Fast, Fair, Fun (with Digital Minister Audrey Tang)

Show Description

After a life of civic hacking outside the system through efforts like vTaiwan, Audrey Tang, now Digital Minister of Taiwan, speaks with Baratunde about how to use digital tools to include people in more direct, participatory, democratic practices and her design philosophy of “fast, fair, fun.” She shows how tech can help government be more responsive to and collaborative with its citizens. 

Show Notes & Actions

Show Transcript

Baratunde Thurston  0:02  

Welcome to How to Citizen with Baratunde, a podcast that reimagins citizen as a verb, not a legal status. This season is all about tech and how it can bring us together instead of tearing us apart. We're bringing you the people using technology for so much more than revenue and user growth; they're using it to help us citizen.

Here in the U.S., the idea of social media and democracy, well, I'm not sure they even belong in the same sense. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, they tend to just be echo chambers with an abundant supply of the most niche groups, so you can be surrounded by your own choir; but there is a country where this isn't necessarily the case. Today, we're going to Taiwan. I repeat, Taiwan. The Taiwanese government has essentially put its entire democratic system online, and it works. Now, of course, they have some exceptional policies in place, like they've got universal broadband as a human right, virtual town halls, and a phone line--get this--where citizens can talk to real people in the government about their problems; and if that still isn't enough for a Taiwanese citizen to have their voice heard, they can schedule a one-on-one meeting with the person at the center of all this. Every Tuesday from 10am to 10pm, the digital Minister of Taiwan, Audrey Tang, holds open office hours. Her only request: you got to allow the conversation to be recorded and uploaded online in the name of radical transparency. Look, I'm not a citizen of Taiwan, but she penciled me in for some office hours of our own. I say this without exaggeration: Audrey's accomplishments started at birth. Due to a heart defect, as a toddler she had to train her body to keep her heart rate down by practicing Taoist meditation techniques... as a toddler! When it came to her education after discovering the internet...

Audrey Tang  2:25  

I did drop out once when I was 8, once when I was 10, once when I was 12. Anyway, yeah, I've had three kindergartens, six primary schools and one year of middle-high. Serial dropout, if you will. When I was in middle school student when I was 14, I talked to the head of the school saying, "look, I discovered this thing called the World Wide Web, and I found out that the cutting edge knowledge is being created on the web, and my textbooks were woefully out of date." The head of the school, after she listened to me for a couple of minutes describing this new thing called the World Wide Web, she said, "okay, tomorrow you don't have to go to my school anymore. Instead of eight hours after school, you can spend 16 hours a day doing research."

Baratunde Thurston  3:16  

She started her first company at age 15, and that eventually led to her joining a community of civic hackers: technologists who innovate without permission, but, in this case, not for financial gain or to prove they can break into a system, but instead for the public good. In 2016, after a series of protests in Taiwan, she was appointed Taiwan's first Digital Minister, going from outsider to insider, hacker to cabinet minister. She's a believer in and advocate for open data, open governance and civil society government collaboration. Without further ado, Audrey Tang. Hello, Audrey.

Audrey Tang  4:02  

Greetings, good local time.

Baratunde Thurston  4:04  

Good local time. Nice to meet you. Thank you for joining us. You are the first cabinet minister I will have ever had on any show of mind, so this is very exciting for me. 

Audrey Tang  4:15  

Here's to many more. 

Baratunde Thurston  4:18  

It sounds like you grew up online. Is that a fair way of describing it, choosing education to happen this way, especially?

Audrey Tang  4:23  

That's right. I would say I migrated to the internet when I was 14-ish, so I'm not a digital native but a young immigrant, if you will.

Baratunde Thurston  4:34  

A young digital immigrant, digital migrant; so what has that meant for you to have such early, intense and regular access to this new world, formerly new world? 

Audrey Tang  4:46  

At the time I was motivated by open research questions. Why do people who've never met each other trust each other so quickly online? It's a phenomenon called swift trust. Of course, in the more antisocial corners of social media it also means swift distrust. People come to hate each other very intensely. 

Baratunde Thurston  5:07  

Yes, we do. 

Audrey Tang  5:08  

How does that come about? I was very much motivated by that question, so I founded a startup a year after I dropped out and became a kind of serial entrepreneur, and explored through various ways. My first startup was the Taiwanese-equivalent of eBay, and later on moved to found many other companies, and all explored how to get people to trust each other reasonably online instead of on the spaces where it's more antisocial. That's been my research topic for the past 35 years, I guess.

