• I know you’re very methodical about how you use your time. I do have so many questions that I’ve tried to be disciplined about it. I’m going to give you a picture of how we’re going to piece it, if it’s OK with you. Obviously, we can’t escape the reality of our circumstances and the context in which we are having this phone call, this Skype. I will ask you about COVID obviously.

  • I wanted to talk then later a little bit about democracy in Taiwan. I wanted to move onto the future of democracy in general, the future of technology and society, and then your relationship with mainland China. If you’re comfortable with that let’s…

  • Basically it’s an extraordinary time for everybody but particularly for Taiwan because the world’s eyes have focused in on you in a really positive way. You have been an exemplary model of how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • I think recent numbers, figures, are about under 500 cases of infection and around…You know this contrasts hugely with what’s been happening in Europe.

  • You’re also one of the few countries that didn’t impose a lock-down. My question to you is what was your government’s approach and what measures do you think played that key role in containing the pandemic? How did you do it?

  • It boils down to the fast response, the collective intelligence, the vibrant civil a society. That’s the number one reason. In addition to the fast, the speed of the social mobilization, I would also say that an inclusiveness in the National Health Insurance system that covers the vast majority of people.

  • People who show any symptom know that if they put on a mask and they show up at a clinic, they don’t have any financial burden, so an inclusive and fair distribution including of mask and other supplies is the number two reason.

  • I would also say that fun, which is what we call humor over rumor, is a way to basically be not only transparent but also make scientific knowledge have a higher basic transmission rate than conspiracy theories and rumors.

  • Fast, fair, fun are the three pillars of the social mobilization that Taiwan’s approach has taken us, and because of that, we don’t have to impose any top-down, strict orders such as lock-downs.

  • Did culture therefore play a part in the sense that, I’ve read that in certain Asian countries there’s a sort of stigma attached to having COVID in the sense that it’s almost like a sign of a lack of personal responsibility. Does that…?

  • We’ don’t have that here, no. We take all the residents and citizens equally seriously. We, unlike other jurisdictions, we preserve their privacy and anonymity. Even though there’s other jurisdictions that publishes the whereabouts to such a fine-grain detail so that people can re-identify the confirmed cases with ease, in Taiwan as a normal, we do not do that.

  • When the CECC has done traditional contact tracing interviews and they’re reasonably sure of the contact tracing and putting all the close contacts in home isolation or home quarantine, we do not, as a rule, publish the re-identifiable materials. Because of that, we avoid this kind of labeling effect on confirmed cases.

  • It also makes people who show symptoms much more willing to show up for a check.

  • Did you use an app to contact-trace?

  • No, there’s no app. There’s no app. We have not rolled out any app whatsoever for contact tracing. We have rolled out a few, for example, for home quarantine and home isolation. We have rolled out a digital fence. This is a telecom-level technology that basically use the phone as a proxy of where the person is under home quarantine.

  • It’s not GPS. It’s just triangulation of the signal strength, so it doesn’t know which room you’re in for example. It does know within a 50-meter radius whether you have broken out of your quarantine, in which case it will send SMS for the local household managers and police to find the person who broke the quarantine basically. That is just for the 14 days.

  • Right, and does that kind of tracking, if you like – not all movement, but that particular circumstance – does that…?

  • Yeah. It’s a constitutional debate we had after the 2003 SARS incident, where we had to barricade an entire hospital, unannounced, for an unspecified duration, which caused a lot of trauma.

  • The constitutional court then said although it is not unconstitutional, we need to find more constitutional alternatives that has a clear in form and due process that has a clear extent, like the 14 days.

  • The whereabouts of the people under home quarantine is tracked for that 14 days only, and that’s the constitutional basis. On the 15th day, when people is done quarantining, there is no constitutional basis to retain that sort of record.

  • I must also stress, we do not collect extra data. This is, what data there is, it’s already being collected by the telecoms. It’s just used in a way that’s outside its original purpose. The original purpose is to provide a smooth handover, like when it’s on a high-speed car or something, and improve the service.

  • We use it as a quarantining device so we don’t have to physically barricade the people, basically.

  • This dodge is obviously your wakeup call, which we didn’t have a SARS 2003 epidemic. We’re struggling here with easing out of lockdowns. We’re finding this incredibly difficult to do.

  • Did you, in 2003, start to adapt that kind of social distancing with transport systems, in schools and work, leisure, environments then, to be aware, or at least implemented specifically and permanently for a future disease outbreak?

  • Yeah. You can call it a societal inoculation, if you will. During that, we had everything that the other jurisdictions are now having for encountering SARS for the first time, because this new coronavirus is technically SARS 2.0, right? It’s SARS-CoV-2. [laughs]

  • During SARS 1.0, we had our panic-buying moment of N95 masks. We had our municipal government and the central government saying two very different things. [laughs]

  • We had all the different chaos that is being experienced around the world. We had that, too, and we decided that 37 people dead is 37 people too many. That is why we spend lots of time not only in the constitutional court, as I talk about, but also in the legislation and so on, to establish the kind of…

  • Because we’ve never declared emergency situation, and we have to operate under normal constitutional limit, and because we are a continental law system, everything that our administration does need to be preauthorized by the legislation.

