Tell us, is it something you talk about with your colleagues every day? Is it something that just lurks in the background while you get on with the day-to-day job? What is the presence of China and how you govern?
For example, in Taiwan we have to plan our buildings to be quite proved to earthquakes, because we’ve got pretty large earthquakes and also typhoons, that just one narrowly missed Taiwan, but would have caused a lot of damage had it landed. It’s just part of our public infrastructure.
The same goes for, for example, our cyber security infrastructure which has to withstand not just the run of the mill cyber security attacks, but also advanced persistent threats and so on. I would say, it’s on the background and also promises to be more resilient.
Does sort of this, I don’t want to give one word to it but does this attitude of Beijing let’s say, does it make your job harder? Whether that is how you keep the Internet running, dealing with misinformation, getting vaccines into the country. Do you feel like it affects how you complete your job?
As a digital minister in charge of social innovation, the hardest part of my job is to get the entire society aligned on common values. Once the society is aligned, then the innovation can happen that delivers on these common values without leaving anyone behind.
In a sense, the PRC regime’s digital authoritarianism serves as a way to remind people that we do not want to go there. That when we’re inventing new digital apparatuses we are committed to make the state transparent to the citizen and not the other way around.
In a sense it did make my life and work easier because we do not have to convince each other that we do not go to the way of authoritarianism because there’s a real counterpoints just very much nearby.
That is definitely standing contrast to some of our democracies today. You’ve mentioned resilience, and we obviously have the kind of counterfact of China or in its system. What would you say beyond that, the critical factors for Taiwan securing its autonomy in the coming years?
Humanitarian workers and now we’re working on our home crew, managing vaccine to help other countries in need. We’ve already joined the COVAX, but as a recipient. We are also looking to join as a donor, and so on.
The other equally important is on the digital realm. If you type in digitalminister.tw, this resolves into my website. Regardless of where you are, even if you are within the PRC regime. This .tw goes to where we are.
In a sense, we’re already autonomous. Just by the virtue of this domain name alone. This is in a new era of what some people call polylateral. International relationships, is not just about Westphalian membership country style. It’s also about multi-stakeholder, think of the UN major groups on climate change.
Think of the Internet governments forum. Think of the open government partnership and so on. These are the new source of international organizations that could be configured to allow this polylateral existence or co-existence. That’s the stage where Taiwan is looking to shine.
That’s so interesting when you’re thinking about it. I don’t mean to prophesize this, but even if you imagine the worst case scenario, and the communist regime, does somehow invade Taiwan, Taiwan will continue to exist in this digital realm. That, obviously, that is not the goal, but they can never take that away from you because of the inventions of those spaces.
[laughs] Sometimes there are more basic things to deal with. Who do you consider as your most important allies? Not just people. It could be ideas, people, government. Who are the allies that Taiwan most associates with and needs to ensure its success in the future?
People who are interested in exploring the advancement of democracy. That is to say, not democracy as a voting every four years uploading three bits per person as a ritual. But democracy as a common practice that could be done day-to-day to enhance decision making, and to enhance this idea that we share this global problem’s instructional issues together.
We need to expand democracy beyond single jurisdictions. People who identify with democracy, people who think democracy is something that is a social technology that gets better when people work to improve it. These are our natural allies.
That is a great jumping-off point into the philosophy of open source. I would love it if you could tell me what your dream Internet looks like? How does the spirit of open source inform that? How does that feed into the day job that you have?
My dream Internet is a Internet that is universally accessible to anyone. Not just people in this generation, but people in future generations. Not just people who use the Internet to consume information, but also people who use Internet to make productions, include podcasts. [laughs]
In Taiwan, we call this broadband as a human right. We call it digital competence in basic and lifelong educations. We’re already implementing the dream configuration of Internet within our jurisdiction.
The Open Source Movement, has forked off the original Free Software Movement. They still share a very important ethos, which is people who create things should not foreclose the potentials of their descendants, of the next generations, in the name of copyright, or patent, or “intellectual property.”
That means that, for example, whatever I’m saying now, I’m publishing as a transcript, under Creative Commons 0, meaning, it’s public domain. No rights reserved. You don’t have to wait for me to pass away for, I don’t know, 75 years or something, [laughs] in order to make use of those text. You can just start creating or co-creating using these as materials.
My virtual avatar has taught lectures to global students in virtual reality. In high fidelity that I owe back when it’s still running and submit a verse. I do have people from Hangzhou, and I guess Shanghai, and other people joining me in that pretty safe space in the virtual reality.
But no, by virtue of me working as digitalminister.tw, I do not have the clearance to travel to the PRC regime physically in the flesh. It doesn’t prevent me from, of course, having a lot of conferences, or lectures, or so on online. Now back to the question about the open source, free software ethos. Yes, I believe this is fundamentally about empowerment.