Baratunde Thurston  5:46  

What are your conclusions right now about the answer to that question? 

Audrey Tang  5:51  

Well, it needs to be fast, fair and fun simultaneously. If a space is fast in getting people's ideas into collective intelligence; if the common good, the shared value is derived quickly in a fair fashion; and finally, if for each minute of participation people feel there's an intrinsic fun in it, then the fast, fair, fun ensures a pro-social interaction online.

Baratunde Thurston  6:20  

Fast, fair and fun. They all start with "f," so there's a poetry to it. I like it.

Audrey Tang  6:27  

The fun part, for example, we applied to our counter-disinformation strategy in Taiwan, I call it, "humor over rumor."

Baratunde Thurston  6:35  

Oh, I like that one. Early in your career, you were part of the formation of something known as g0v. What was g0v and why was it needed?

Audrey Tang  6:47  

g0v was, and still is, this idea of a fork in the government. Now a fork in free software means taking something, not writing it off, but taking it to a different direction with the hope, of course, that one day it's merged back in; so for all the government websites in Taiwan, something dot G-O-V dot T-W.

Baratunde Thurston  7:12  

Oh yeah, .gov websites, yeah. 

Audrey Tang  7:14  

Right. The g0v folks just built parallel shadow government websites, so for each digital service that the people didn't quite like, instead of protesting, they demonstrate by changing an "o" to a zero in the browser bar, and you get into the shadow government, which is more fast, fair and fun.

Baratunde Thurston  7:34  

Okay, I want to play that back and make sure I'm understanding what you're saying. Everyone listening to this who understands the concept of a government website, a .gov, as you mentioned, they're not always the greatest websites that many of us have experienced; so g0v, what y'all initially were doing was building dot zero websites that were mirror versions of these government websites, offering the same information and services but better, faster, fairer and more fun.

Audrey Tang  8:03  

That's exactly right, so, for example, last February, we were rationing out medical-grade masks.

Baratunde Thurston  8:17  

We all remember the the mask rationing, yes.

Audrey Tang  8:19  

That's right, and there's a government website that tallies the availability of masks in each and every pharmacy. Now, the equivalent g0v website is an interactive map where you can see very quickly which pharmacy near your residence still has some in stock, and as you queue in line, there's also chatbots, voice assistants, that will ensure this fair distribution of masks, and is, of course, more fun.

Baratunde Thurston  8:40  

This entire effort, this civic-hacking effort, was all volunteer?

Audrey Tang  8:45  

That's right. The volunteers stay in number in tens of thousands, and once people think of something that the government isn't doing very well, instead of protesting, we just do a demonstration as a demo, like showing everyone that, "hey, this could be done this much better."

Baratunde Thurston  9:03  

That's... okay, that's a novel, creative and hyper-useful form of activism, where you just show them up and you do it better. I want to know how you got into politics. A big moment for you was the Sunflower Revolution, right?

Archival (News)  9:22  

...Several-hundred Taiwanese students are still occupying the island's parliament. They're protesting against a wide-ranging trade deal signed between the Taiwanese government and China...

Archival  9:39  


Archival (News)  9:39  

...March 17th, one single Congressman declared without any deliberation within 30 seconds...

Baratunde Thurston  9:52  

Now, don't let the name Sunflower Revolution fool you. The path to a digital democracy wasn't easy, as is often the case, big change takes an uprising. In March of 2014, a group of students climbed over the fence and occupied Taiwan's equivalent of the U.S. Capitol building. Now, before your mind goes there, it's not what you think. They didn't have guns, they had ethernet cables, and a plan to talk and be heard.

Audrey Tang  10:23  

Students far from violently protesting, they occupied the parliamentarian seat and started celebrating the CSSTA, the trade agreement, line-by-line with anyone who cared who show up.

Baratunde Thurston  10:39  

Yeah, they were literally reading through parliamentary decisions line-by-line in hopes of finding consensus, but law enforcement, they didn't see it that way; so their solution, radical transparency. Audrey livestreamed the occupation to the streets of Taipei for the public to witness.

