One of the things I was taken by in reading through some of the other interviews was this notion of the use of technology. Particularly, the contrast with the way it’s used across the street. The idea of making government transparent to the people as opposed to…
In Taiwan, what we believe in is that innovation comes from the people closest to the pain. Instead of people adapting to the top down strategies of the state, we need to adapt whatever strategies that we already have to conform to the local norms that’s being developed by the people closest to the source of pain.
As I said, it’s about making the state — not just the result, the policy, but also the process, the policymaking — to the citizens, making the state transparent to the citizens, not the other way around.
Success, to me, is measured by two things. First, how quickly can we get to a new social norm in response to a new situation, new factual situation, like Omicron? Also, how quickly can a locally developed innovation spread through the entire country instead of being squashed by the prior model of top down?
Initially, we thought that our pharmacies align perfectly with population centers on average. We can prove that each individual in Taiwan has a pretty much the same distance to the next available mask through pharmacies, and we’re pretty happy about this.
Very quickly, because we publish this real time transparency open API, people from the opposition party, whenever opposition party could prove that because not everyone own a helicopter, the same distance on the map does not translate to the same opportunity cost.
In other liberal democracies, this would be a political showdown between the algorithm of the state, and the opposition party’s observation. We publish all the raw data upon collection. Minister Tsai Ching hsiang asked MP Kao Hung an, saying, “MP Kao, you were the VP of data analytics at Foxconn. Teach us, how should we do better?”
She has the same data as we do, she can’t simply say, “I don’t have the data.” She suggested better ways to do the distribution, which took effect 24 hours after that. It turns opposition into co creation. That’s the main success.
The Shiba Inu as spokesdog. The idea, very simply put, is to make the clarifications even more viral than the conspiracy theories. We do that by piggybacking on the popular Internet memes. Piggybacking self deprecating humor so that people see this information repackage like an mRNA strand by analogy.
Repack through a different spike protein so that we manufacture through memetic engineering of viral vaccine. That when people get infected by the viral vaccine, they get antibodies against the disinformation.
What we’re doing is just to make sure that they investigative journalists, have the real time access to what’s going on because if you do have access to what’s going on, it’s easier to make new shows, new memes based on what’s actually there. It’s only when a state is non transparent and close to the journalists and comedians, do they start wildly speculating.
…of the infodemic. It’s not my invention. Infodemic is the WHO invention. WHO define infodemic as not just the miss in this information but a sheer information overload that people experience during a pandemic.
There was some pretty malicious rumors. Weren’t there? During the early when there was a spike in infections in April last year and you had all stuff being thrown out there online and elsewhere about the effectiveness of vaccines.
That’s one. A lot of the elderly people at the time bought into those rumors and discounted the efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccines. We countered that, again, through radical transparency by showing exactly how many people young or old are interested in getting a easy shot.
Then, publishing on every arrival of the AZ batch. Now the 50 years old are getting them, the 35 years old are getting them. The elderly people can see that there’s just so many actual demands and if they do not register their willingness the younger people are going to get the shots first. They seem to be doing fine. [laughs]
If they still say, “Oh, I want to get only Moderna.” Or later only BNT Pfizer. That’s fine. Entirely their choice. It just a distribution of masks. We published the preference of population to the four different brands of vaccines.
Just like we can’t fight a biological virus with full lockdowns, this files some jurisdictions. Could do. We can’t fight the infodemic through takedowns. There are jurisdictions that use takedowns the same as they used lockdowns. Your words, brutal, casually. [laughs]
Humour over rumour to make sure that people understand this is maybe they have sentiments against one particular brand vaccine, but it’s not all different types of vaccines share the same characteristics. It’s entirely fine if they don’t like mRNA. If they don’t like AstraZeneca, they have other choices.
Yeah. It was two years ago. That’s another interesting example because toilet paper is not about manufacturing. It’s about uneven distribution, about panic buy essentially. Then the panic buy was fueled by the rumor sighing, the toilet paper material is being confiscated to make masks. Because we’re renting a mask, everybody know about that.
It means that the supply will dwindle because all the source material is being repurposed. The meme simply says that they’re completely different products come from different jurisdictions to South American materials versus domestic materials. Through this self memefying humor. [laughs]
The parody goes, we only have a pair of bottoms. We don’t have other pairs of bottoms, which means that the actual usage is limited. [laughs] You don’t have to stockpile basically. It’s a wordplay because stockpile is a homonym to bottoms.
All this is the Premier’s team pre cleared the use of this humor with the Premier because if it takes a entire day to get the approval, then it will lose its efficacy. At the time, then the conspiracy theory will win.
With the zombies as well. I remember the zombies. That was one I noticed. Wasn’t it? There was something put forward that all these companies were closing. Then you clarified that with the zombie video.
I could also say I’m a spiritual Taoist, but then, if I say that for many Western listeners, who mean that I perform certain rituals. [laughs] It’s not like that. I’m not a religious Taoist. To me, what matters is that the conservative part is the traditions, the existing institutions. There are there two to exist for a reason. We need to honor the relations that’s already there.
Then the anarchist part says they do not have a monopoly on the possible configuration of institutions. New kinds of processes, communities, networks should be able to form without taking orders or giving orders to existing institutions.
Basically, it’s a way to say live and let live with existing institutions. Repurposing them, if you will, instead of disrupting them or taking them down because if I say I’m a anarchist, people associate that with bomb throwing. I’m not bomb-throwing…
I emphasize the parts that anarchism shares with early Taoism in not taking the orders and giving the orders, preferring instead voluntary association, and things like that. If we overemphasize that part, people say some individualistic. Meaning that each person should be able to disrupt whatever institutions they don’t feel like. I’m like, “No.”
