Kim Hill: Ok. Let me start. You describe yourself as a "conservative anarchist", and let's start off about what that means.
Audrey Tang: Sure. The term "anarchist" has a well-defined meaning, meaning nations and countries are very useful illusions, but they're not always a useful. So we just use it where it's good to use, and try not to pay too much attention into it where it isn't.
Audrey Tang: I guess your are interested in the "conservative" part?
Kim Hill: I'm interested in both the conservative and anarchist parts, and how they are linked together, actually.
Audrey Tang: Well, "conservative" means very simply that there is a large part of existing ways of how people work on the Internet that's worth keeping. Conservation to me means keeping what works and try not to install too drastic a change in circumstances. I guess the two words linked together, to me, means to keep what always had worked in the Internet culture and try to bring it gradually to fuse with the rest of society.
Kim Hill: One of the things that you're involved in and improving the workings of government. What do you say, g-0-v? What is it?
Audrey Tang: Gov-zero (g0v) is a assembly of sorts, in a few loosely coupled bits of spaces. We have hackathons every month and it's a bunch of — about 5000 by now — designers, hackers, activists, coders, scholars, who meet every now and then.
Audrey Tang: The only thing we have in common is that a project we do are in the commons, meaning that we relinquish most of our copyright. We work most on this shadow government website called g0v.tw, that basically takes an existing government agency — like the environment agency would be the env.gov.tw — so that anybody can just change in the browser, from "O" to zero, like env.g0v.tw, and get into the zero counterpart.
Kim Hill: And what has this achieved, or what are you trying to achieve?
Audrey Tang: Well basically presenting you the same information as the government does, but in a much more interactive, visualized, open data fashion, and then offer a way for people to participate. For example in our budget visualization, people are invited to look into one specific part of the city budget or at a national budget and have a real discussion with the civil servants on it.
Kim Hill: There's a real discussion with the civil servants.
Audrey Tang: That's correct.
Kim Hill: And so the government is complicit and co-operative with your doing, right?
Audrey Tang: Yes, that's the part where we relinquish our copyright comes in, because then the government can just cherry pick the pieces that they find useful. For example, the original national budget visualization the g0v people did in late 2012, is now being adopted by six different cities as a way to visualise their budget and have a conversation was their citizens.
Kim Hill: Have you any evidence — I mean, you know one of the concerns is "clicktivism" — Have you any evidence that this actually increased people's engagement in the process?
Audrey Tang: "Clickvism" usually refers to people who would spend maybe one to ten seconds, like that time you require for a click to interact.
Audrey Tang: But I think the gap between clicktivism and hacktivism (which requires almost full-time attention) was an arbitrary distinction. What the g0v people is doing, is to build engagement at levels of maybe one minute, maybe one hour, maybe three hours and so on. So everybody can find their useful way of engagement. So yes, we've seen a lot of conversions from people who contribute donly a few seconds, to two hours or maybe a few days a month.
Kim Hill: I suppose, more to the point: Have you any evidence that you're engaging people previously uninterested in democratic participation?
Audrey Tang: Certainly. For example one of the g0v-facilitated discussions was how the Taipei city — Taiwan's capital city — distributed its social housing to their people in socially disadvantaged groups. So disaster victims, aborigines, homeless, and mentally and physically handicapped people. So we know as a fact they were not "clicktivists", so to speak, and our work is mostly bringing digital tools to them, instead of letting them only participate online. The point is that they would be able to build empathy and consensus, by having those interactions recorded and replayed and summarized over a series of deliberations.
Kim Hill: You're able to do this, because as far as I can understand it, you were a computer prodigy? You left school at 12 to code, at 15 you had your own start-up, you were into the world wide web actually as soon as it was invented if not before. You are now retired and can effectively do what you like, have I got that right?
Audrey Tang: That's exactly correct.
Kim Hill: And you retired at the age of 33.
Audrey Tang: Yeah. I found a series of companies, and partnered and sold some companies; it's just standard Silicon Valley entrepreneurship.
Kim Hill: So you were a prodigy, right?