Audrey Tang  11:08  

So the people can see before their own eyes on a large projection screen outside the street, what's actually happening was a deliberation led by citizens within the parliament, so there's no room for rumor to grow. Had we not wired up the streets around the parliament, there would be callous because people would believe in, for example, the rumors that the students within the parliament were being attacked. There's a bunch of people who want to rush the police because they falsely believed that the students were in danger, but because we wired it up sufficiently quickly, people can check that it's actually not what's happening.

Baratunde Thurston  11:47  

This moment was basically analog g0v. Instead of a shadow website, they created a whole shadow parliament showing the politicians in their own house how it's done, and they did this day in and day out, working to come up with their own rough consensus on each issue, including the trade agreement. Then, after three weeks of occupation, Parliament agreed to provide oversight for trade deals with China and the occupation ended, but the movement didn't stop there. In fact, many leaders in government got on board. Two years later, the 2016 election ousted the ruling party and made history by electing the first female president Tsai Ing-wen. The government realized they had to listen to the people, and who did they turn to? Audrey Tang. This led to her role as Taiwan's first Digital Minister at just 35 years old. Opening the doors of Parliament to the hackers. 

Audrey Tang  12:50  

That's right. The civic hackers, right? 

Baratunde Thurston  12:52  

The civic hackers. That's a very important acknowledgement. 

Audrey Tang  12:55  

The good ones, yes?

Baratunde Thurston  12:56  

Yes, yes. Not all hackers, civic hackers. After the break, a poetry reading by Minister Tang. Yes, poetry.

You're not just a minister in the parliament, you're the Digital Minister. What does that job mean and was there a Digital Minister before you?

Audrey Tang  13:28  

No, I'm the first Digital Minister, I wrote my own job description.

Baratunde Thurston  13:33  

Can you share your--I think I've read some of this job description--but can you share your job description with me?

Audrey Tang  13:41  

Sure. It's pinned on my Twitter, actually, so I'll just read it. When we see the internet of things, let's make it an internet of beings. We see virtual reality, let's make it a shared reality. When we see machine learning, let's make it collaborative learning. When we see user experience, let's make it about human experience. And whenever we hear that the Singularity is near, let us always remember the plurality is here.

Baratunde Thurston  14:17  

That's poetry.

Audrey Tang  14:19  

It is. I'm a poetician, if you will.

Baratunde Thurston  14:23  

You just call yourself a poetician? 

Audrey Tang  14:24  

That's right. 

Baratunde Thurston  14:27  

You are full of innovations and surprises, Minister. One of the things that I've heard about and am most excited to spend our time on today is vTaiwan. Can you define what vTaiwan is and how it's used in your society?

Audrey Tang  14:48  

Sure. vTaiwan was actually the work of me as civic hacker, and I became Digital Minister around two years after which. During these two years, for example, we worked on a way to get people's voices where people can write their own nuanced ideas about emerging issues like, at the time, Uber. When Uber first came to Taiwan, their work with drivers was a new professional license called Sharing Economy, and this, of course, incited many taxi drivers to start a protest. Instead of people just shouting at each other like a showdown, we built a space called through the Taiwan Project, where people can say, "I care about insurance," and upvoted and downvoted, but with no reply button. Then, the rough consensus, just like in the Sunflower Movement, ended up getting ratified, so Uber is now a legal taxi company in Taiwan.

Baratunde Thurston  15:50  

You're describing an online community, a platform where people are sharing their opinions, their thoughts, their feedback, on public services sometimes or private services like Uber, but you're using terms like rough consensus, and I experienced a platform that lets me share my opinions about all kinds of things called Twitter. It's called Facebook, but the word consensus never comes to mind, so can you talk to me about how vTaiwan, in doing this surveying of the public and collecting all kinds of input, doesn't descend into a Twitter or Facebook like disaster zone?

Audrey Tang  16:33  

Well, as I mentioned, there's no reply button.

Baratunde Thurston  16:37  

Right? No reply button. That'll do it. Okay.

Audrey Tang  16:40  

Yeah, that's really the trick in, which you can check out. It's a free software tool. Instead of the reply button, there's upvote, downvote and there's this visualization.