  • We had to carve out, right after SARS, the kind of command and control system that allows the Central Epidemics Command Center to basically mobilize all levels of the government so that there will be no differences in the communication that is being sent out by the different levels of the government and the different ministries. They all, in a sense, coordinate with the CECC and so on.

  • That is the kind of system that we are also helping each epicenter now, after their initial lockdown and the initial societal debates. We’re also helping them and advising them on building the Taiwan model. Now, the entire society has been inoculated, in a sense.

  • Right, and so you’re very much relying on sort of a decentralized system of inoculation, control. It’s not this system that we’re all struggling with in these countries that are not…

  • Yeah. We think that sort of system is inherently detrimental to a liberal democracy, because the kind of freedom that it encroaches, basically, not only the freedom of not being tracked in its whereabouts.

  • We do a deep and narrow harm of privacy for 14 days, and not through bracelets or anything. It’s just through the phone, but we trait that, because it would allow, then, most of the people, to retain their freedom of mobility, their freedom of assembly, their freedom of many other things. We consider this as a worthwhile tradeoff.

  • There are these reports that we don’t actually know how long someone remains infected. There have been reports that it can be much longer than two weeks. We’re not sure on immunization. For you, that two-week lockdown, as such, of the individual, you feel is enough to…

  • Yes, and we do that because we sort of had a physical vaccine, right? That’s these things, medical masks. If everybody in the crowd wear a mask or keeps social distancing, we are reasonably sure that our R-value is below one, meaning that even if there are a few people who remain infectious after the 14 days, they will not actually spread in the community.

  • In Taiwan, even though the CECC says either keep social distance or wear a mask, actually most people keep social distance and wear a mask, [laughs] and in that circumstances, the R-value is very low.

  • Throughout the year? This is not to do with COVID itself, COVID-19? This is just a general way of behaving in…

  • Yeah. During the flu season and things like that. When people show any symptom, and so on, they usually wear a mask to protect others, but you also see more vulnerable populations such as the elderly and so on. They also wear a mask habitually to protect themselves. Both are considered normal already, after the 2003 SARS. That is what I mean by a societal inoculation. It renders this kind of behavior normal.

  • Yeah, and it’s a sense of respect between each other, which is…

  • That’s exactly right, yes.

  • I wanted to ask you, there was this lack of global scientific evidence and knowledge about the virus back in December. You intervened early to prevent the spread. I think you banned flights from China in early February, pretty much.

  • Yeah, we started health inspections the very first day of this year for flights coming from Wuhan.

  • How were you able to detect the COVID-19’s capacity for human-to-human transmission? Was it based on what had happened with SARS, or was it the quality investment in scientific method…

  • Right. When Dr. Li Wenliang posted his whistleblowing on the social media – I think it was the last couple of days of last year – and it was reposted to Taiwan social media immediately. On the early morning – I think 2:00 AM or something, of December 31st – there is already the Taiwanese equivalent of Reddit – is already having a conversation about the evidences that Dr. Li Wenliang have gathered.

  • Dr. Li Wenliang did not call it a novel coronavirus. He just called it, “We have new confirmed cases of SARS,” and he showed the kind of measurements that they have taken to color it as SARS-positive.

  • So there were alarm bells for all of you.

  • Right. Basically we just said, “OK, we don’t know what’s happening, but something human-to-human transmission is likely, and we’ll just treat it as if SARS is happening again.” We’ve been running yearly drills since 2004, [laughs] and preparing for this very moment.

  • Without knowing anything, we just say, “You know, just let’s see. If this is exactly the same as SARS, what would we do?” Then we start doing the same measures as if SARS is happening again. Of course, we would soon learn that this is actually trickier to defend than SARS, but those early measures are still very useful.

  • Do you think there’s going to be two or three more waves down the line? Is this something we have to live with rather than finding a vaccine? What do you think?

  • First of all, I need to qualify my statement about this physical vaccine, because it doesn’t work if you don’t wash your hands well. Soap is actually the most important technology, and we pile other technologies on top of it.

  • (laughter)

  • There’s no technology better than soap, and soap is a social technology. People don’t need a top-down order to wash their hands well. People remind each other to wash their hands well.

  • In the presidential inauguration, actually, the gift box contains towels and hand sanitizer and soap, [laughs] a towel-shaped soap, I think, as the inauguration gift from the president to the people.

  • Everybody wore their mask, and we had to be reminded of that because this is an outdoor place, and we’re already one meter apart from each other, that when the President shows up, it’s OK to take the masks down, but before the staff reminded us, everybody wore the masks without being reminded.

  • This is what I mean by this being a social norm, the hand sanitation and mask wearing. With this, then, there will be no large waves, because even if there is a small cluster, inherently, the R-value is below one, and so it will not spread if everybody keep on this culture.

  • That’s interesting. It’s fascinating.

  • I wanted to move on a little bit about your role as a software programmer by profession, or the Digital Minister without Portfolio. I’ve read that you used, and you’re a fan of block chain, I know that. I know you…

  • Distributable ledgers. [laughs] I have a preferred nomenclature, yeah.

  • Distributed ledgers, OK. You use open-source platforms, and there’s quadratic voting to reach and outreach to as many people as possible, to reach political consensus on issues that impact Taiwanese citizens.