Whether technology is there to empower the people closest to the pain, to the suffering, or whether technology exists to take power away from them and centralized it, either in a surveillanced state or in some surveillanced capitalist.
Any direction where this is decentralized or at least empowering the poly-centered reality that we’re in, is compatible with our ethos. I do believe that in the Silicon Valley, people are also looking at the individual power growth works through tracking cookies [laughs] realizing that it’s these technological designs that shape our relationship with technology.
So that people get into the habit to adapt themselves to the technology, which is fundamentally a negative externality, socially. People are now asking the technologist, “No, we want you’re technology to adapt to our true needs.”
Now you’ve seen both sides, Taiwan and Silicon Valley, you worked there from a very young age in Silicon Valley, it’s my understanding. Do you feel like there are big differences in those two cultures?
Sure. Entities, ventures, that have the stripes of purpose and the stripes of profit. We may call them social entrepreneurs. There’s no shortage of social entrepreneurs in both Silicon Valley and in Taiwan.
I think the difference here is about a sense of disruption. In Silicon Valley, we still have the startups that build with this mentality of taking away everything that existed before them in a certain segment.
If you push a disruption that furthers one particular value of one semidominant culture and leave everyone behind and marginalize everyone else and introduce bias, so that people from a certain skin color do not pass face recognition and things like that.
This is obviously a no-no in Taiwan, because we’re built upon this transcultural identity in our polity. In Silicon Valley, as well as in some startup centers in the world, somehow that is tolerated by investors. I think that’s the main difference.
I think back on the time I’ve been involved in tech. I wasn’t a programmer, I wasn’t a startup founder, I didn’t invest in anything. I was involved in the regulatory side, and I worked for the European Union for seven years and ended up the spokesperson on tech issues.
One of the things I struggle with is the certainty that those companies just projected about everything that they did. I believed it a lot more in the beginning. I was much more of a tech optimist. Then I came to see more and more the dark sides of how technology could be misused, and how people like to misuse it for their own personal gain.
I would like to focus on this word “optimist.” I’m also quite optimistic about the future of digital democracy. I wouldn’t call optimist the same mentality as a optimizer. I think, the kind of almost naïve unawareness of the negative externalities are not optimism.
Meaning that, if earlier in the journey, people already choose some utility function, and work tirelessly to optimize that, maximize that, and discard everything else. That’s what optimizing means in computer science. Then people, almost always, discard some very important other values worth consideration, which would be very important, even dominant, in the future.
We see a lot of that when people in early start up say we just want to optimize this value x where the value may stand for engagement and therefore, participation, identification, and work connectivity. It actually doesn’t lead that way. Engagement sometimes measure and it just clicks and nothing else and creates negative value for everyone involved.
I do believe that we are now looking at a point where the regulators, as we mentioned, as well as the social sector consumer protection groups, as well as people who, frankly speaking, are building better alternatives, are bringing this to people’s awareness. That yes, there are alternatives and the current status quo is a result of premature optimization.
You’re really correct. Optimization is a luxury in a way that a democracy can’t afford. If you have an optimizing mentality, instead of a democratic inclusion mentality, then you can’t function as a government because you’re leading behind the hardest to reach people, or the most expensive-reserved people.
You were first brought into government when the prime minister of Taiwan asked you to develop a media literacy program. Was it connected to that cooperative structure that was trying to deal with misinformation in this very flat, non-hierarchical way?
We want our kids being able to do that, but yes, the counter-disinformation accord is one active part of basic education around media competence, because it’s the middle schoolers, for example, fact-checking the presidential candidates in real time as they’re making their speech, and their debates, and so on. It’s very much intertwined.
Once the social sector understand the importance of this, they start making demands to say Facebook saying that during elections you have to ban the extra-jurisdictional, sponsored micro-precision advertisements, or that even for domestic sources they have to treat it like campaign donation.
Then believe Taiwan is one of, if not the first jurisdiction, where Facebook published in real time the open data of all the sponsored advertisement on social and political issues during 2019, leading up to the presidential election. This became, of course, very good material for both investigative journalism and media competence curriculum.
Wow, that sounds very impressive indeed. Thinking now, if you were creating that competence program now, is there a particular piece of advice or a must-read essay that you would direct people to or is it in fact just this massive collective effort and you send people back to the collective?
This is really good question. The Competence Program is not just one hour or two hour of exercise. It’s meant to inform education in all the different subject fields. In middle school, for example, when people teach about geography or the local configuration of geology, there is a lot of co-creative material, starting from the open streamer community, that the students can actively contribute.
When people teach things about the cultural heritage, for example, the Taiwan Digital Asset Library, the larger Wikipedia community and so on, have a lot to say and as kids can contribute meaningfully to these communities very quickly, to the national cultural heritage site. We have a website that capture the civil society memories of important historical events and things like that.