Baratunde Thurston  16:55  

Don't worry, I know this is a podcast and you can't see the visualizations Audrey's talking about, so I'm going to help you. vTaiwan uses something called quadratic voting to build rough consensus. Think of two axes, an X that runs horizontally and a Y that runs vertically. Yeah, I'm taking you back to middle school. The X-axis is your yay or nay, and the Y is how strongly you feel about your yay or nay. Let's say your town is voting on a citywide compost collection measure. On one end of your X-axis would be a yes, compost, on the other end, nope, I ain't composting, but it doesn't stop there because the Y-axis gauges how strongly you feel about those votes. Maybe you plan to vote no because you don't know that much about composting, but you heard it might stink up the city. You'd probably fall somewhere in the middle of the Y-axis. The same could be said for someone who's voting yes, they don't know much, but they hear it's quote, unquote, "good for the environment." They, too, would fall somewhere in the middle of the Y-axis. Once again, it doesn't stop there, because users can continue to submit statements on composting, and the more you participate by up or downvoting those statements, the more refined your placement gets within this grid; so composting will take the equivalent of 1 million cars off the road, that might lead to an upvote, or the budget will come out of the Park Department, that could lead to a downvote. The point is, as users start to form opinions on composting, wherever you fall on these scales, you get placed within one of the four quadrants, and as the votes tally up, you start to see clusters of like-minded people, clusters that would be invisible to you in a purely-binary yes-no world, and that's where the rough consensus begins to form. This moment brought to you by Edge-atunde. You're welcome.

Audrey Tang  18:58  

It became a challenge again to find the things that could convince people at the other aisle and people managed to agree on. After three weeks or so of online deliberation, we would end up always with this picture where people agree to disagree on a few ideological things, like whether Uber qualify as Sharing Economy or just gig economy, but for most of the ideas, most people agree, actually, with most of their neighbors, it's just the more antisocial corner of social media or mainstream media does not report those consensus around registration insurance not undercutting existing measures, and so on.

Baratunde Thurston  19:37  

I've heard many social scientists say that we actually agree a lot more than we know, and it sounds like you've got a system which visualizes that, it shows us how close we are to our neighbors, even if they're not our physical neighbors. Is it fair to say you've kind of gamified consensus building?

Audrey Tang  19:58  

Yes, it's fair and I would also say that people compete to get other people to agree to them, not by posting compromises, but posting innovations, like new ideas that would unify people previously of different aisles. If people keep shouting at each other on the ideological points, then there is no remaining bandwidth to innovate like that.

Baratunde Thurston  20:24  

If the government is faced with 100 decisions--kind of a random, easy number--legislative, policy, regulatory, for how many of them are using vTaiwan to be open to citizen input?

Audrey Tang  20:43  

The answer is 100%. All the petitions, all the regulations, all the budget items are up for public commentary and debate. After I moved into the cabinet as the Digital Minister, vTaiwan kind of got merged back into the government, and we call it We also have a petition site, like We the People, where people can post new ideas. Instead of waiting for the government to propose, people can propose their own ideas, like changing the time zone of Taiwan or banning plastic straws for bubble-tea's takeouts, which are all real petitions. Then, they get the ministry a point-by-point answer if they get 5,000 joining signatures.

Baratunde Thurston  21:34  

How... You can sense my surprise, my incredulity, even, a little bit... how seriously do people who work in government take all this beautiful, visualized consensus of the people who don't work in government? Is it just like, "oh, that's cute, the public wants something. Anyway, I'm going to do what I want to do," or is there accountability to follow through on these public consensus conclusions?

Audrey Tang  22:08  

Well, if the petition did not get 5,000 signatures, then often it gets ignored. That's, of course, true because it means it more-or-less serves only a handful of people, and these people have not yet articulated the common purpose. The majority of petitions did not meet 5,000 threshold, but after it meets the 5,000 threshold, there is a regulatory-level commitment from each Minister that they will send a team, what we call Participation Officers, or PO's, and around a hundred of these people in each ministry, they are legally-bound to answer it in a point-by-point fashion. If this spans across different ministries, or could only be solved in an interagency way, then I personally host collaborative meetings twice a month to get those ideas from the civil society that benefits more than one ministry, because a single ministry cannot promise to answer them all.

Baratunde Thurston  23:12  

What type of regulation, or rule, or government action more broadly, are you most proud of or excited about that is the product of a vTaiwan process?

Audrey Tang  23:27  

One of the earlier successes is, of course, the ratification of Uber, and later on extending that to a more general platform economy principle; and there's also many environment-related issues, like banning plastic straws from takeout at bubble-tea, that's actually something that's ratified and the petitioner was, I think, not even 18, just turned 17 when she petitioned that.