  • Your access to broadband is a human right. I think you’ve said that. Have these kind of measures led to greater popular engagement and a better government?

  • Definitely. Just to take the pharmacy mask availability map as a example, it is a kind of distributed ledger, although it is not block chain. [laughs] It is kept on GitHub. Git and GitHub is a kind of ledger, even though it’s not powered by blockchain technology, which is why I usually say ledger.

  • What we have done is that each pharmacy that carries the medical masks in stock publishes their stock of masks every 30 seconds, at the beginning, and now every three minutes, because there is no much queueing anymore.

  • What this has done is essentially participatory accountability. Everybody can take their National Health Insurance card, go to a pharmacy, swipe their NHI card, get 9 masks if they’re an adult, 10 if they’re a child. Then, every couple of minutes, refresh their phone and see the stock level deplete by 9 or 10.

  • This is what blockchain technology is doing, essentially, to the monetary system. It enables everybody to play the role of a auditor or an accountant without any top-down central bank to clear all the transactions.

  • What this has done is basically relieve people of any fear, uncertainty, and doubt around essential supply of personal protective equipment. Everybody can see that there is plenty of them. You can just walk a couple more blocks if the pharmacy near you runs out of stock. There’s chatbots, there’s voice assistance, and things like that.

  • Compare that to the traditional approach of the government publishing a tally of the statistics at the end of the day, or in many FOIA countries, at the end of the week. That, of course, is more clinical accurate, because a person have seen it and signed their name on it or whatever, but this will not then be shared with a civil society.

  • There’s no way then for the social sector to build their own way, to keep the government honest and also to share the actual supply and demand curves, analyze it, and give us useful policy recommendations.

  • Real-time open data through ledgers is one of the most powerful ways that democracy can empower everybody, not just the persons who are decision-makers.

  • When you use what you say quadratic voting, is this also to vote on, for example, issues to do with…

  • Yes, definitely. We use it to prioritize the sustainable development goals. Everybody, of course, everywhere in the world commits to 169 SDG targets. No goals left behind. There is just a certain amount of bandwidth for people to concentrate their ideas and their creativity on.

  • What we do is that every year, we ask the society to present their ideas on how to solve the SDG issues in a cross-sectoral way through data collaboratives. Then we invite the 10 million or so visitors on our national participation platform to do quadratic voting, which proposal among the 200 or so is more interesting to them.

  • Of course, there’s a certain amount of mobilization. People will ask their friends and family to vote for their case. Unlike traditional voting, which we’ll over-concentrate in at the end of the voting, everybody will feel they have lost except for the few lucky ones.

  • Here, now with 99 points, you can theoretically vote to 99 projects, each with one vote, or you can concentrate and vote nine votes on a project which cost you 81 points, and you still have 18. You have to find another one, another one to distribute your votes. On average, everybody vote for more than four projects. Because of that, everybody feel they have won when we announce the top 24.

  • That’s fascinating, because everyone feels that part of what is important to them, they have a stake in, because they’ve got that. That’s amazing. On the other hand, when we talk about democracy and the democratization of democracy today, or digital democracy, when we look at traditional democracy, it’s really quite confrontational.

  • It’s based on voters siding with candidates to put forward their policy preferences when you talk about quadratic voting. I know you are a politico, I do understand that. Our technology, like science, doesn’t have a moral compass. In a way, that’s the job of politicians. I’m wondering, can you really just mobilize political engagement when it’s just based on this overall consensus?

  • We have seen as part of Internet governance that this actually works. Without this idea of rough consensus and running code, there will be no new Skype that we’re using right now, because we’re literally using maybe different operating systems, certainly different telecom providers.

  • There’s easily 10 stakeholders between us as the hubs, the CDNs, and so one. Not to mention the video codec we’re using and things like that. All of it are settled in a way without any coercive power. The Internet triumphs because, unlike traditional telecom companies, you do not have to agree on what we call a single point of failure.

  • If the connectivity doesn’t work as well, the routing on the Internet just switch to a different telecom provider. Still, we can be assured that the image that’s being transmitted or the sound that’s being transmitted cannot be altered by the intermediary. This is called end-to-end innovation.

  • These central ideas of the early Internet, although certainly not perfect, otherwise, people would not have to work on blockchains, [laughs] but they still provide a far more diplomatic than coercive working model of politics. This is nowadays, we call it, CoGov or collaborative governance. Back in the days, they call it the multistakeholder model instead of a multilateral model.

  • We have a running proof that this works. The Internet is built for this. It’s built for like a post-nuclear war, apocalyptic world where there is no command and control hierarchical center anymore, and you can run it upon academic career pigeons or things like that. [laughs] It was designed for this is what I’m saying. This is political. It’s just not representational democracy.

  • How do you get around those who believe in more progressive policies, those who believe in greater or smaller-scale intervention? How does that get resolved when you’re always looking for consensus?

  • They just go ahead and try it out. The great thing about the Internet is that if a sufficient number of people decide to try something new, there really is nothing that the old powers can do to stop them from trying something new.

  • That is how we get novel ways like BitTorrent and now Bitcoin, and different ways of organizing the society, because the previous winners of the previous model cannot stop the new models of collaboration from happening.

