• Hello and welcome to “Stories from the OpenGov,” a podcast dedicated to telling the stories about what open government and open data look like. My name is Richard Pietro. Today, I am joined by Audrey Tang, the Digital Minister for Taiwan.

  • She isn’t just a public servant. Audrey has a very rich international work history. Her influence ranges from coding to Silicon Valley startups to research, and even grassroots activism that helped to transform a government. She was able to do all of this before she was 40.

  • To top it all up, even though she’s currently the digital minister for Taiwan, she officially retired about five years ago. Today, we’ll take an in-depth look at Audrey herself, and how she’s been able to accomplish so much in so little time. Hello, Audrey, and thanks for joining us.

  • Hello, and good local time, everyone.

  • [laughs] Most people know of your work beginning with the Sunflower Movement and g0v, but I want to start our conversation before that. You are, at least according to my research, a certifiable genius, someone with 180plus IQ, and you are actually a living case of the Albert Einstein School Quandary.

  • You were too smart for your school teachers and your fellow-classmates, and at the age of 14 you dropped out and started your own IT company. Tell us about that.

  • First of all, the 180 — that is in centimeters only.

  • (laughter)

  • For adults, really, IQ is meaningless. Anyone with a mobile phone and some apps can easily get more than 160 in the ways adult test, above which – by the way – there really is no numbers available.

  • My point of dropping out of junior high school is the full blessing of the head of the school. I remember going to her, Principal Du Hui-Ping, with an email printout of the conversations that I had with people posting their pre-print papers on the arxiv.org server, which was very new back then, and still is in a sense. It’s open access movement.

  • People did not know that I was just 14 years old, that I wrote the email looking up the dictionaries a lot. My English wasn’t that good back then. They just care about the common values and the research that we can do.

  • Back at the time, I was very interested in assistive intelligence, that is to say, AI that helps people understand each other and build trust with each other. I was doing research, and I told the head of school, “Look, my textbooks are all 10 years at least out of date. Do you want me to stay in the school system, in the institution, or do you want me to do some research?”

  • After thinking about it for a couple of minutes, Principal Du Hui-Ping said, “OK, from tomorrow, you don’t have to go to school anymore, and I will cover for you.” This has instilled me this optimism in innovation in the public sector.

  • That’s actually a really unique story in and of itself. Is that something that’s common in Taiwan for…

  • Yeah. Nowadays, it’s very common. Up to 10 percent of students in Taiwan now can choose homeschooling or experimental education as institution or as a group. Back then, though, back in 1995, that was not legal. I would have been fined NT$100 a day or something for refusing to go to mandatory education.

  • That’s why the head of principal support and my teacher support is so important, because they would have to essentially fake the record. Off course, it’s far past prosecution, so it’s safe disclosing that.

  • We have a timeline, 1995 here, you are given cover from your school to get out of school. How did your parents react to that whole thing? I’m assuming they were very supportive?

  • They were supportive, but they also made sure that I continue my education. They recommended their university professors, because my parents both went to the National Chengchi University, which conveniently, is just 15-minutes’ walk from my house back then.

  • I literally enrolled in the alma mater, my mother school and my father school, as someone who, I don’t know, crashed the conversations and without getting a degree. I studied with the same professors that told my parents, for example, modern thoughts around of philosophy, around humanities, around sociology, and things like that.

  • And because all these humanities require people to be in the same room, or I guess, across the same bandwidth connection and deliberate together in order to learn critical, creative, and compassionate thinking. It’s not like coding, which I can learn perfectly well by myself.

  • Now, from my understanding, your parents were both journalists?

  • That’s right. Yes.

  • You have taken a very strong approach to government and activism, and in civic engagement. Were your parents influencing you at all in terms of how you…?

  • Very much so. For example, my mom was one of the co-founders of the homemakers union, which started as a pro environment NGO, but very quickly grew into a consumer co-op. The largest consumer co-op in Taiwan, that makes sure that people participate in the accountability when it comes to food safety and sustainable farming.

  • My dad was also one of the initiators of the community college system in Taiwan that ensures lifelong education and started by social activists that basically said that instead of going into a university for academic reasons, people should go to a college in order to improve the society, the community around them.

  • I guess I was immersed, it was kind of my osmosis, that in my mind, technology should be used to further democracy, human rights and freedom to speech rather than to surveil and to censor.

  • That was something that was interesting while I was preparing for this interview, that in a lot of your talks, you’d mentioned how Taiwan was freed, pretty much the same time the Internet was becoming popular.