Baratunde Thurston  23:56  

How do you make sure that a system like this isn't gamed or abused, someone just gets a bunch of bots or a bunch of their friends to jack up the activity on a particular petition point to make sure it gets "taken seriously," quote, unquote.

Audrey Tang  24:15  

First of all, one has to register using the SMS number. If someone tried to get 5,000 SIM cards, they would get noticed by the anti-money-laundering folks very quickly, so I'm not worried about that. 

Baratunde Thurston  24:29  

 I imagine you know those people. Yeah, okay.

Audrey Tang  24:31  

I do know those people, that's right. Each person, of course, participates using the SMS number, but they can choose pseudonames, so the petitioner, the young one that did this plastic straw banning, we only knew her as "I love elephants and elephants love me" for a very long time until she decided to show up.

Baratunde Thurston  24:54  

This is killing me. This is amazing. What do you think vTaiwan has done for the relationship of the Taiwanese people to each other and to their government? 

Audrey Tang  25:08  

Yeah, I believe that this idea of social innovation, previously, people think, "oh, they can join this community in their neighborhood and to maybe redesign the park together or things like that, but I guess join platform show that people who care about the same thing can also get this neighborhood relationship very quickly online, and act in a way that they would on the physical town hall." We have this digital public infrastructure that functions the same as the town hall, so that they're not forced to deliberate about important civic topics in the digital-equivalent of nightclubs, like Facebook.

Baratunde Thurston  25:52  

You just called Facebook a nightclub. This is amazing, this is amazing. I don't know how many future forward-looking innovations you could put into one person, into one position, but you're going for some kind of medal, some kind of gold medal for maximum innovation in civics, in people-powered government. We got blockchain up in here with Ethereum, we got quadratic-voting, we've got participatory budgeting, civic hacking. This is like the mecca of innovation in government services, but I'm also trying to understand how, within Taiwan, do you have a sense for what share of the public is engaged in this new, digitally-enabled form of self-governing?

Audrey Tang  26:49  

I believe most of the people are aware that they can actually set an agenda for the ministerial-level decisions around pandemic prevention, especially just by picking up the phone, so a large majority of people, I would say tens of millions of people, because our entry barrier is really low. If you pick up your phone and call this toll-free number 1922, and speak your mind about how you would like our counter-epidemic effort to get better, and a sympathetic listener from the call center records that and writes it up, on the next day on the 2pm press conference, your idea may be implemented very quickly on this live stream, because we've lowered the participation threshold.

Baratunde Thurston  27:32  

Are the phone lines just flooded with foul language and hate speech? I'm just trying to imagine it deployed in the U.S., and I don't hear thoughtful rants, you know? I just see people screaming falsehoods into their phone all day.

Audrey Tang  27:48  

Yeah, and that's because of the frustration of not getting properly listened to, right? It's venting this previous frustration, but because there's more than two million calls last year alone, we take them very seriously, right? Last April, there was a young boy that called saying, "hey you're rationing out masks, but all I got was pink ones and other boys in my class got navy blue ones. I don't want to wear pink to school, I refuse to go to school. Do something about it." Then, the very next day at the 2pm press conference, all the medical officers, including Minister Chen, wore pink; and Mr. Chen, the Health Minister, even said, "Pink Panther was my childhood hero," so the boy became the most important in his class for only he had the color that the heroes wear and the heroes here, I guess, wear.

Baratunde Thurston  28:45  

The idea that I could call and leave a voicemail, and know that I was heard because a pretty high ranking government official, in fact many, the next day in this case, are referencing my message. Do you have some very widely-deployed natural language processing running to make sense of all this audio, not just... the texting and the typing I get, it's already kind of machine-readable, but just a bunch of audio files, as well. How are you processing that?

Audrey Tang  29:17  

A very large call center, and it's not voicemail. Actually, I think more than 90% of them get into a sympathetic listener... 

Baratunde Thurston  29:27  

Like a human being? 

Audrey Tang  29:28  

...A human being professionally listening and answering in real time. 

Baratunde Thurston  29:32  


Audrey Tang  29:33  

We work on the system to support them, like frequently asked questions and so on, but at the end of the day, it's the people who want to contribute to the society, many volunteers actually working in these call centers.