  • In traditional governance, this is usually called a sandbox. You try out something like a financial technology, self-driving vehicle platform economy, whatever, in a limited way, and only by volunteers.

  • After trying out half a year or so, you realize it’s really bad idea. Then we thank the investors for paying the tuition for everybody. It’s like lottery in reverse, because they spent a lot and everybody gained a little bit. [laughs]

  • On the occasion that they actually work, they have a first mover advantage, and then our regulation can be adjusted because the social norm has been found about this novel emergent technology. As we speak, there’s any number of sandboxes now on the various topics that I just mentioned that is being tried out in Taiwan.

  • Because of that, we basically say, “If you’re willing to get on the public record to take account of all the success and failure of all the volunteers that join your sandbox, then be our guest, we will not fine you,” and with a fine print that says, “While every regulation is up to experiments, you cannot experiment on funding terrorists and money laundering.”

  • Because we know what these two experiments will lead to, so they’re exempt from experimentation. Everything else is fair game in Taiwan.

  • What mobilizes Taiwan to be this dynamic, flexible, modern democracy?

  • Because democracy for us is just a technology.

  • What I’m getting at is, this whole geopolitical situation, do you coalesce around the fear and presence of your communist neighbor? Is not what drives you to innovate to be this dynamic in terms of national cohesion?

  • Just like the memory of SARS for everybody above 30 years old, mobilizes us and the civil society to be basically amateur epidemiologists. It inspires everybody should learn about epidemiology, because we had a traumatic experience, and we don’t want to go back to the bad old days where we had to barricade the entire hospital and the Mayor is saying a very different thing from the Premier.

  • What we’re doing here, again, is when people who are 30 years old or older remember SARS, people who are 40 years old or older remember the martial law, and people do not want to go back there. A lot of our core value is predicated on that we do not want to go back to the martial law days.

  • Many other jurisdictions, for example, looking at disinformation crisis, easily backtrack to limited censorship for limited kinds of speech. We don’t do that. We basically say, “Humor over rumor.” We need to carry on with the journalist’s words being worth at least as much as the minister’s words.

  • With this constraint, we need to innovate on how to get the clarifications more viral than the conspiracy theories, because there really is no alternative. When we go back to censorship, everybody who remember the martial law will say, “Oh, we basically give up our own identity,” because this democracy is predicated upon that we don’t want to go back to the martial law days.

  • Of course, the PRC reminds us of our martial law days a little bit, but so does other jurisdictions. [laughs] I would say it’s our own memory that is our mobilization force.

  • That’s very interesting. You have so much technology that you’re using in terms of good tech, the benefits. Are you worried that cyber attacks can undermine that digital consultative system you have in Taiwan?

  • We’re not worried because we partnered with some of the best white hat hackers. Like last year in DEF CON, the annual white hat hackers competition, the CTF, the Taiwan team placed on the second place, next only to the US team. Maybe we will win this year.

  • In any case, [laughs] what we’re doing, essentially, is for each new end of like the self-driving vehicle testing proving grounds, like the communication software that we’re using internally, and things like that, we make it a habit to invite the white hat hackers to do penetration testing.

  • They file the CVEs, that’s like their medals publicly. We use open-source software whenever possible so that a penetration test can work even better. What we are doing, essentially, is to make sure that for everyone in Taiwan who want to go into cybersecurity as a career, it really pays to choose a white hat career.

  • Not only you get paid quite handsomely, because we allocate seven percent or so budget of all new initiatives to cybersecurity that’s independent from the ICT budget, five percent to seven percent, a huge amount of money, but also you get to meet the president and ministers very frequently. They don’t go to the dark side, which always has more cookies. [laughs]

  • What we are trying to do is basically getting our cybersecurity branding because we’re constantly being battle-hardened to gets this into a national pride that we have so many white hat hackers working with us.

  • It’s fascinating. We’re struggling in the West with the broken system of social capital. We’ve got voters that are split between aggrieved groups and fractured elites and like you, but almost on a smaller scale that we feel it’s overwhelming. We’ve got fake news and disinformation as you’ve been alluding to.

  • My question to you is how can our governments, our Western governments, regain the trust of their people in this era of conspiracy? It sounds like saying, “Technology is the answer here.” What should we be doing to regain? What should governments be doing to regain?

  • Democracy is a technology, a social technology. It’s not a single technology, it’s a set of technologies. Voting for people, of course, is one, but also participatory budget, also the sandboxes, of course, the referenda, and all sorts of different things. Even the referenda, in Taiwan, they’re binding but only for two years. That’s a different kind of referenda [laughs] than…

  • As far as the voting on that, do you have to have 60 percent majority on a referendum for it to go through?

  • Yes, of course, but it’s binding for only two years. We have alternating years. We have one year where we vote for the president and legislators, one year where we do a national referenda, then another year where we do a mayoral and consular voting, and another year for national referenda. Basically, it’s a representative deliberation on alternating years.

  • It gives room to both ideas of democracy for representative and participatory, because if you put them into the same voting day, which we did try, that didn’t work because everybody goes into the voting booth with a very partisan mindset instead of as required on a deliberation, which is about issue-by-issue mindset. We took them out on alternating years.

