• We have a quick sequence in our video where the interviewee just introduce himself or herself. If you can say, in quick sentences, “My name is,” “I live in,”, who you are, in three or four sentences?

  • My name is Audrey Tang, I live on the Internet. Physically, for two months every year, I’m in Paris. For the rest of the months, I’m usually based in Taipei, Taiwan. That’s it.

  • Thank you very much. I read in an interview, when you were eight years old, you used to draw a computer on paper sheets, in an attempt to learn programming. Is this true?

  • What gave you that idea to draw?

  • There were books about computer programming, but back then computers were expensive. We were not a rich family, so my parents were not exactly sure whether to buy this very expensive gadget. That was back in 1989.

    So I learned, actually, computers were very predictable if you know how it works. You can simulate how it works on a piece of paper. I just looked at computer programming books, and wrote the program on paper, and drew a keyboard, and then simulate how the computer would respond.

    After working on that for more than a few weeks, my parents were finally convinced that I’m perhaps, serious about it. It’s pretty formative, which is also why I stick with the pencil during the use of my iPad Pro here.

  • Do you remember when you first discovered the Web, and the first time you connected?

  • Certainly. The Web came actually much later. It’s around 1993-1994. I was on computer networks before that. In 1992, there was already Internet coverage. That was when I lived in Germany. When I moved back to Taiwan, that was in 1993.

    Around that time, there were a federation of networks like Usenet, Archie, Gopher. Then the Web came and changed everything.

  • How was the early days of the Web in Taiwan?

  • Like most of the rest of the world, the first Internet users were people in the academic community. People who study computer science, people who have this very powerful computing center in many of Taiwan’s universities, especially in Taipei and Hsinchu.

    However, at the same time, Taiwan also has a very vibrant bulletin board system population. People used this very early modems. There were -baud or -baud modems to dial into each other’s homes, and to set up our own bulletin board systems, and leave messages, and have a lot of conversations.

    That was a very early prototype which has become part of the Internet, through Usenet and other systems later on.

    At that time, there was a lot of these local nets apart from the academic community. When the national telecom introduced access to the wider Internet in 1993, a lot people in the BBS communities joined, because then their telephone lines don’t have to be occupied all the time — at that time, people had to buy two lines, three lines, four lines for their modems for other people to dial in.

    But when everybody on to the Internet, then we get access to the international community. Of course, the modem speed become much faster — up to 56kbps — and the rest is history.

  • Did you feel as a privilege to be one of the Internet pioneers, I would say, in your country, or did you feel like there was something really new there? Did you immediately see the potential of the Internet?

  • I was 13 years old at the time. It was actually very democratizing. The initial setup fees were not that high. The telecom did not charge special fees for access to international forums. It was a flat rate. As we were not a rich family, I don’t think it’s a privilege, actually.

    Taiwanese people already had one of the largest populations of computer users, because a lot of IBM PC clones were manufactured in Taiwan — the CPUs still are manufactured in Taiwan today. So there is a lot of access to the hardware, the critical factor was the Internet Protocol, which linked the hardware together.

    It’s very much a societal thing. The government especially cares a lot about Internet access for the rural areas, for the remote islands, and so on. At this moment, around 80 percent of Taiwanese population is online, and we ensure that all the rural areas and the remote islands have access to the 4G high-speed broadband network, as to not lose their connectivity to the rest of the civil society on our island.

  • Let’s talk about your childhood in Europe with Chinese activists after your father visited China in 1989. How was it? What did you learn from all these experiences to be among this kind of people when you were young?

  • They were exiled! They couldn’t return to their country anymore. They were locked out from their country — because they believed that there is a better way for the people to communicate with the government, which they perceived as not taking the input from the people.

    But then, the student movement in Tiananmen was also characterized by a very chaotic, not very efficient communication, even according to the leaders themselves.

    Actually, my father’s paper, his PhD thesis, was about the socio-dynamics between the leaders in Tiananmen protestors. That task was very complicated — impossible, even — because the movement were not using an effective archive system, one that you can look behind historically.

    So what happened was very chaotic. It’s like a blob, not really organized. It’s impossible for one PhD thesis to cover this subject. But then, by just interviewing and learning and growing up with them, I learned that the exiles were from all different sort of fields, they were mostly university students who studied hard science or soft science, or some other topics.