I jump all over the place here but I read that you’re a fan of self-learning as well, and I feel like that’s a close cousin to what you’re talking about. Not just co-creating, or learning through creation instead of just receiving the material.
Yes, and that’s really how I learnt. After dropping out of the second year of middle high, when I was 14 years old, I found this Internet community. Indeed, the very beginning of the World Wide Web was the preprint servers, the comprehensive PERLE archive network of W3C, of IEPF, of these fiercely non-centralized organizations that are organized with this principle of end-to-end innovation.
I believe that corresponds real well with the self-learning, or learning through doing, because end-to-end innovation means that nobody need to get permission from the authority, from the author of the Internet, before inventing anything new. You can go ahead and invent a lot of new things without getting anyone’s permission but somebody else around the world that want to try it out with you.
Sorry. I was on mute for some reason. I didn’t realize you dropped out of the second year of high school. Can you tell me about that? I’m relying on Wikipedia here. I got the sense that you were a child prodigy.
When I was 14, I participated in the National Science Fair, took the first place, get a guaranteed spot in a prestigious senior high and so on and so forth. I discovered as part of working on my Science Fair project, this community of co-creating publishing people.
I took some print-outs of my email exchanges with people on arXiv archive, the pre-print server out to the principal, to the head of the school saying, “Look, I can’t. Either you spend eight hours a day in your school and eight hours doing research, or I can spend 16 hours doing research, because I’m really fascinated by this phenomena of swift trust. Why people trust each other so easily and readily online, and also breakup very easily. I’m very interested in that. What would you say?”
The principal read through the emails and say, “OK, so what can I do for you?” I’m like, “Well, you can free me from having to attend to school. It is compulsory education. I can’t… [laughs] do too much without your approval.” After thinking for a couple of minutes, she’s like, “OK. Tomorrow you don’t have to go to school anymore.” I believe…
[laughs] The point here is, it engrained in my very young mind, that Korean public servants are actually the most innovative people in the world if you can talk with them and to them in a pear-to-pear fashion.
That’s fascinating. I love that you are ground breaking in that way. I guess, I had two other personal questions about your journey. Then you went to Silicon Valley a couple of years after that, and that’s a thing that a lot of people spend half of their career working towards.
Similarly, instead of saying, “Oh, I identify as a boy or identify as a girl,” I always say, “I experienced my first puberty when I was 13, and another puberty when I was like 23, 24.” This is not just rhetorics. This is something quite deep. When I say, “I identify with this, and not that.” It is quite exclusionary. It’s basically telling people that I’m this part of humanity and not that part of humanity.
By saying, “I’ve done this puberty, and I’ve got this experience and 10 years later, I’ve got another set of experience,” it’s something that’s very inclusive. No matter what kind of experience you had in your puberty. Probably, we can talk a little bit about it because we have something in common. We have something to share.
I’m more like their ambassador or tentacle, if you will, into the projected, from the digital realm, from this Internet co-creative culture as an ambassador to more authoritarian or at least less democratic jurisdictions.
I believe I got my first vote in representative election system, six years after I joined this Internet governance system, and when I voted for the first time on the paper ballot, although it’s quite interesting.
This pales in comparison with the participatory democracy I’ve already experienced for six years. What I’m trying to say is that building upon common experiences has always been my attitude in facing these new experiences so that it adds to my shared experience pool, but it doesn’t take me away from anything that I used to experience.
Good. Well, that brings me to my very last question. You do all of this extremely serious work that impacts so many people. I wonder for your hobby, how do you use the Internet for fun? Is it shopping? Tetris? Tell me all about it.
If I can paraphrase or interpret 5 words within that 100 into something that’s constructive, something that by sharing their own experience, it actually results in innovation in policy or in the work that I do, then I ignore promptly the 95 words.
To thank them profusely for the five words, and started a productive jamming session, if you will, on social media for those ideas. It’s supposed pedagogical in the sense that people see that by sharing authentic co-creating materials.
That’s a really funny point. Not a funny point in that laugh-out-loud funny, but that resonates with me. I often find that I will clash on Twitter in particular with somebody, and then they find that when we have a little bit more of a discussion that actually there is a lot of common ground, or that I’m nicer in person than I’m online, which is true for most people.
Yes, check out taiwanplus.com, where there’s everything else that I haven’t shared about Taiwan. Especially, the geopolitical questions that we didn’t explore in today’s podcast. You can read all about it in taiwanplus.com.
The color that unifies these transculture histories together and give us a transcultural perspective of what’s happening now with the perspective of indigenous nations in Hakka, and Minnan for 150 years ago.
I worked with HighFidelity.io. I 3D scanned myself in Paris. That’s a rough skin. I worked on the, I believe is the Mixamo acquired by Adobe, where it did muscles and joints and things like that, and sent that model to HighFidelity.io, which I guess put on some cosmetic changes. It works pretty well. It can be downloaded on my website for free. Anyone can wear my avatar.