  • All this mechanism design that we did is with the spirit of seeing democracy as a set of social technologies. Whatever that has worked in a smaller scale, maybe by a co-op, maybe by a local community, and so on gets amplified into a national scale if they work well, if they get into the presidential hackathon and pass the quadratic voting round.

  • The presidential hackathon has no monetary prize. The prize is basically the president agreeing in the next year implementing your social technology as our national platform. Basically, it’s sharing the commit right, the executive power of president as a hackathon prize.

  • This trusting the people with open data, trusting the people with social innovation is essential, and sometimes people trust back. Sometimes people don’t, but it’s all OK.

  • If people trust back, they become our best partners. If they don’t, they keep us honest. We don’t care that much about whether people has to trust the government or not, but we care a lot about the government has to trust its people.

  • Also, what’s interesting is you trust the technology and therefore, through the technology, you trust your government, but it’s also about people. I find it fascinating that you are a software programmer and a politico. Your president is a doctor of law and an academic, more outgoing but he’s been…Vice President Chen is an epidemiologist.

  • The epidemiologist. [laughs] He wrote a textbook.

  • These are different types of politicians here. When I compare that to our system and to how we’re mired by very, very…Everything is politicized, everything is a political game. Is that trust issue lie also in the people who are your politicians doing politics. They’ve had a certain amount of expertise in what they do and, hopefully, they can remain as neutral as possible.

  • This is very important. In Taiwan, we’re in the cabinet. We’re twice removed from voting, because people vote for the President and she nominates the Premier, and he nominated us. Most of the cabinets, like I’m a horizontal minister to basically work across different ministries, there’s eight of us, but it’s always been the tradition.

  • Of the nine, only two had any partisan affiliation. The other seven are independent. We’re nonpartisan. It’s not just this cabinet…

  • You were selected through the Premier?

  • Through the Premier, and the Premier is selected by the President.

  • Not voted in by the electorate?

  • Not voted in, so we don’t have electorate. It’s always the case that in our cabinet, there’s more nonpartisan members than members of any party. This leads to a very different political climate.

  • Fascinating. I’m so taken with what you’re saying, I forgot my questions here. We’ve all been talking a lot about China’s social credit system. Do you think technology will empower or limit authoritarian regimes in the long run?

  • It will do both. It will amplify whatever the underlying philosophy a society chooses. We see the coronavirus also acting as a great amplifier. In Taiwan, we put data controllership ultimately in the social sector, which is why I call social innovation so important. This is actually the opposite of what they mean by social credit.

  • This is the society giving each other credit. This is not the state assigning credit to the society. Just like when they say they’re very transparent, they mean that the citizens are very transparent to the state, [laughs] which I guess is also transparent.

  • What we’re saying is the state is very transparent to its citizens. Just like the words like transparency and credit, it could be used to amplify very different philosophies.

  • If we concentrate on social innovation on having the social sector, also known as the civil society, controlling, making the cause of the democracy and the technology that power democracy, then, of course, that gets amplified and authoritarianism dies down because it tends to be not cool anymore, not viral anymore.

  • On the other hand, the same technologies used in the flip side can also make the citizen transparent to the state and, in which case, authoritarianism is much empowered. Of course, they also can be used to power surveillance capitalism, which is something else entirely.

  • Whichever sector that leads this data collision, basically, gets amplified by whatever data policies that it want to impose on the society. In Taiwan, we firmly choose the people, the social sector, which has higher legitimacy, but exactly the same technology can also be made to make the state or the capitalists gain legitimacy.

  • It’s interesting right now during the pandemic, everybody’s talking about different types of governance and leadership. Do you find that this authoritarian leadership, though, is turning out to be more brittle rather than more flexible? When we have such a mess in our democracies, we think it’s terrible. Actually, it’s freedom of speech, it’s trying to figure it out, it’s everyone, together.

  • The role of journalism is the deciding factor. It’s not quite democracy.

  • If you have the free press, but not yet a meaningful voting system, like Hong Kong used to be and arguably is still now, although their press freedom is being pressured right now, then you have at least a branch, the fourth branch so to speak, that keeps things accountable and also makes sure that the decision-makers know exactly on the same page, newspaper page, as people.

  • That enable communication and truth-finding, fact-finding by all parties. If you do not have the freedom of journalism, then sometimes the most well-intentioned decision-makers and authoritarian officials make the wrong decisions precisely because there really is no way for them to know what’s going on.

  • We see that with Dr. Li Wenliang’s message being treated very differently in the Taiwan social media versus in the PRC social media, and everybody can see the difference.

  • That’s interesting. I didn’t know if you were particularly responsible for this, but I read that public school curriculum teaches digital literacy.

  • Yeah, I did something on that.

  • That kids should learn to be data stewards rather than just students.

  • We call it digital competence.

  • What are they taught exactly?

  • First of all, competence rather than literacy, because literacy assume you’re a consumer, a viewer of information. Rather, being a producer requires competence, not just literacy. When we talk about data stewardship or about producing media, we realize the fact, and those kids nowadays probably have more people following them on Instagram than people following my Instagram. [laughs]

  • They’re producers of media. That’s a fact. It’s not we teaching them. It is as a friendly reminder from a producer to another that it makes sense to check your sources, to not repeat what you hear, but rather to do some fact-checking to understand the framing effect on the society and things like that.