    They very much still want to learn more in each other’s respective fields, to make useful contributions in the future. That shaped my early education. I don’t make artificial distinctions between the schools, the academic fields. Because when you’re on Tiananmen Square, the divisions of whatever field or whatever university you’re from, did not do much good.

    Anything that the contributors learn, the knowledge they have in mind, can only be put into practical use through collaborating with other people. That’s very formative of me, so I don’t have this artificial notion of schools or fields or disciplines.

  • Talking about sharing information, you were an early adopter of Wikipedia. How was it to discover this kind of knowledge? How did you share the info? Did you write some articles on Wikipedia, on Taiwan, or maybe other as a subject or as a topic? Tell us more about that.

  • Wikipedia came very late. My history working with the Internet, my first project when I participate in the Internet, and that was before the Web, was the Gutenberg Project. It’s still very much alive today — anybody can read public domain books, usually published before the First World War, because that’s how the copyright system works.

    There’s a lot of people in this project. It went on for 40 years, digitized the books — first by typing, and then later with help from OCR technologies — turning the classics into digital files. That’s actually the basis of my education.

    The result of this, is that I learned that everybody can contribute. I was active reader. If I read something that was OCR’ed incorrectly, I can tell the Gutenberg Project people to change it. In this way, we see that human knowledge is a commons. On the other hand, because of copyright law, this commons does not contain newly written materials.

    So there’s the gap between the classics and today’s world. Wikipedia bridges this gap, by enabling the people working and researching in the frontiers of their respective endeavors, to write, to share whatever they have on Wikipedia.

    On Wikipedia, I have contributed to fields that I’m interested in. For example, computational linguistics, the programming languages like Perl or Haskell, and also more Taiwan-specific items, such as acupuncture. It’s something that had been researched in Taiwan, more so than some other places.

    For the early Wikipedia, I wrote about things that I knew of. Later on, when people started writing the article about me and about projects that I work on, I then discovered that Wikipedia is not just what we see on the surface — articles with many authors. Behind that, there is a very huge self-organizing system that valued neutral point of view, reasoning together with a deliberative process of deletion, maintaining, merging articles, and formatting of articles.

    The design of Wikipedia is not just for human beings, but also for computers, for artificial intelligences like Watson to read — it’s also structured data. Because I have learned programming, I can also contribute making it be not only friendly to humans, but also friendly to machine intelligences. So I also contributed briefly as a contractor for Wikipedia Foundation.

  • Talking about a lot of projects you were on, you joined the Internet Engineering Task Force, is that right? You were working with them? Can you explain what it is? What was your role then?

  • The fun thing about Internet Engineering Task Force is that really, there’s no joining or leaving. It is just a space. It has two components. First, it has an online space. Mostly, I joined mailing lists — that is to say people emailing each other and copying everybody else. Aside from that, they also have face-to-face meetings where people can look and then talk to each other and learn from each other face-to-face in a high-bandwidth way.

    Afterwards, people go back at their homes and write emails, and they save a lot of time, because now they know the people they’re talking with.

    The IETF is a way for engineers, for people working on the Internet, to talk to each other so their machines can link to each other. The products of IETF is called the request for comments, the RFCs. They are the laws of the Internet, the law not as in the written law — code of laws for judges or courts — they’re the physical laws of the Internet.

    They decide what is possible, what is impossible, what is the limit, and what is the rules. That’s how Internet works.

    The way for IETF to work is not by voting. It’s not by hierarchy. There’s no kings. There’s no presidents. It’s just people talking to each other for weeks, for months, or for years, until mostly everybody has the same idea in their minds. Then, they go back to their computer, encode those ideas into their laws, as implementations. That’s roughly how it works.

    My role in the IETF was mostly around the Atom publication system. Atom is a way for websites to discover each other’s content and link to each other. It was designed as a successor to RSS, the Really Simple Syndication protocol for the blogs to talk to readers like Google Reader or Feedly, to discover each other’s content. It was my first participation in an IETF mailing list.

  • When did the work take place?

  • It was in the early 2000s.