Baratunde Thurston  29:46  

Okay. Okay. This is... I don't know whether I'm very proud of what you're doing in Taiwan or just exceedingly disappointed in what we're not doing in the United States. The fact that I'm responding with such shock and awe, and your delivery is just the calmest thing like it's natural, "of course. Yeah, we just staff sympathetic people on phone lines for our citizens to talk." I can't even finish saying that without laughing again. Congratulations, Minister. Can you tell me about presidential hackathons? 

Audrey Tang  30:24  

Sure, and I'm aware that we're in the future.

Baratunde Thurston  30:28  

Thank you for acknowledging that I'm not entirely on another planet, just in a different time zone.

Audrey Tang  30:36  

That's right, we're time zone travelers, so yeah, the presidential hackathon. Every year, the president gave trophies to five teams, each one working on the sort of g0v likes civic innovation for three months. Through quadratic voting, they prove that their ideas has merit in a smaller region. Telemedicine, for example, using an app to motivate people instead of buying new plastic bottles, using existing bottles to get free refills from the local community to reduce carbon footprint. These small-scale experiments, once they received the trophy from the president, suddenly become presidential promises, so like any executive agenda must be implemented within the presidential term. For example, we redid our entire universal health care system, which is pretty good to begin with, to allow QR code telemedicine, which is very useful not just during the pandemic, but also for the remote islands, indigenous places, and so on; and all thanks to a small-scale experiment by a very remote island, which suffer a helicopter crash and decided to innovate.

Baratunde Thurston  31:50  

If you've been running the hackathon for four years, and there are five winners, that's 20 winning ideas? 

Audrey Tang  31:56  

That's right. 

Baratunde Thurston  31:56  

How many of those 20 have actually been implemented by the president or other parts of the government?

Audrey Tang  32:03  

I believe 19 are implemented right now, and the other one, because it requires collaboration with the anti-money-laundering people, it's a machine-learning algorithm to preemptively, like Minority Report, identify money-laundering activities that's still in the works.

Baratunde Thurston  32:22  

Are there people who are opposed to what you're doing? Within Taiwanese society, are there folks like, "we don't want this. We don't want the computers used this way. This is too much for government..." Is there resistance to what, so far, sounds like a very happy, very positive, very effective experience?

Audrey Tang  32:46  

We, in a sense, we are the resistance. To answer your question directly, there are people who initially feel threatened by the veto and use of deliberative democracy, and they are the professional representatives in the parliament or city council. They rightfully feel excluded from this crowd law, agenda-setting thing, and kind of fear that it will create populism to take their well-deliberated norms away and just pass whatever the majority of people seems happy with, and destroy democracy, and things like that. It was a real fear in 2014, but then after 2016, which I became the Digital Minister who introduced those platform, they start to see that we're not taking over the legislative power. What we're doing is essentially doing additional research and development before something gets ratified. What we've done is to get people's real feelings, which cannot all get passed through the parliament, to get people with the real feelings, and needs, and requirements, who want to also join as co-creators to propose solutions. By the end of the day, the allocation of budget resources, the presidential mandates, and so on, these remain intact and democratically accountable. In design-thinking terms, we take care of the define and the discovery part the first time, but the development and the delivery are still in the representative democracy.

Baratunde Thurston  34:30  

We have a similar process here in the US. It doesn't involve as much technology. It's a group of people called lobbyists, and they figure out what the legislators are supposed to do. It doesn't always match the will of the people on the ground, but it's probably just some bugs in the code and we're working it out. I'm sure we'll be as representative as Taiwan sometime in the near future.

Audrey Tang  34:54  

It's the great American experiment.

Baratunde Thurston  35:03  

Now I know it doesn't sound like it, but I can confirm that we do indeed live on the same planet. When we come back, we talk about Audrey's future outlook on the Taiwanese government and how this can hopefully be applied to the United States.

Where do you see Taiwan's government in 20 years?

Audrey Tang  35:39  

It will be higher, I guess, stronger, faster, together. Higher by about 60 centimeters. It's a joke because Taiwan is caught between the Eurasian Plate and the Philippine Sea Plate on both sides, and we got a lot of earthquakes when they bump together... 

Baratunde Thurston  35:58  

Yeah, I was like, "is that a rising sea levels joke?"