Audrey Tang: That would be correct.
Kim Hill: That would be correct. I mean how do you get into it so early? How were you able to leave school at 12, how were you able to see the future and something that actually wasn't invented at that exact point?
Audrey Tang: Well I think it was due to the digital equality program the Taiwan government did when I was 12, to make sure that everybody — even the less connected areas — must have affordable ADSL lines for Internet download. I think I was fortunate in that the first web sites that I ran into, was for example the Gutenberg project, which was a digitisation of all the books that fell out of copyright. I learned mostly from the classics that I read online.
Kim Hill: You know, one of the one of the concerns about the Internet, with sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc, is that far from enhancing the quality of civil society — we just talked about getting people engaged in the budget discussion, but in general — far from enhancing the quality of civil society, it lets people get stuck with their own interest groups with their own prejudices, in general. Can you see a way through that?
Audrey Tang: Certainly. Facebook is sort of in its own league, as their social media is trying to encompass all modes of media and try to basically let people stay on it forever, using machine learning algorithms to tailor-made itself into the kind of media that someone craves — not necessarily needs. So yes, I think outside of Facebook, there's a lot of different ways: A lot of different ways to build interactions and social sites to encourage people to form a consensus through empathy, instead of just spending so much time on the same arguments over and again. So yes there is a lot of ways out of it.
Kim Hill: How do you do that? How do you encourage people to see the other side of the argument?
Audrey Tang: For example one could install this browser plug-in called "Facebook feed eradicator". And once you install the plug-in, the social feed goes away from the Facebook website — you can still use its other functions.
Audrey Tang: In other modes, we also buy Facebook advertise meant to take people out of Facebook, saying that "maybe you can have your discussions elsewhere, where it has a binding effect on the government" — either state or a national level. Most people would find this motivation enough.
Kim Hill: What are you doing with Uber? It is controversial around the world. New Zealand has issues with Uber, the government says it's not playing by the rules and we're thinking about banning it. I don't know what the status is in Taiwan, but you've done some interesting experiments, with open source software and the Internet, to try to bring people together on that issue, haven't you?
Audrey Tang: Yeah. We were sending an interactive online survey, that brings both the legal Uber drivers (UberBlack) and the not-so-legal Uber drivers (UberX) together, along with existing taxi drivers and scholars and policymakers, into a four week interactive discussion.
Audrey Tang: People were very split in the first week, and we can visually picture the split, because their groups were dispersed in four corners in a two-dimensional graph.
Audrey Tang: Over the four weeks, as they try to convince each other, they gradually fuse in the middle, and we basically take the points which more than 80 percent people have consensus, and use that as our negotiation points with Uber.
Kim Hill: So what's the outcome?
Audrey Tang: There's quite a few outcomes. The government pledged to ratify our consensus in a new regulation, slated maybe a week or two weeks from now. It's basically saying, as long as they register locally as a fleet,as long as it pay taxes, we're willing to have a different kind of taxi that is not hailed on the street, but through an App.
Audrey Tang: But the taxi drivers for this new kind of taxi must be protected in the same way the normal employees are. And we also encourage local co-ops to form this kind of App-dispatched taxi fleets to serve under-served areas.
Kim Hill: I don't understand how the existing taxi drivers can be protected under such a system.
Audrey Tang: Well, they could join such a fleet. The idea is that existing taxi drivers are still having a monopoly of hailing on the street; and they can also join those dispatch systems, while the Uber drivers would be restricted to only an App-based dispatch system.
Kim Hill: And the taxi drivers happy with this?
Audrey Tang: Well the thing is that, when we had a deliberation, Uber was only operating in Taipei City, and the drivers were reasonably happy with this compromise. But Uber has since expanded to other cities, now we may have to do the same deliberations in other cities as well.
Kim Hill: You know, when you have that kind of debate online, what is to stop interest groups or stakeholders from loading the debate, stacking the participants and distorting the outcome?
Audrey Tang: Well, the idea is that, for example in the Uber case, we had two groups identified by a machine-learning program. It's open data, and presented to everybody. There are roughly 60 per cent for legalization of Uber, and 40 percent for outright banning Uber.