  • Do you still have contacts with the IETF community?

  • Certainly. The way IETF works, it is not only for people who have lots of ideas; the work does not stop when RFCs are published. Instead, they want everybody to test-drive it. Again, just like my early role with the Gutenberg Project, my current role is to look at the newest RFCs, try to implement the drafts, try to put them into action, and see if it actually works, or is actually contradicting each other.

    So I would communicate to the editors of, say the OAuth protocol, which is a way — over the Internet — to prove that you are yourself. When I implemented it, I ran into problems, but that’s how the draft rules can be changed to fit better into our reality. Today I’m more of an implementor of the RFCs than an author.

  • Was it through this collaboration that you found the Gov-Zero (g0v) Project? Can you explain what this is and what we can do about this?

  • I did not start the g0v movement. It was started late 2012 by my very good friend CL Kao and three of his friends. The way g0v works is this — we have a slogan, called “Fork the Government.” Fork has a very specific meaning in open-source development. It means take whatever is here, not rejecting it, but taking it to a different direction.

    When it’s taking it to a different direction, it’s like experiments. It may fail and that’s OK. If it doesn’t fail, if it works in some way, then the original project — what we call the upstream — can merge this experiment back, and change the way it works. This is a way of a “constructive deconstruction” of an existing system.

    So g0v.tw works very easily by taking the Taiwan government’s websites, such as the environmental agency, or the legislative body. Then, because they all end with gov.tw — that’s their domain name — we just have the “o” changed to a zero. For example, the Legislative Yuan is ly.gov.tw, if we change the O to a zero, you get to ly.g0v.tw.

    That is a “fork” — experimenting for a way that’s easier for people to reason it out, to understand, and to interact with.

    Once the government sees that, “Oh, this is actually a pretty good idea”, because we relinquish copyright using open source licenses, the government can merge the works back. They have already worked with the budget visualization systems, and the participatory systems on law-making. Nowdays, there are lots of g0v works that’s co-maintained by the city governments and the national government.

  • Hacking politics, in a way.

  • Talking about politics, when we think about Taiwan, we think about the Sunflower Movement. There was a link between the Internet, the Web and this student movement. Can you briefly explain it to a public who doesn’t know anything about that? Maybe then when you explain the link with the old Internet thing and the occupy movement...

  • Yes. The Sunflower Movement was in March 2014. Around that time already the Occupy Movement, the Arab Spring, the work from others organizers had already taken place, and researchers like Manuel Castells had already wrote analyses about them.

    There was a lot of research. Castells wrote a book, «Communication Power» and then «Networks of Outrage and Hope», to analyze the dynamics of the occupy movements. That was my interest at the time, and I translated a part of that book a few months before the Sunflower movement happened.

    In a sense, there was a opportunity for us to see if we overlay Social Computing on top of an Occupy Movement, not just with existing systems — such as Twitter, or Facebook — which are systems not specifically designed for occupy. In other countries, they were mostly repurposing things they already used, such as Instagram, Flickr, or other services. These were not designed for Occupy; they were repurposed for Occupy

    For the Sunflower Movement, it was a way for us to test if it’s possible to design what Clay Shirky calls “situational applications”, that is to say to adjust the code in real time, according to the needs of Occupy, and see how that will improve, or change the power of the demonstration.

    The background was this Around that time, Taiwan parliament has passed a very controversial pact, a trade agreement with Mainland China, and the parliament actually did not have a debate on it. Instead, it just declares it is “not a foreign trade agreement.”

    For example, when we have trade agreements with New Zealand, or some other countries, the parliament is required to have a full procedure, starting with public hearing, and then a number of debates. There is a system about it. But because Mainland China is constitutionally considered a part of Taiwan, it was called a “domestic” issue, and the parliament decided that they cannot do anything about it, that it’s up for the administration to decide.

    Now, of course this violates pretty much what everybody in Taiwan thinks about our relationship with Mainland China. However, there’s a lot of constitutional baggage from the ruling party, the Nationalist Party, who controlled the majority of the parliament, who decided to just pass it as a domestic issue.