  • We put one of the core competencies, what we call the science, technology, and media competence, knowing that media is the social application of the technology and that we work with all the different classes so that there is no single class that teach media competence.

  • Rather, we work with all the different classes like in history, in nature sciences, or whatever so that the teachers become a co-learner, essentially coaching the students to formulate their own scientific communication, humanistic communication, whatever campaigns and gently nudge them into considering more perspectives, being more inclusive, and things like that.

  • If you’re interested in the curriculum we give, there is a single page, the mlearn.moe that I am sharing with you right now so that you can see what designs and classes are being taught under the media competence or [non-English speech] mentoring umbrella.

  • That’s fantastic. Now, I’ve also heard that a lot of people are saying that there’s no such thing as privacy anymore. Instead, regulators should focus on transparency and clarity with terms of usage and consent. Do you agree with this?

  • There is no privacy when you do algorithmic governance. The governing algorithm should be completely transparent to the people who are being affected by it. Basically, code shouldn’t be private. That I do agree. If you can get open-source throughout the stack, that’s the best.

  • At least you need to, as I said, use a ledger to publish the open data and the open APIs to facilitate not only no vendor lock-in, but also ensure that public money is spent on public code and no amount of privacy for the legal fiction person’s data trade secret should stay in the way of realizing this algorithmic transparency.

  • To that degree, I agree. That is because the legal person is just a legal fiction. It doesn’t have the same kind of privacy that we attribute to nature person, although there’s many ways of twisted language. You can say incentivizing companies so that they have more motivation as if they’re real people, but at the end of the day, they’re not real people. [laughs] Do not have privacy.

  • That is what I mean. Real people have privacy. It’s only when we think in private can we entertain unpopular ideas. That is the core of democracy because the unpopular ideas may actually be better ideas, may actually be better innovation.

  • If we squash unpopular ideas in the name of transparency, then it’s a net loss for the society. We need to develop technologies that are privacy enhancing, if it empowers personal freedom of thought. We do not develop ideas that basically shields the public algorithms from popular scrutiny in the name of privacy of legal person who…That doesn’t work.

  • We’re not there yet, are we? We’re quite far away from that notion of privacy at that level and of perhaps owning our own data, understanding what we do with it, what happens to it, where it goes. We’re not there, are we?

  • In Taiwan, we have plenty of experience in that. The example I often share, the AirBox where thousands of primary school teachers teach data stewardship by asking the student to choose the best places in their school to start measuring air quality. That is basically saying that data is being curated and produced by everyday citizens.

  • This is not something you passively get observed, but rather something, like as scientist, you actively observe the nature and contribute to the distributed ledger that increase everybody understanding. I would say that anywhere that science is taught, the same data competence is being taught.

  • We’re not that far away. It’s part of this scientific education that everybody, just like I said, are amateur epidemiologists. Everybody is also amateur journalist. Everybody’s also a amateur data curator or data steward, and this is very important.

  • Do you have regulation around how you aggregate that data? Do you control it? Or, do citizens understand that one thing is about judging your air quality, but then does that get aggregated into something else you’re voting for? Do you see what I’m saying?

  • Yeah, I see what you’re saying. We do have regulations and, I would say, very detailed regulations on how to turn such data collaboratives into national policy. The participation platform has its own regulation. The Network of Participation Officers has its own policy and national regulation. The presidential hackathon has its own national regulation.

  • These are, I would say, empowering platforms that ensures that such small-scale experiments can be amplified into the wider social norm, be discovered in this way. I would say that the norm-building is much more important than the regulation.

  • We designed the regulation to be just like sandboxes, carving out experimentation fields with well-defined risks boundary and also a well-defined requirement for them to share their data collected and whatever cybersecurity policy they have in place and so on to protect this very precious experimental field, to entertain unpopular ideas.

  • Popular only with a few volunteers, but it may turn out to be the best idea for the society. That enabling regulation is far more important than the top-down way, like choosing five ideas and denying the rest.

  • I understand that. We know now that it’s been very science and technology being vital in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. We know the majority of jobs in the future will require some STEM skills.

  • Of course, it’s a given. Girls, ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQ community worldwide report sexism, ageism, and discrimination in many sectors.

  • There is also a significant gender data gap when it comes to collating and aggregating data to be able to organize our economies. As a software programmer in government and as the first transgender official in the top executive cabinet…

  • First openly transgender, but anyway, yes. [laughs]

  • What do you think are the best means of changing the status quo? Are you particularly focused as the person that you are with your skills, are you focused on legislation or are there other routes to bring about change in this?

  • I apologize for overly pedantic about terminology throughout this interview, but this really is the most powerful thing that we can do to further gender mainstreaming and also to make sure that inclusiveness is not just diversity but true inclusiveness in decision-making.

  • In Taiwan, we deliberately say competence not literacy because we want children to be producers, not just consumers of media. In the same vein, we call what the Western World call software engineers. In Taiwan, it’s called program designers. We deliberately choose the word design because this is far more gender neutral than the term engineer.

