TAIPEI, TAIWAN – “I am literally from the future.” This is how Audrey Tang began her talk at the Personal Democracy Forum last month in New York. Tang was referring to the fact that he was participating in the conference through a live holographic feed from Taiwan, which is 12 hours ahead of New York, but the joke contained a deeper truth too. Tang, 36, a transgender anarchist hacker with an IQ of 160 (if not higher) who left school at 14, started her first Silicon Valley startup when he was 19 and is now the youngest minister in Taiwan’s history, represents a potential future that the human race might reach (should we be so lucky). Appointed by the Taiwanese government as minister without portfolio for digital affairs a year and a half ago, Tang now devotes the bulk of her efforts to helping the Taiwanese – and the rest of humanity – attain this future.
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The gender aspect isn’t the most important or most interesting thing about Tang, but the linguistic challenges it poses makes it necessary to begin by clarifying this matter. Tang first gained fame for being the world’s first “female transgender minister.” The headlines drew on a blog post that Tang published in 2005, explaining that “I’ve been shutting reality off and lived almost exclusively on the net for many years, because my brain knows for sure that I’m a woman, but the social expectation demanded otherwise.” In that same post, Tang also wrote that she’d begun the process of getting her appearance to match his sense of self and said “I would very much prefer female pronouns for all of past, present and future tenses.”
But now, 12 years later, Tang declines to define himself as male or female. “My gender is officially whatever,” she says when asked how to write about him in Hebrew, in which nearly every noun and verb has a gender. In a past interview, Tang said she insisted on being “unrestricted by pronouns,” and added, “I understand people. I recognize people by their values, also, not their genders, or roles, or whatever I expect the same in return.”
In the same interview, Tang explained that her parents didn’t impose a gender definition on him. “I never really felt like I should behave as a boy or girl,” she said. Tang, who taught himself programming when she was just eight and left school when he was 14, started spending most of her time in virtual space. “Around adolescence my main counterparts are all bulletin board system friends and people on the Internet, where gender really means nothing,” she said.
The complexity of Tang’s self-definition is not confined to gender. The Taiwanese minister adheres to the ideology of conservative anarchism. How does Tang reconcile these two terms? How can his anarchism go hand in hand with her government work? Tang formally declares that his ultimate goal is the destruction of the state (Taiwan, and all other states). But she has no problem working for that state, at least for the time being, in order to promote what he deems worthy objectives – this is where the conservative part comes in.
There are two sides to her conservatism, Tang explained in a meeting with foreign journalists last month. First, it comes from the desire to preserve the free public spaces that are not dependent upon the state, such as the entities that currently run the internet. Second, this is a conservatism that signifies respect for the long history of human civilization in the face of the threat inherent in new technologies. “Instead of introducing a disruptive change that will render previous history meaningless,” said Tang, “if together we can listen to each other as each technology comes, blockchain, whatever, we can know what to ask of the technology and as a society to step forward, instead of just a few people stepping forward and excluding other people, eventually rendering the species into two species.”
“This is humanistic conservatism,” Tang went on. “This conservative way is also why I do want to work as a public servant with the public, to make sure that the civilization as we know it still continues.” In fact, like many young politicians around the world, Tang got into politics through his involvement in one of the protest movements that roiled world capitals during the last few years. In Taiwan, it was after demonstrators seized the parliament building for a month to protest the government’s growing closeness with China’s communist regime. Tang volunteered to help the protesters broadcast live from the parliament building that was surrounded by police.
Tang was subsequently invited by the previous prime minister to overhaul the curriculum in Taiwanese schools in order to train all the pupils in what she calls “media literacy”: “We think that it is much easier if the kids are raised not blindly trusting anyone with an authority’s voice or authority’s print, because those things are very easy to fake nowadays,” he says. The new curriculum Tang helped develop will go into effect on September 1 and will address media literacy in grades 1 through 12. “For all the different classes we try to repurpose the curriculum so that the teachers are no longer lecturing teachers, but people who learn with the students,” says Tang.
When Tang’s work on the new curriculum was complete, she was appointed as minister without portfolio for digital affairs, and has been working in that expanded role since then to foment a revolution in the relationship between citizens and the government in Taiwan, and essentially, in the fundamental principles of democracy – adapting them to the current technological age. The first project Tang undertook was the gOv project. If you substitute the number 0 for the letter o in the URLs of government sites ending in .gov.tw, you get to an alternative site that offers the same services but in a more interactive and user-friendly way.