    There was no other recourse of stopping the bill from being passed. So a bunch of students just climbed over the wall, and occupied the parliament, and stopped this from happening. At that time, I was around the legislative building, using my phone as the uplink connection, with my skills to support the real time broadcast of the protest on the internet.

    I did not know actually they’re going to occupy. I thought it’s just a huge demonstration for a night, which I’ll be able to support. Then many g0v people joined in the same way — we supplied the communication equipment, and skills to the civil society.

    When they actually occupied the parliament building, there was a lot of socialdynamic issues to solve, like how rumors would spread; like how do we manage the logistics — of the supplies, the food, the drinking water, of the demonstrations?

    All this is actually very easily imagined as a logistical problem, from an Internet view, as “bigraph”  systems. This is what we did. We built, on the Internet, representations of whatever that’s happening around occupy areas, and then we crowd-source everybody with a phone to contribute images, or with a laptop to type in whatever they have seen around the occupied area.

    We also set up a projector, outside of walls of the parliament, which plays in real time what is happening in the occupied area. Later on, I worked with the cable-power-radio team on the field, providing the ICT experts with equipments to connect all the occupy areas — and the external streets — into a local network. We also had a fiber-optic connection to the Internet.

    With this, even though it’s technically three or four different sites of occupation, it’s linked as an Intranet, and also on Internet, as a single space where everybody can see everybody on each others’ screens.

    Then, for the next 20 days, a very neutral, deliberative, matter-of-fact discussion of the trade service agreement took place. The way it was felt was that, since the legislature refused to deliberate, people occupied the space could be a real demonstration — like a “demo version” of democracy — on how we can actually talk about things like this.

    I think that was a huge success, with lots of people watching from the live-stream, and contributed to transcripts, which were translated into 12 different languages in real time.

  • Yeah, it seems this time the political landscape really changed in Taiwan. For instance, the new mayor of Taipei, he was elected thanks to social media. Can you tell us according to you, why is it possible in Taiwan to be elected through social media?

  • As I explained, 80 percent of Taiwan’s population is on Internet, which is coming very close to the literacy rate. It just enabled a very rapid dissemination of ideas, of critiques, of conversations, of dialogues.

    Mayor Ko’s campaign was, let’s say, independent. He did not actually have a single party underwriting his campaign, so he had to crowd-source his teams, including the ground staff for  campaign mobilization. He did not know these people. He just threw out a crowd-sourced call for volunteers, and people volunteered for his campaign.

    This is possible precisely because there is this idea called “swift trust” on the Internet. If I perceive there are people on the other side of the monitor, who speaks the language as I do, then instead of building trust slowly over the time, I will default to trust this person, until they did something that makes me think, “OK, maybe they’re not warranting my trust.”

    This is fundamentally different from the pre-Internet places where if you meet a stranger, there is no way that you will just trust them, then way you do on the Internet. It took time to build a relationship in physical space. Mayor Ko capitalized on this idea of swift trust, because people who volunteered for him also did not know each other, so they very much just did things in whatever way they imagined.

    The entire campaign was running in an open-source way. All his press, all his recordings, all his talks, all his platforms were licensed under creative commons, and there was a DIY-campaign hackathon that promotes all the different ways that you can use. Participants built a lot of very different things like an animated pop-up of Mayor Ko who slides out of a Web page, or an avatar that talks to you with text-to-speech synthesis.

    There’s a lot of very interesting applications. Finally, one of his platform items is participatory budget. He understood the open data movement, and the platforms on civic participation were published using GitBook, which is a version controlled way of making promises, and publishing his promises, and offering an open dialogue under each and every of his platforms.

    The dynamic enabled discussions of very specific policies, and not just about the person. Mayor Ko is more like a symbolism. He said “I’m just your delegate in the government to empower all the online spaces.”

    His campaign was run very successfully, because it promised a higher influence from Internet-using people, through the empowered spaces. He listened to the politics of the netizens — I think he won because of that.

  • Would you say that Taiwan is maybe a really great and unique example of new politics, if you have to compare with Europe, with this strong growth of social media, and this as an example in particular? Would you say that Taiwan is maybe a new symbol for young users on the Internet maybe to empower themselves in this era, in the few sentences if you can?