  • You link the two very closely together, and correct me if I’m wrong that would you consider yourself also a cyberpunk like one of those ‘90s cyberpunks?

  • [laughs] Right. I was actually on the cypherpunk side.

  • Cypherpunk. Sorry. I apologize, cypherpunk.

  • (laughter)

  • That’s there’s a crypto anarchist that eventually would lead to Bitcoin and Ethereum. That is basically people who wants to make a difference, I would say material like a physical code, physical law that governs what is transparent, what is opaque and so on.

  • Code is like law, but it’s not just a text, not just what people interpret, but it’s also basically shaped the realities for us to connect over to cyberspace. The cypherpunks said, instead of just a few elites understand code and code for the people, we should code with the people or even through social innovation take our work after the people, as you can see on the Ethereum smart contracts and their own community forks.

  • I’m still doing entrepreneurship, so my day job, maybe Digital Minister, but in my copious free time, I’m also utilizing…

  • (laughter)

  • …as a civic hacker, with the likes of Vitalik Buterin, Daniel Allen, Glen Wild, and so on, on radical exchange as a board member to try out new governance methods such as quadratic voting, quadratic funding, and so on, on the Ethereum community.

  • Taking the best or at least better practices from Ethereum and projecting it to our day-to-day institutional work as my day job. For example, the Presidential Hackathon use quadratic voting, which if you have played Civilization VI, Gathering Storm that was the voting method used there. We take it straight away into our Presidential Hackathon.

  • A sidebar to this conversation. This will be the little bit about me. I have been a Civilizations fan since Civilization I in 1991. That’s the only game I played, the only video game I play is Civ.

  • That’s right. I also playing NetHack, but yes, Civilization is the best.

  • OK. Let’s go back to those early days again, you just left school, you are doing some research work, and you founded an IT company. Am I wrong?

  • Mm-hmm. Co-founded.

  • It started as the press and I was not a shareholder back then. I was just commissioned to write a book about the road to cyberspace. That’s the title of the book. Then…

  • How old are you this time?

  • How old were you at this time?

  • (laughter)

  • 14 , 15 being asked to write a book. That’s impressive.

  • Co-write a book. It’s a book of 10 essays of how we made our road through cyberspace, how did we encountered this strange new culture, built on a rough consensus in running code. Then, of course, that’s also the early days of e-commerce, of this brand new technology called the SSL and things like that.

  • I very quickly found that in order to reach out to more audience, it’s a good idea to build a website and handle e-commerce, a new thing back then to sell our books. I wrote an official home page of the publisher, and offering the book catalog and selling the books online.

  • That took me into the interesting world of standard making, because people were using very different browsers, back then was very different capabilities. I was amazed how people could agree on using the blink tag or not using the blink tag [laughs] in this kind of interesting conversations online, and each site has no coercive force over the other.

  • I was then recruited first the CTO and later also a shareholder to the INFORUM company that was basically some of the shareholders from the book publisher decided to start building software. Taking what have learned, building our own website into a larger e-commerce website.

  • My earliest projects were, for example, a meta search engine called Fusion Search that combines spotlight search in your own computer with, say, the likes of Alta Vista, and Lycos. I’m sure everybody remembers that. No, not really. [laughs] They’re early search engines. Then, we also work on uBid, which is the first C2C auction site in Taiwan.

  • Oh wow. Again, during your teenage years here, and you’re already a CTO, is that when you moved to Silicon Valley to work on those?

  • That would come later. When I was CTO, I was 16 at that time. I think I’d become a consultant by 17, and consulting for the company that would later be named BenQ, but at that time, it was still called Acer Peripheral.

  • Then Acer, of course being the personal computers. A very large company in Taiwan that very notable international brand even back then. Acer and the Acer group was interested in setting up a investment branch that would look at early startups in Silicon Valley and other places.

  • I was consulting with the main investor principal in the Acer Peripheral later on on BenQ company, the Darlie Ventures. Then, later on after revealing so many pitches from so many entrepreneurs, I thought it may be a good idea to start one myself, and then I moved to San Jose for a little while.

  • It was called OurNet. It is basically a secure scuttlebutt nowadays. It’s easier…

  • Say that again, secure scuttlebutt?

  • Yeah. That’s the closest to our original imagination back then. If you search for SSB or secure scuttlebutt, it’s basically a social network without central hosted machines. It’s a peer-to-peer, like people set up bulletin board systems on their own computers.