Audrey Tang: Our formula is: To form a binding consensus. It has to cross the threshold to convince 80 percent of people, which is calculated by the 60 percent the majority group, plus half of the minority group.
Audrey Tang: For other cases like online sales of alcohol, we have a 80/20 split, so the threshold would be 90 percent. No matter how many people you mobilize to the majority group, you still have to convince over half of the minority.
Kim Hill: And are you suggesting that, what the government is putting in place in a couple weeks time — the proposal — that would not have happened had this exercise not taken place?
Audrey Tang: Well it would take longer, I think. Because it's not the consensus themselves, it is the process that brings the previously opposing or even very violent parties together, so that they could agree to a compromise.
Audrey Tang: So it's not that the regulation would not happen without this process, is that it would have a much harder time to convince people that this is where we are going forward.
Kim Hill: And is that is that because you've realistically included people in the plan, or is it that you've made people feel as if they'd been included? Because that's two different things, isn't it?
Audrey Tang: It's a little bit of both, because what we do is not human intervention during the deliberation; it's just providing a safe space where people can see each other's — your Facebook friend's or Twitter friend's — stance, on this kind of matter.
Audrey Tang: So it's up to the people to mobilize, to convince, to somehow rally, or to come to a consensus. What we do is provide a space that is — unlike Facebook — trying to highlight the things that people have consensus on. So I would say a little bit of both.
Kim Hill: What is a "civic hacker"?
Audrey Tang: Well, a hacker is someone who makes new rules out of new situations, instead of trying to retrofit old rules to new situations. A civic hacker is just someone who does this to the public sphere.
Kim Hill: In 2014, you had a big year in Taiwan. You had big social protest, the Sunflowers movement, which as far as I can gather was against the ratification of a trade treaty with china. And you had the occupation of Parliament. I think that you found that very interesting, in terms of what civic hacking could achieve. Could you tell me what happened?
Audrey Tang: Certainly. So the short of it is very simple. There's a bunch of students who didn't like the way that a Legislative Yuan — that's our Parliament — refused to debate the treaty with Beijing, because their interpretation of constitution at the time was that Beijing is a domestic city of Taiwan, and "domestic agreements" doesn't need legislative oversight.
Audrey Tang: So they occupied the Parliament. Instead of just demonstrating and protesting, they were demonstrating a different kind of consensus-making deliberation, by going over the suggested trade deal, one line by one line, and have all the people — half million people on the street — participate in this kind of deliberation.
Audrey Tang: Because of the help of g0v civic hackers, we have made sure that every corner of the occupied area was live-broadcasted online, transcribed, with a real-time translation and logistics team, so it became a safe space where rumors and violence have no place to expand.
Audrey Tang: In this kind of space, people gradually found each other — people who thought they were in different ideological camps — they cross pollinate with each other, because every day starts with a recap of what got discussed, what reached consensus in the previous day.
Audrey Tang: The meetings and the deliberations on the street were digitized in such a manner, and this is the first large-scale demonstration that Taiwan has seen, for this kind of deliberative democracy.
Kim Hill: And what was the outcome?
Audrey Tang: The outcome was that the Parliament — the head of Parliament — agreed that it's probably not a good idea to ram through the trade agreement the way it were. So the outcome is the occupiers got their demands met. But the other demand, which is have a bottom-up constitutional convention, that is still in the works.
Kim Hill: And so you're suggesting that, putting it online and having everybody see and be seen in some way — it moderates the dialogue?
Audrey Tang: That is exactly the case, yes.
Kim Hill: And there was a "1985" movement, in which you were involved. What is that movement?
Audrey Tang: Well, I wasn't so much directly involved back then. But it was due to a Ministry of Defence covering up of a certain accidental death of a soldier.
Kim Hill: But the 1985 doesn't refer to the year right? It refers to the help line number.
Audrey Tang: That is correct.
Kim Hill: And so this was a kind of a whistling-blowing exercise?