  • Taiwan is a very unique place. I see Taiwan has a lot of innovation, on civic legislation, and social media, because it is very tightly bound. Pretty much everybody is online, everybody understands more or less the same language, so it’s very easy for ideas to spread, and to experiment.

    The political climate after the Sunflower Movement also has changed. Just today, we have a new Prime Minister, Simon Chang, who was a Google engineer. He actually knows a lot about open data, and the open culture. He’s not shy from just delegating all the government’s data, and its power, and everything previously invested, to the public and to the civil society.

    The other unique thing about Taiwan, is a collective priority of rebuilding strong mutual trust between the government and the civil society. This is something that I think a lot of European nations, especially people who worry about the private sector having too much control of the government, could perhaps look into, and then have more conversations with Taiwan for this kind of collaboration.

  • Do you think this trust will be strengthened in May when your new president will be in charge officially?

  • Yeah, certainly. Dr. Tsai’s campaign team did a great job! She ran a campaign modeled as a public and civic education process. She published her campaign’s visual design assets as an open source project — that is straight from Mayor Ko’s campaign, of course, she didn’t have to reinvent this.

    Another example She crowd-funded her campaign using small scale donations, with a symbol of a small piggy bank. She published the piggy bank’s 3D STL files as open-source online, and encouraged people to fork her piggy bank designs with 3D printers, and using any of the 3D modeling tools to making them more attractive, and the best of the most attractive piggy bank units were then exhibited online and 3D printed.

    This is, in a way, a very democratizing way where everybody could feel they could contribute — however small — to her campaign and her vision. The same principles shall be upheld for the next three months by Simon Chang, our current prime minister, to ensure a smooth transitioned to President-elect, Dr. Tsai Ing-Wen.

  • Which social media, in Taiwan, maybe is the most used or the most efficient to communicate and share information about politics or maybe the critiques about China?

  • There are two main social media outlets in Taiwan, and they complement each other. There is one where the entire world uses, it’s Facebook. Pretty much everybody on Taiwan is on Facebook. There’s a projection like in a little bit more than 10 years, there may be more Taiwanese Facebook accounts than Taiwanese population, [laughs] because people have multiple accounts. There’s a lot of people on Facebook.

    To complement Facebook, which is more like newspaper for the past-time, we have, also, the PTT which is an open-source bulletin board system. People wrote in a text-only way through SSH or through Telnet. That is to say it conserved the culture — when we back in 1991-1992 dialed up to those BBS with ANSI color and symbolic characters — everything is still preserved. You may think of it like a living fossil, but actually it still innovates all the time.

    This is like Reddit for us, except people still use a character-based interface to exchange information. Of course, every PTT article also has a read-only Web copy. Some Web copies then become circulated very widely on Facebook.

    In this view, Facebook is more like a second-degree system of discussion. The serious campaigners, they would registered accounts on PTT to distributed their ideas. On PTT there is no advertisement, there is no pictures, there is no cat videos, so people have to argue with the merits of ideas. Those were the two main systems.

    Just last week, large numbers of people from the China’s LiYi TieBa web bulleting system, have visited the Taiwanese Facebook pages — they had to use VPN and a lot of ways to circumvent their great firewall. It was the first time of large-scale, like tens of thousands of people, visiting the Taiwanese Facebook to have a discussion on the China and Taiwan’s relationships.

    On the other hand, they couldn’t actually go to PTT and post on the main board, because it’s much more exclusive and the threshold for posting is much higher.

    So Facebook is like the extranet community, and the PTT bulletin board system are like the inner circles.

  • How would you see the future of the Web in Taiwan? Would it be a space which is relating both freedom to its users, maybe even be more used to make a political campaign, or to distribute information? If you were to compare it with the early beginnings in Taiwan, what is evolution and how do you see it in the near future?

  • There is a project called Mozilla which is the makers of the Firefox browser and a lot of other Web technologies, they are one of the main innovators of the Web...

  • (Recording interrupted by noise in the cafe)

  • The Web has a bright future in Taiwan. First, everybody’s on the Web, and everybody recognized the ideas of the early Web — the hyperlinks and distributed publishing — things like that which makes the Web unique. There’s a lot of very interesting experiments, such as twreporter.org, an entirely crowd-funded media for investigative journalism, in the form of not-for-profit Web publication.