The initiative, written in open source code in keeping with Tang’s anarchist values, has been extremely popular, with millions of hits per month. Yet it only solves a relatively minor problem concerning democracy in the modern era. The next project he spearheaded, Taiwan, tackles one of the greatest cognitive dissonances of our time: the gap between every citizen’s ability to express herself publicly on social media and the lack of influence that most of us have over the authorities and our elected representatives. Or, as Tang puts it, “Suddenly, with social media, people become much more closer to each other. Then, they form, even subconsciously, those very contagious relationships between each other. I think this changes the imaginations of organization of democracy in a pre-figurative way. People got a taste of the way it could be like, and then they start asking the government this.”
As Tang explained in the conversation with journalists last month, “for people who are more established, people who are already heads of some association or something, there are actually, of course, other channels for them to engage in politics. To work with MPs, to work with media, and so on, to set their own agenda. People of my generation and younger usually don’t have that kind of access, at least not at the level of being able to set the agenda.” But the vTaiwan program gives them that kind of access by using the social media tools that they have mastered. According to the program, any digital petition in the system that garners 5,000 signatures must be addressed by the relevant government ministries. “We do discuss it every Friday Then, the next Monday, I bring it to the Premier, so the Premier can also set his idea on it. This is a continuous, everyday practice, where we let the young people see that their petitions are being heard and being processed by the administration,” says Tang.
Among the petitions that have brought about genuine change, Tang cites one to change the medical regulations regarding immunological cancer treatments; the new rules are now part of the national health insurance for Taiwanese citizens. He also cites a petition to allow access to the income tax office system from computers that do not run on the Windows operating system. But Tang admits that the project does have its shortcomings. While praising the project director for “magnetizing civil servants to work collaboratively and creatively” to act on the petitions, Tang notes that they don’t always get results. For example, a petition to alter the official calendar in Taiwan went nowhere when all the government ministries responded that the matter was outside of their jurisdiction.
But the biggest sign of the project’s success was probably the fury it evoked from Taiwanese members of parliament, who complained about the public at large now being able to influence government regulations with much greater ease than the legislators themselves. In wake of this criticism, the MPs will also have access to the digital petition system as of the next session of Taiwan’s parliament. But in their case, a petition will only be forwarded for review by government ministries if it garners twice the number of signatures – 10,000 instead of 5,000.
In terms of personal conduct, Tang could certainly serve as a role model for politicians worldwide, especially those who profess fidelity to the term “transparency.” Taiwan’s digital minister cannot receive security clearance, to take part, say, in developing her country’s cyber defenses, because she practices total transparency: Every meeting he holds is recorded, transcribed and posted on her website. Another website enables anyone who wishes to send him questions, which Tang personally answers patiently and great detail, and of course, publicly. (This is where the second part of our conversation took place, following our meeting in Taipei).
The minister who lives a significant portion of her life in the virtual world has a few key insights to share about the impact of technological changes – mainly social media – on our lives, and about how to cope with the crisis brought on by these changes. “For the first time in human history, sharing is easier and faster than actually reading something,” he says. “Before social media, we used to read an article, to listen to something, and then recommend it to people. Nowadays, with social media, there’s things that just mobilize our center for emotions, for anger, for outrage, for sadness, or whatever. Mobilize one of these emotions, so people would share before they even consider its content. Because of this, people have become much closer, much more connected on a subconscious emotional level, instead of on a conscious, more deliberative level. It makes it very easy for epidemics of emotions, of ideologies to spread. It is a perfect place for these kind of things.”
Tang urges that the “epidemic of emotions” be treated like any virus: It should be studied, and ways to immunize against it should be developed. She says he is a firm believer in humankind’s ability to find solutions to any epidemic, biological or emotional. This is the basic purpose, she says, of the media literacy he worked to introduce into her country’s schools. But for those who don’t go to school in Taiwan, and until the vaccine is discovered, Tang suggests a number of tools to help blunt the emotional effects of social media, such as an addition to the browser that blocks news items from your Facebook feed, or another that makes all pictures on Facebook appear in black-and-white, diminishing some of their immediate emotional impact. “For governments to actually work, people need to behave as adults,” she says. “We need to somehow learn from this emotional contagion ways to behave as adults, listening to each other online, and so on, which is the main technological work that I’m doing as a digital minister.”