Audrey Tang  36:03  

It is a plate tectonics joke, so it's rising faster than sea levels at this moment. 

Baratunde Thurston  36:07  


Audrey Tang  36:09  

Yeah, but those earthquakes are metaphoric, right? We're caught between very different ideologies. For example, the privacy and personal data protection. We've got people who strongly believe in a more surveillance capitalism, ideas of using data, and it's called the U.S. style; but there's also a sizable chunk who remember and believes in the authoritarian days in Taiwan, who believe in a more state-controlled, state-sponsored way of data use, and so on. We have to endure those ideological earthquakes and always innovate. For example, marriage equality. I think we're still the only Asian jurisdiction that implemented marriage equality. We use the joint platform, among other methods, to get people's collaborative preferences into a new invention, where when two same-sex people wed, they only wed as individuals, but their families don't wed, there is no kinship relation. This innovation is felt as good enough for everyone, so after 20 years, after many such innovations, the top of Taiwan the Yushan  Mountain, which grows by three centimeters every year, I guess will just keep growing and pointing skyward.

Baratunde Thurston  37:26  

Where do you see the U.S. government in 20 years?

Audrey Tang  37:31  

I guess the great American experiment of reinventing democracy digitally will catch up. I mean, there really is no reason why people have to viciously attack each other online. It's not a function of the people or the water, it's the function of the space. In design terms, this is an antisocial design or pro-social design, so once people get into this habit of posting online, I guess people will be able to make the difference between the digital-equivalent of town halls. The public infrastructure that I've just mentioned, which in 2016, for the first time in Taiwan's history, is classified as infrastructure budget. I understand that the U.S. doing something very similar at this very moment, and people would not feel natural anymore to have a civic discussion in the digital nightclubs with people shouting to get heard, and smoke-filled rooms with toxic drinks and private dancers.

Baratunde Thurston  38:33  

Toxic drinks and private bouncers, again, the best description of Facebook I've ever heard. This idea of rough consensus, to me, it feels... I like it because it's ambitious with humility, right? You know, I think a lot of folks think we want everybody to agree with each other. We'll never get that, so why bother, and the good enough nature of the consensus. We're in desperate need of even rough consensus here in the U.S. We have a very big political divide. Are there things you think that our political system can learn from what you've learned in the Taiwanese political system?

Audrey Tang  39:20  

There was a conversation, a virtual town hall, in Bowling Green, Kentucky a couple years ago. 

Baratunde Thurston  39:26  

Bowling Green, Kentucky?

Audrey Tang  39:27  

Yes, and regardless of which party they identify with, everyone thinks that we should put the arts into science, technology, engineering, and math. Instead of STEM, let's make it STEAM. That's something people agree on. There should be more broadband vendor choices for better service and so on. So, look, I do believe that those ideologies help shape some of the debates, but like the arts teachers or the broadband connections, there are things that are just infrastructure. There are things that, in a cultural, or scientific, or educational sense, that's broadly a rough consensus, it's just that you have to ask about that specifically, and then you get this low-hanging fruit. When the mayors, or the township leaders, or governors, adopted those ideas, it also improved their chance of getting reelected.

Baratunde Thurston  40:24  

How do you think about the role of technology versus the role of humans in implementing positive, useful pro-social technology to help us govern ourselves better?

Audrey Tang  40:42  

I believe technologies are here to connect people with other people, which is why I call AI "assisted intelligence." They play the role of my eyeglass, for example, which enabled me to see you better, but my eyeglass never pops out an unclosable advertisement for 10 seconds, right? That would not be aligned to my values.

Baratunde Thurston  41:06  

I'm sure someone is designing sponsored glasses very soon.

Audrey Tang  41:11  

Right, snd I can fix it myself or take it to some repair person nearby. That means that it's accountable to also the person using it, it's not locking in my choice of vendors, so I don't have to pay someone a million-dollar license fee just to fix my eyeglass. It was this important guarantee of assistiveness, which includes, of course, accountability and alignment. It means that technologies stay customizable, which is why it's not perfect, it's just good enough, and how to make good enough better lies in the edges and the people closest to the pain. For the people using those technologies, they must be the ultimate arbiter of how to modify those technologies, so without that it's not assistive intelligence anymore, it would be authoritarian intelligence.