Audrey Tang: It is, and it prompted a quarter million people to the street. I wasn't involved back then actually, I was involved in the collaborative document they created. Because that was a flash mob, really, by people who were not activist organizers before, so they collaborated on a Google Doc to document every step of the way, basically chronicling a DIY kit of running a quarter-million people movement in the street would be like. So I was mostly involved in chronicling and improving the technologies; we iterated our technologies quite a bit between that protest and a few months later, the Sunflower movement.
Kim Hill: Can you clarify for me what the protest was about?
Audrey Tang: You mean the 1985 protest?
Kim Hill: Yes.
Audrey Tang: Essentially, it's an "accidental death" of a certain soldier. When people asked what exactly happened, all the CCTVs — the camera recordings — mysteriously disappeared.
Audrey Tang: So it was basically saying all these cases, which was tried in a military court due to a glitch in our legal system, must be tried in the civil court and with due process. That demand was also met.
Kim Hill: In the long term, do you see what you were doing growing? Or will it always be for activists, and in someway a minority activity?
Audrey Tang: Well, we have to qualify what is it that I am doing.
Audrey Tang: I mean, listening, scalable listening, and building tools for scalable listening? I think that is a majority, that is what most people would want. And in fact they do jump on it when there are better tools for doing so.
Kim Hill: You know, if most people wanted to listen constructively, then you wouldn't have to do what you doing. You know what I mean? Surely most people don't.
Kim Hill: I mean, this is why Donald Trump is able to run for the president, because an awful lot of people don't want to listen constructively — they just want to shout at each other.
Audrey Tang: Well, I don't actually think so...
Audrey Tang: Before television and radio, there wasn't a way for people to speak to millions of people, either; it was just one-to-one speaking via telephones at a time, and the society was structured around that.
Audrey Tang: I think it's just we had the technologies for speaking to millions before we had the technology to listen to millions, that made our current political and media situation like this. Once they become symmetrical, I think it would restore some of the early balance.
Kim Hill: Going back to the original question of what a conservative anarchist is. You describe yourself, I think, as a proponent of "individual anarchism". How does — how is that — what does that mean?
Audrey Tang: Well it means several things. For example, when I was just falling asleep last night, I was wearing this Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, and looking at the Earth from a satellite of Pluto.
Audrey Tang: It has a profound psychological effect, to look at the Earth and its surrounding stars and systems like that. And once that becomes my personal reality, existing political divisions have very little effect on my mind. I think that's what "individual anarchism" means to me, personally.
Kim Hill: I'm wondering how that's compatible with activism. Activism implies that you want to change a system; individual anarchism implies that the system doesn't matter because you've got your own thing going on.
Audrey Tang: Well, If I want to listen to you, and say if our Skype connection had a glitch at this moment, would I not want to fix it? If I were to fix that, it's not me wanting to "change the Internet", nor to "change Skype as an application" — is just to further the goal of me wanting to listen to you.
Kim Hill: I don't understand.
Audrey Tang: Ok. What I'm trying to say is that the natural circumstances for me is to have my full attunement, full attention, when I try to listen to somebody or have somebody else listen to me.
Audrey Tang: The system for that — our existing language and so on — is pretty good for this purpose. But there are, of course, time and space constraints when someone in Taiwan wants to speak with somebody in New Zealand.
Audrey Tang: Technology for me is — if we are to change the system — it's just to make up for the time and space differences. It's not that we have anything against the existing system, we're just to restore it to its natural circumstances.
Kim Hill: Right. So you're not actually trying to change the system. You think that if people listen, and talk, and listen, that's... that's enough?
Audrey Tang: Yes. That's plenty.
Kim Hill: It seems a kind of moderate aim, given the somewhat grandiose claims for what the Internet could do for the world.
Audrey Tang: Yeah. I'm never too much into grandiose claims — I don't think they have much effect.
Kim Hill: It's very good to talk to you. I look forward to seeing you in New Zealand.
Audrey Tang: I'm looking forward to visit as well.
Kim Hill: Good. Bye.
Audrey Tang: Bye.