  • It was a way to organically connect either via sneakernet or via sharing a common WiFi and things like that, and so that you can share essentially your diaries to other people in a way that resist censorship. It’s all end-to-end encrypted, and so on.

  • Although at that time there was no persistent like 4G connection for everyone, so we were quite ahead of the time. The core principles are applied and would help when I later on joined the Free Software, which was then forked as Open Source movements.

  • For example, I translated a lot of the Freenet, which was the first-generation software that would break out of the great firewall and so on. Freenet again is founded on pretty much the same principle as OurNet, that was my first startup in San Jose.

  • From my understanding, there’s a bit of a subculture that there’s very strong and stringent free software people and open source people, and there’s a very big demarcation line within those communities.

  • How would you classify yourself between the two? Do you just jump between both or you feel very strongly about one over another?

  • We never had schism in Taiwan though. I helped naming the association in Taiwan, we call it the Software Liberty Association Taiwan or SLAT. That’s important that we focus on liberty, because that’s the idea could both be interpreted from this collective liberty point of view, like against surveillance, capitalism or stateism, and that’s called liberty.

  • This could also be interpreted from a market point of view as a liberal market that early movers cannot monopolize and prevents later innovators from joining. While the free software of course is a human right argument, essentially an open source of economic arguments, I think liberalism captures the ideas of both sides, and so I’m firmly taking both sides.

  • Going back to San Jose, you created this startup, how old are you approximately?

  • 19 years old. You’re from another country, you’re in the United States now. Your English is probably better than when it was when you were 14 and 16. How was that journey like in terms of - you’re not just trying to live now in San Jose, you’re trying to make business deals, partnerships, secure funding, create a team, how was that like?

  • It was a lot of fun. I very quickly discovered this open source movement had a lot of synergy with what I’m trying to make at a time, because the open source communities at the time was trying to find out what is the best way for hundreds of thousands of unrelated people who have not met at all, and somehow to find a way to measure trustworthiness when it comes to accepting contributors.

  • That was, of course, at a time a lot of experiments like Kuro5hin, like Slash which powers SlashDot and many other like the Gnutella and many other new peer-to-peer ways to build those structures.

  • Then, I also noted that it created a lot of power tensions. For example, it was the Napster [laughs] technology with existing industries. I think my strategy at that time was simply to introduce the most portable technology that could create social movements out of the creative people.

  • We started this idea called Elixus, which stands for Elixir and Nexus, which is people with creative impulses, using open source tools and working together, co-creating larger than themselves, collectives. Our Internet people would support the technologies including the Wikis, including a mailing list, including the code repositories.

  • Then we took, for example, the subversion version control system and one of my co-founders CL Kao did a distributed versioning plugin on top of that called SVK, which was really, really nifty before Git came along, and we all converted to Git.

  • Later on, our company which powered the first version of open foundry, which is Taiwan’s national project of creating something like GitHub. Then, I will also use that hosting technology to host plugs, which is the first implementation of Roku.

  • At that time, it’s not called Roku, it was corporate six language and unite basically, people from the functional and object-oriented, and command line scripting communities together, to create a brand new language and so on. At that time, I would have been like 24 years old, so it’s roughly four years of startup time.

  • You spend quite a bit of time in San Jose creating this startup.

  • I fly back to Taipei after I realized that I can bootstrap and drink our own champagne, so to speak, using these collaborative tools…

  • (laughter)

  • …in order to work well with communities of all kinds. No, I didn’t stay in San Jose long for that matter. When I started the plugs project in 2004, I didn’t stay in any city. I hosted or co-created more than 20 hackathons in 20 cities all across the world. I just actively worked like Paul Erdős, I guess.

  • People who have a free couch in their home and that are passionate about open source and free software communities and we can co-create something together until they get fed up with me and then send me a address at the next stop to go to. No, I was noting any city. I was couchsurfing.

  • You know what, based on your personal history of the accomplishments you’ve had, I wouldn’t be surprised if you help create couchsurfing.org.

  • (laughter)

  • You spent a lot of time in San Jose and Taipei creating this startup. Did you have like an exit strategy? Did you sell the company?

  • Later on, I would work with the Socialtext, which was also one of the company that took Wiki and took microblogging from the larger Internet and package it as enterprise social productivity software.

  • I first worked on some extensions. For example, I wrote the earliest SubEthaEdit/Quickie Integration. SubEthaEdit being the first prototype of the multi-people collaborative editing documents experience.