  • Because of that, as soon as we do that, and it’s many years ago, there’s actually more women in programming than men in Taiwan because designers, mostly women. [laughs] Of course, we have the reverse problem, we have to incentivize the boys.

  • In any case, such deliberate choosing of language, of protocol, of the social norms is essential in encouraging more people to just go to the places where their curiosity lead them and their sense of fun lead them rather than being labeled as someone who break out of the stereotype.

  • That’s why I like the term design much more than the term software engineer, because design encompasses very different things. You can do interaction design. You can do service design on one hand, but also product design, machinery design, and things like that.

  • It basically just calls upon people to work together with the people who are going to work with your product or service, but it doesn’t put any stereotypical label on the designer.

  • Just being very inclusive with the words and ensure that, for example, when the President gives out their wedding ceremony congratulation system, recently, we redesigned the system so that for both of the couples, they can say xÄ«nrén and xÄ«nrén, newlywed and newlywed, rather than [laughs] the traditional gendered terms.

  • Just like when we invented the way of marriage equality in a special act, we made sure that we regulate and legalize all the bylaws, that is to say all the rights and duties of the newlyweds, and none of the in-laws, that is to say, it doesn’t change the familial relationship.

  • Again, this is almost, I would say, a hack to make sure that the East Asian family values are not being disrupted by marriage equality, whereas we conserve all the same rights and duties of the newlyweds. That regulating and legalizing the bylaws and not in-laws is the collective creative output of after 12 years of gender streaming of very creative public servants.

  • I could go on and on with those word choices, but this is very important.

  • It legitimizes something that doesn’t put it into conflict with other generations or…

  • …thinking. It’s that legitimacy that you want without having to shove someone against the corner and say…

  • You have to believe this. Now, it brings me, of course, to what’s been discussed a lot as well, which is women leaders. We know in New Zealand, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and, of course, Taiwan, they’ve all been very successful in containing the COVID-19 virus. Does the nature of COVID and other non-traditional threats like climate change demand a different style of leadership that women are better equipped to deliver?

  • I really think so. Dr. Tsai Ing-wen is not, of course, just a woman president. She is also partly indigenous, and she is also someone who earned the presidency by her own merit, without being…because she is anyone’s couple or anyone’s daughter.

  • To us, she represents not only the kind of woman power, which is important, but also the idea of intersectionality. She can readily sympathize with many vulnerable or minority groups in the community because she also shares part of that culture with her.

  • This is important because otherwise it will be seen as the politicians, the elites, making the rules, and the people who are marginalized can only obey the rules. That makes a fertile ground for conspiracy theories, divisiveness, and polarity, and whatever. Anyone who want to be inclusive, need to emphasize the intersectional nature of themselves.

  • This, of course, includes gender but also ethnicity, also culture, also language and things like the. The opening ceremony of this morning’s inauguration start with indigenous languages, Taiwanese Hakka and Taiwanese Hoklo and so on.

  • Basically, it pays respect on the order of people coming to Taiwan, all the various different cultural layers. This, again, is important. Otherwise, people will be seen as a certain people ruling as the rulers and the other people speaking a different language or a different culture has to obey. In Taiwan, we say no, all the 20 languages are national languages.

  • In any county or whatever precinct that has more than a majority of a certain language, that becomes the official language. It’s a deeply plural view of the society. I think that is what’s important to counter COVID and other issues that is not about choosing the one person to lead us, but rather achieving a societal understanding and mobilization.

  • It’s interesting also because it’s not, I hate to say it’s not that traditional role of I’m going to fly this plane, which tends to be a male stereotype. It’s like the guy fly the plane, whereas women can’t. This is a type of threat, isn’t it? It’s not like…It’s like trying to keep that plane just flying all the time.

  • That lends itself to that female understanding.

  • I totally agree. This is not just being holistic about things or care about things. This is actually I would say even a nurturing part.

  • This can also apply to physically male politicians like our vice president, the leading epidemiologist. Actually we course a crash course on epidemiology to offer as a massive online course, a MOOC into 20,000 or so followers in the very first few days. I sign up also.

  • He is just so humble and says that we’re in this to learn together because even though he was in charge in the health agency when SARS came, this is not SARS. Where he is the authority undisputed and academician on epidemiology, what we’re doing now is essentially is digital epidemiology with many new components unforeseen when he wrote that textbook.

  • Everybody in our CECC stresses that we’re co-learners. Anyone with a new idea, just pick up their phone and call 1922 and say maybe boys are not wearing their pink medical mask, and the very next day everybody in the CECC press conference wear pink medical mask in a sense of gender mainstreaming. To me, this shows this nurturing spirit of the civil society.

  • Are you optimistic that women will move into more leadership positions generally across Asia in the future?

  • Definitely. Taiwan leads the way obviously.

  • We used to say we’re almost 40 percent women in parliament. Now we’re over 40 percent, so almost to the North European standards now.

  • You’re, I don’t know how to describe it, you’re like a folk heroine, between a folk heroine and a rock star in your own country. The neutrality that you have, which is about good governance but everybody reach consensus. It’s not about you compared to somebody else.

