actually results in innovation, in policy or in the work that I do. Then I ignore promptly the 95 words, and thank them profusely for the five words and start a productive jamming session on social media for those ideas. And so it’s both pedagogical in the sense that people see that just by sharing authentic co-creating materials, they can engage with me very quickly, but also is a good hobby because I make friends. There’s a lot of trolls that become pretty good acquaintances.”
On dropping out of high school
“When I was 14, I participated in the national science fair and took the first place, got a guaranteed spot in a prestigious senior high and so on, so forth. And then I discovered as part of working on my science fair project this community of co-creating publishing people. I took some printouts of my email exchanges with people on arXiv archive, the pre-print server, to the principal, to the head of the school saying, ‘Look, I can either, you know, spent eight hours a day in your school and eight hours doing research, or I can spend 16 hours doing research because I’m really fascinated by this phenomena of swift trust — why people trust each other so easily and readily online and also break up very easily. I’m very interested in that. So, what would you say?’ And the principal read through the emails and said, ‘OK, so what? What can I do for you?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, you can free me from having to attend a school. It is compulsory education. I can’t do much without your approval.’ And after thinking for a couple of minutes, she’s like, ‘OK, tomorrow you don’t have to go to school anymore.’”
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