  • I merge that with the KwikiWiki system, which we were using in our Internet startup powering the open foundry. I work with Ingy döt Net, [laughs] the person who created the Kwiki software to make it real-time collaborative. That would then take me to work with Dan Bricklin, inventor of VisiCalc.

  • At that time, I was working on WikiCalc, which would allow people to edit spreadsheets together. All of this were two or three years before Google spreadsheet, and that would then take me into a more permanent position in Socialtext.

  • I call my position “untitled page,” meaning that I don’t have a official title, but I’m like a page that sends the messages and also fulfill whatever errands that need to be done in Socialtext. After a while, my professional career kind of merged into the Socialtext vision.

  • That continued all the way until Socialtext exited, and sold to PeopleFluent. I think that was 2013 or something, and I retired after a year or so after that.

  • I want to get the chronology right, a little bit here.

  • Yes. Inforian was in 1996 to 1997. Then, in around year 2000, that’s OurInternet, first in San Jose, in Taipei, and then many other cities. That continued until 2005 or so 2006. Then, in which time I was working full time on the PRAXIS language for a couple years.

  • Then afterwards, in 2008, I will join Socialtext with also CL Kao, my co-founder in the OurInternet days, and stats continued from 2008 all the way to 2013, ‘14-ish. I still am retained as a independent contractor at that time starting in 2010, not only with Socialtext, but also with Apple. In 2013, it would also bring me to work with the Oxford University Press.

  • When I retired, I was still holding three consultant positions with Apple, Socialtext, and Oxford University Press respectively. Then, we occupied the parliament in 2014 and my life took a very interesting turn. Then became Digital Minister in 2016.

  • Before we get to what happened in your parliament, and we only have about 10 minutes left of your time, so I don’t think we’re going to get a chance to do a full dive. I’m actually going to ask if maybe we can do a part two recording perhaps, in the future, because this has been fascinating conversation already.

  • Around 2013, you retired from your work, but during the 2008-2013, is that when you started getting involved with the Sunflower Movement? When did that start happening and the genesis for it?

  • A bunch of people that we work on in the early Elexis days in late 2012, started the g0v movement. I wasn’t one of the co-founders. I joined early 2013, working on dictionary technologies, lexicography, but in late 2012, there was this advertisement paid by the government on YouTube called the Economic Boost Up Plan.

  • The plan was so complicated that they filmed for ordinary citizens looking at that plan which pass them in a word cloud and looking very confused, and while voiceover says, “Oh, you don’t have to understand that. You just have to do it.” The advertisement was immediately flagged as spam by angry netizens, [laughs] because that’s basically elitism.

  • (inaudible 25:58) and three of his classmates back when he was in NDU, started this budget visualization, basically making a case that people don't understand the budget and the boost up plan, not because people are dumb, but because the government's way of presenting them are dumb.

  • They created this visualization, which is interactive and you can comment over each particular part of the budget that you don’t like or you don’t understand, which by the way, is now finally part of our e-participation platform join.gov.tw including audit budget visualizations.

  • They would begin with a slogan of fork – the government pronunciation is very important – fork in the government making sure that any .gov .tw website that they didn’t like, they just change the O to a 0. You can go to a shadow government and don’t have to pay for advertisement, because you can take the same government website and change one letter.

  • That really attracted me, and so on early 2013, I joined to do crowd lexicography, basically making sure that all the Taiwanese languages including Mandarin, Taigi, Holo, and so on, as well as English, German, French, have this unified dictionary that is open source. I relinquish all the copyright and work with hundreds of designers and coders to make that happen. It was fun.

  • Then, that gathered a lot of people over a lot of different projects, so that early 2014 we’re ready to support the activists, we as hacktivists, use the then new technology called live streaming to support on the street protest.

  • Then, later on of course, when the protestors would step break into the parliament and start deliberating, of course, we continued to our support in their communication rights.

  • This is where our first episode is going to end. It’s when you guys sort of stone the best deal as it were. For the next five minutes, I want to talk about that that period of time between 2008, 2013, 2012, before you got involved with g0v. What were you doing specifically in terms of your own personal growth?

  • You have been very eloquent in describing the work you did. I’ll give you an example. I’m going sort of chum the waters a little bit here. In the research that I did, I came upon a very interesting website that I think is probably yours. Audreyt.org.

  • Right. That’s my personal website and is…

  • Yes. That’s the first thing I wanted to do, was confirm that is in fact you, and on this page is what appears to be a very beautiful poem. Is this something that you wrote in that 2008-2012 period? If not when was it written? What does it represent for?