  • Have you made a big difference yourself in terms of how truly minorities are viewed, LGBTQ? Do you feel that you in charge, not in charge, but you as overseer of somebody, have you pushed that agenda forward in…?

  • Definitely. Because of time constraint, this is going to be the last question that I’ll answer. [laughs] It’s fine. Just yesterday, I talked with the outgoing counselor of the Transitional Justice Commission on indigenous people.

  • We brainstorm a lot on how to make the non-indigenous people feel indigenous, how to build a first-nation solidarity not only across our Maori and Polynesian siblings, but also within Taiwan itself so that people who are young who are even ethnically not indigenous, they can also be culturally indigenous, and then personally lived in the indigenous lands in my critical year of when I was 14 and decided to drop out of junior high school.

  • It’s their culture of being one with nature and not having a linear economy, a linear academic growth, and linear achievement that’s cured me of the kind of perfectionism, and success-ism, or whatever you want to call it. This is very important because then those cultural lineages can counterbalance agenda.

  • Even though there may be tensions, this makes everybody much better because everybody can see on a higher vantage point. I would say yes, this is my platform, if you will, that we need to recognize each other’s different positions, and because of different positions, to build share values. If the positions are uniform to begin with, there is no value to be shared.

  • One last question, I beg you.

  • This is important because it actually affects the rest of the world as well looking at Taiwan. You, more than any other state, has to coexist economically with China, and yet China represents an existential threat to Taiwan’s existence as a political entity. What advice would you share with Western countries today in how to best manage their relationship with China?

  • It’s important to realize that there are also people like Dr. Li Wenliang within China that really want a free press, that really want their freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Just like there’s no Eastern physics or Western physics, we just do physics. There’s no Western epidemiology or Eastern epidemiology. We just learn epidemiology.

  • For a democracy, there is no Eastern democracy or Western democracy. There is just a people’s commitment to build a civil society based on this fundamental freedoms. Those fundamental freedoms are shared by many people in the PRC even though currently because of their censorship you do not learn of that yet.

  • I would say to focus on people-to-people relationship to show that a liberal democracy is not only alive, it is thriving. Then you will inspire people certainly in Hong Kong but also in many more places that it is actually possible to get liberal democracy going even on a smaller scale at the very beginning or maybe just selected journalistic freedom at the beginning.

  • At the end of it, this is to the benefit of the entire population in the PRC if they do become free.

  • Before that if you see human-right violations, violations in journalism, and things like that, just call it out as we do. Not because you’re on a moral high ground or anything like that. It’s just a basic demand of accountability just like if you’re having a trade relationship, or a cultural relationship, whatever. In all sort of relationship, you would want accountability.

  • Journalism, of course, is one primary way to ensure accountability. There’s many other ways. There is an obligation of the other party to approve whatever mode of accountability they’re using, that they’re accountable to whatever they’re doing.

  • Are you worried though about how the West is turning China into the main antagonistic presence right now? It’s a rivalry between powers. It’s one power making other people decide over China. Are you worried that we’re trying to put China into a box of identity as the number one enemy rather than engaging with China, and as you said, with its citizens? Are you worried about the current…

  • Back in the Internet-governance politics, which is politics, there was a system called Spamhaus and also the various software such as spam assessing during the spam wars where Bill Gates used to say that we need to start charging postal stamp for each email, otherwise email will break. Of course, email did not break.

  • We installed accountability mechanism to rate the trustworthiness of each sender. We rely on basically collective intelligence of each individual to flag incoming email as spam. If you do, you donate that specimen to the Spamhaus and other behaviors.

  • Why I use this example, because there was a moment where it’s very tempting to ban entire countries. I will not name the name of the country in Africa from sending email altogether. There was quite popular actually such a voice because they say that their national registrar who runs the Internet is hopeless against spam.

  • Then you’re essentially depriving everybody in that country from using email. The collateral damage needs to be carefully considered.

  • By demanding accountability and building accountability mechanisms, we end up putting an end, not complete end, but mostly an end to spam without threatening anyone’s fundamental human right.

  • The core of the Internet, if we protected that thus far, we need to continue protecting it. That’s my answer to your question.

  • I get your answer. Any hope for positive outcomes for a post-COID reset?

  • Yeah, sure. There is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in as Leonard Cohen says. Back when we were working toward climate-change mitigation, every different island had different priorities because they get impact on different time scales. Nowadays with COVID, everybody’s either two months before or two months after everyone’s epicenters.

  • This international solidarity, this sense of the solidarity, will not terminate with the end of this pandemic. This kind of international solidarity will continue, and we will be much more comfortable to work on world-scale problems after this.

  • I want one, I don’t know if I can do it. Are you prioritizing sustainable-climate policies?

  • Of course. We’re going to do a circular recovery, a renewable recovery, not a linear recovery. We’re using this to do digital transformation, this opportunity, so that when people see the kind of blue skies and all sort of different human-nature relationships that is possible, I don’t think people will want to go back to the polluted days.

  • In Taiwan, we have less of that problem, but it’s important to recognize that people are now rewarding new ideas, renewable not only energy but also eco design. We need to take this as our starting point and not just blindly go back to the linear days of negative externality to the environment. I’m sure that is.

  • My pleasure. Thank you very much.