Baratunde Thurston  42:07  

I think both paths are possible and, to some degree, both paths will be pursued depending on which part of the world we're talking about.

Audrey Tang  42:14  

Yes, right, even in the same time zone, yes.

Baratunde Thurston  42:16  

Yes, even in the same time zone. We call this show How to Citizen. We interpret it as a verb, as a way of being in society, as a way of being part of a collective and contributing to that. You are, obviously, to me, someone who citizens hard in the best possible way. If you could pass on some advice, how would you define citizen as a verb? What does it mean to do? How does it mean to be?

Audrey Tang  42:47  

I'm reminded of my favorite quote from the singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen, from Canada, who said in the poem, Anthem, and I quote, :ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack, a crack in everything, and that's how the light gets in," so to citizen is to be that light.

Baratunde Thurston  43:14  

Poetician Audrey Tang with the Leonard Cohen, okay. Okay, Minister. Thank you, Minister Audrey Tang, for your time. 

Audrey Tang  43:29  

My pleasure.

Baratunde Thurston  43:31  

Is there something else I should have asked you? 

Audrey Tang  43:33  

No, I think this is pretty complete, so I'll add maybe live long and prosper.

Baratunde Thurston  43:54  

I want to let you in on a little context for that interview. Because of Taiwan being so far away, that interview ended for me here in LA at 10pm, and when I tell you that I was vibrating at 10pm after that conversation, literally, I had to go take a walk afterwards. I don't understand how one person can be so inspiring, and also so humble. I think what really moves me is the idea of being able to see, to really visualize how I connect with someone in an affirmative way, whether it's a friend or a complete stranger, the dopamine from that, which so far outweigh a retweet in my echo chamber that is social media. This concept of rough consensus, it's really beautiful because nothing's perfect, right? Nothing's one size fits all, but there are overlaps and in those overlaps, that's where we innovate, where we learn, and, most of all, where we get excited to come together and use our collective power.

Next week, I talked to Gen Z climate activist Jamie Margolin about where tech fits into solving climate change. Hint, it's not what I expected from a Gen Z-er.

Jamie Margolin  45:20  

I think that there is a danger and putting too much faith in innovating our way out of this. I feel like there also has to be some respect for the natural technologies.

Baratunde Thurston  45:42  

Now that I've returned to Earth from Planet Audrey, it's time for some action. First, I want you to think about your personal power. When have you felt justified pushing against an authority in your life? How did you do it and did you achieve your goal? If not, why do you think no, and if so, were there other unintended consequences? Next, I want you to get informed about this idea of open government. It's all well and good to say that government is we the people, but what could that actually look like? One example is Audrey's work, so learn more about it at If you want to go deeper, read the book Open Democracy by Hélène Landemore; it's about centering ordinary citizens in the democratic process. I actually saw Hélène speak recently, and she reminded me of some things that our season 2 guest Astra Taylor was saying about how ancient Greeks conscripted random people into civil service. Let's regain some imagination about our power. Find Hélène's book in our online bookstore at, and search social media for the hashtag #OpenGovernment to find more related thinkers and doers, helping us govern ourselves. Finally, practice sharing your voice on an issue you care about in a public forum, not just social media, though. For example, did you know you can comment on upcoming federal regulations at I'm just logging in there dropping, "what's up" all over these notices for proposed rulemaking. It's exciting, but the real action is local. Join a participatory budgeting initiative by searching online for participatory budgeting near me, or put your town or state's name there, or try attending a virtual, or live city or neighborhood council meeting and offering feedback during the public comment section. Use your voice to influence a public issue. Flex that power. We've got links to all this and more at, and follow us on Instagram @howtocitizen. Tag us in your own posts about your participation. Thanks. How to Citizen with Baratunde is a production of iHeartRadio Podcasts and Dustlight Productions. Our executive producers are me, Baratunde Thurston, Elizabeth Stewart and Misha Euceph. Our senior producer is Tamika Adams, our producer is Alie Kilts, and our assistant producer Sam Paulson. Stephanie Cohn is our editor, Valentino Rivera is our senior engineer, and Matthew Lai is our apprentice. Original Music by Andrew Eapen, with additional original music for season 3 from Andrew Clausen. This episode was produced and sound designed by Alie Kilts. Special thanks to Joelle Smith from iHeartRadio and Rachael Garcia at Dustlight Productions.

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