  • I translated the poem into English. I think I have the byline of the author’s name on this. I did not take undue credit. [laughs]

  • It’s funny, because the way I read it here, I thought it was part of the poem.

  • Yes, because I see Chen Wei Yen, I believe.

  • That’s right. That’s the author.

  • [laughs] Chen Yi Wen is the author of the poem. I was doing a lot of translation. I translated, I don’t know the last few pages of Finnegans Wake, it was very difficult. Then, I translated some, I guess Leonard Cohen songs. Poetry is the one, I’m basically shaping myself to be a poetician, if you will.

  • Then, I still have my job description pinned on top of my Twitter, which talks about when we see the Internet of things, let’s make it the Internet of beings and so on. That is also what I’m working on.

  • Basically, I’m working on poetics that would influence my political work. I would then refer to myself as a poetician. Basically, changing the way instead of singularity, we need to think about the plurality, which is already here, and so on. I was preparing myself to do that.

  • Of course, my work was the Siri team. I also helped the Siri team seem hire quite a few poets, because Siri only have a few seconds of your attention and want to maximize the use of those few seconds.

  • I want to go back to this poem on this page here, which I don’t know if you remember it, because I’m putting you on the spot a little.

  • No, it’s fine. I have pretty good memory.

  • I have no doubts of that, but I’m curious to know why you chose this poem.

  • Part of the reason is my involvement with the Roku Community at that time, still Corporate Six. The mascot is a butterfly and the butterfly, of course, signifies that instead of a camel, which was the mascot for profile for a long time. I guess people later on would chose a raptor or whatever. [laughs]

  • The butterfly to me signifies a transformation, that instead of just digitizing things or optimizing things, we would use digital to innovate. To imagine unlikely scenarios, previously considered simply impossible. Like millions of people listening to one on another at the same time, that’s empowered by digital technologies.

  • I guess a lot of my work in the Silicon Valley and back to Taipei was about digitization, but about optimizing the process. During the few years that you outlined, my mind took me to a more imaginary, more utopic, if you will, more utopian imaginations of societies. For example, rivers and mountains that could vote, and things like that.

  • I chose the poem as the home page, because it signifies to me the transformational capacity that digital technologies has, once we bring the tech to people, and by people I mean any being that can suffer rather than asking people to conform to technology.

  • It’s a wonderful way to frame it. You have been through a very interesting journey and the work you’re doing is envied by many. We’re going to end our conversation here.

  • You’ve already committed on tape, that you’re willing to do a part two for this interview to continue, because I want to get involved into more details about what happened with g0v, Sunflower Movement, going in and sitting in into the parliament, and your role as a digital minister as well. Before I close out our episode, is there anything you want to say?

  • Aside from my usual concluding remark, may you live long and prosper. I would like to quickly just read out the poem since you brought it up as a recital. I think that will connect very well to our next podcast, if you can allow me a few seconds to read it.

  • I would love for you to do that.

  • OK. The poems called “Like a Larva Holding on for Transformation.” It’s by Chen Yi-Wen, translation by yours truly:

  • I would like you to

    firmly resist your weakness

    like a chrysalis holding back a butterfly, a maple leaf resisting the autumn

    a newly splashed

    droplet resisting breakup

  • I would like you to

    balance your inner beauty

    like the structure of a snowflake, the four petals of a finger tree flower

    a quatrain on a yellowed paper scroll:

    “a still night, an empty spring mountain”

  • I would like you to

    tolerate the secrets of a narcissus

    forgive the twists of a moonlit river

    look straight at the murky sky as rain falls down

    just like listening to a naked prayer

    like the ocean

    embracing the absolution of a storm

  • Then, maybe you would be willing

    to walk through a declining border town

    through a prosperous metropolis

    see life, see death

    see all the bustle and transience

    dignity and cold lifelessness

  • Sometimes, life is

    as quietly beautiful as a poem, as desolate as a vine

    as intense as a soaring eagle

    as lonely as a dust-covered stele

  • And so time passes, places alter, faces change

    it has been a long journey

    we return to the room we set off from

    origin and destination curl into a perfect ring

  • I shall recognize the look in your eyes after calibration:

    clear, unswerving

    like steel beads that do not rust

    roundly, in a dark room

    reflecting pure light

  • Thank you, Audrey. I don’t think there’s any other way for me to close this episode and saying until next time, let’s make it open.

  • Yes. Live long and prosper.