    It’s for quality reporting and also for dialogue with the civil societies. The writers and photographers have all volunteered on this open-source website, freeing their content under Creative Commons.

    The combination of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing which was boasting enormous improvement in adoption of civil-society projects for the past two years, and will certainly continue to change how people assemble themselves, how people gather around, how people delegate, how people decide their lives together and improving others’ trust as well.

    At this moment, just this morning, I was talking with my colleagues about setting up a virtual reality deliberative democracy meeting, so that we can look at the issues and problems as a social object, but without the constraints of everybody necessarily fitting the same room.

    Imagine that people can just putting on glasses, and then, see the options, numbers, charts, and playback all the relevant information — which is much easier, now we have people’s full attention in a virtual reality space — it is not distracted like in this coffee shop.

    It would also enable more empathy and more communication between people and the islands, and with the earth — a place where we all live in and we all share. This will further erode the physical distances between cities, between different places of living. Any ways of organization or ways of deliberation that we experiment in this lab, are then instantly reusable everywhere in the world, in Europe, or anywhere on earth’s surface. I think that would be our contribution.

  • There’ll be one last question. Is it OK?

  • You describe yourself as a "conservative anarchist," and, at the same time, you still do consulting work with Apple and other big companies. How do you respond to criticism you were maybe facing about that little paradox between these two things of using that is complementary?

  • I work "with" Apple. I don’t work "for" Apple. My title — independent contractor — reflects this distinction. My main work at Apple or at the Oxford University Press is, actually, introducing them to works from the open source society, and people who reached out to me from those organizations — such as Socialtext — were already friends that I trusted. They are fellows in the open source and free software movements.

    Their position was exactly like how I worked with Taiwan’s Nationalist Party government in the past year. Everybody expects the Nationalist Party in Taiwan to lose in this election, but still, over the past year, we worked with the administration to make sure that they could do crowd-source and open-data, in a proper way for informing the public about how the government works.

    This is not just to make transition to the new administration easier. Because when everybody knows what the issues are, and how the government worked, we don’t actually switch from one overlord to another overlord. Instead, we convinced this particular overlord to make public of their ways of doing things, and learned about taking in input from the society.

    This is the same with Apple. Apple has invented their own programming language; it’s called Swift. There was a lot of petitions from the technical communities that says Apple should open source this programming language, so that in the future when people write stuff for iPad or for iPhone, their software can be automatically ported to run on Android Linux, or other operating systems.

    Through open sourcing Swift and working with the civil society, the researchers who joined Apple — like Chris Lattner — not just participated in open source movement, but did it in a very good way. You see, there are two ways of open sourcing. There’s “token open sourcing” which means throwing out the code but without doing anything else, it’s just putting a checkmark.

    The right way is to be open to new inputs. Apple took a year’s time and did it the right way. They published the entire history — back from when Swift was just an idea, until it grew into a whole language, with years of history. This entire history included discussions, the back and forth, and they published it in a way that it made clear for innovators to see why the current decisions were made.

    They took also the community proposals, ideas for all the Swift-using community, so that they could, together, decide for the language’s future.

    All this takes enormous trust at the beginning, between people who had to tolerate Apple for taking so much time to prepare, and for the people inside Apple to prepare to engage with the language’s real users. Without such mutual trust, there’s no way for them to start working with each other, and Apple would — perhaps forever — be the same secretive company that we all remembered.

    It’s the same as with the government. There has to be one or two people in the administration believing in the wisdom of the crowd. Then, you establish just one link and then more links, both within the government and within the civil society, to prove with each iteration that they actually go through with their promises — including their promise to respond timely, and the promise to publish things. When they actually do that, we can scale out the trust.

    I don’t see any issues working with governments, Apple, other entities, as long as it’s on equivalent terms. The principle of “Symmetry of Attention" means people must respect and not dominate each other’s time. This is what Anarchy is all about — It’s saying that governments may be a useful abstraction sometimes, but we don’t have to rely on that abstraction to solve global problems. We can use other forms of organization — namely, the civil society working with people in the public sectors and private sectors, in ways that is fundamentally symmetric between the three sectors.