I’m actually saying that indigenous traditions, Taiwan’s 20 national languages. They all exist in a plural way. It’s transcultural conservativism instead of a single culture monopoly that conserve that culture to the detriment to the other 19 different languages.
For example, we’re on the record here, and if you feel that there is a need to edit, like if you mistakenly talk about something that’s not clear for publication. Like an anecdote from one of your friends, that you’re not clearing for a publication.
You can actually go back in the next 10 days to edit that out, but that takes effort. If you don’t do anything, then it goes out by default. Transparency at the root means that transparency should be the default. For very honorable purposes, like respecting privacy, trade secret. That’s one, but that should take effort.
I see. Tell me. You authored a piece. I think it was in “Jerusalem Post” with Joseph Wu about cyber security. The figures you quoted there were pretty scary. I’d read somewhere else that Taiwan is the biggest victim of cyber attacks anywhere in the world. For a whole combination of reasons.
I think a couple of reasons. First, there is something to be won if the information operators disrupt people’s faith and trust to each other and to the democratic process because that’s less expensive than a full assault, the traditional assault.
If they can influence such that people do not, for example, believe the result of their votes, or do not believe the democratic possibility of reaching an innovation that everybody can live with. If the polarization goes to such an extreme that people do not even want to be a part of the democracy anymore, then they would have succeeded without much more expensive invasion.
That’s the first, the reason, I believe. The second reason, I believe, is that a lot of people in Taiwan are seeing that this kind of cybersecurity attacks, and so on, as a way, not just politically motivated, but also economically motivated.
If through cybersecurity intrusions, other outside actors can learn about the trade secrets of the semiconductor layouts, and so on, there’s something real to be gained by that. They could save a lot of independent research and development time, and so on, so there’s also economic motive.
…the trade secrets. What’s your assessment of Taiwan cybersecurity? You’re on the front line here in many ways. You’ve had people come through here from the EU, US, looking to Taiwan to see what they can learn. What takeaways have you been able to give them?
A couple of things. The first is that we have a very vibrant white hat community. People who are not technically speaking civil servants, but just the civic tech people who did a mask rationing map, or the rapid testing map or the vaccination helpers, and so on, they’re very interested in also attacking our infrastructure but letting us know, which is why they are white hats.
Before we roll out new cybersecurity services and so on, I often personally say let’s just have half a year and have the white hat test this infrastructure. This is something Estonia also does through a more open relationship with the cybersecurity research community. They’re like, “Yeah, just let us know when you find any vulnerabilities before the black hats find it.”
The second thing is about awareness on the cybersecurity because cybersecurity is a lot like counter epidemic. It relies on the good habits of each and every person. Also, just like countering pandemic, something very basic like handwashing and things like that, we need also to get the message out about setting up two factor authentication.
To use the information transmission services that are from trusted jurisdictions or domestically instead of, for example, one example, Zoom. They did not get the endorsement from our Ministry of Education for use during the classrooms that were digitally transformed by last year’s spike.
The schools, by and large, used other services, because in 2020, Zoom had multiple investigations about their management, about whether they shut down a certain meeting with people in Hong Kong, and things like that.
We saw all that, but if in a society, if people do not generally pay attention and become aware of these things, then the state is very difficult to simply ban the use of a commercial software. The general population do pay attention to these things, they spontaneously switched to other services once those news about Zoom came out.
Of course, Zoom said that they’ve changed their ways, they’ve restructured. They got a lot of examinations by independent labs, and so on. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not about the state decree or a law, or anything like that. People saw the news, and they changed the behavior overnight.
In addition to the white hat hackers, we also have civic hackers. Civic hackers build new systems instead of testing the vulnerability of the existing system. The civic hackers are invited every year to the Presidential Hackathon. We posted this recruitment video on social media, so feel free to check it out. I think it’s on my Facebook and other places.
Basically, if the civic hackers see something that’s not responding to the emergent situations, for example, on climate change or anything, they can develop new systems working with a local government, a local municipality, often.
Every year out of the 200 or so local innovations, through a new way of voting called quadratic voting and a coaching process, which is five of those civic hacking teams…President Tsai Ing wen personally gave the awards to those five teams each year, which was shared with Taiwan was a micro projector and their needs.
When you turn it on, it projects President giving you the trophy. It’s self describing. Very mentor. Then through this, the President is committed to offer her support on the personnel and regulation on the budget to ton that small scale experiment into country wide innovation.
That’s how we got, for example, the telemedicine support for the offshore islands and indigenous areas. That’s how we got the ambulance transmitting to the emergency centers, instead of people calling you Jada. We can now leverage 5G transmission to make sure that the ambulance service kind of mobile hospital.
I suppose parallel to this as well, it’s been this remarkable flowering of civil society in Taiwan. You were involved with the Sunflower Movement, which I suppose was when outsiders noticed it. It goes far wider. Doesn’t it? From indigenous rights, the environment, marriage rights…
Yes. I think by young people, we mean people even younger than 18. Before they got the right to vote, already they can through e petition, start very popular petitions. For example, banning the plastic straws from our national drink. Bubble tea takeout’s.
They feel fully empowered when as primary school, they measured the air quality through PM2.5 airbox sensors to inform whether their parents should go out for a walk in the morning or the pollution is good or bad.
Or in the middle school, when they get to fact check the three presidential candidates during their platforms and debates, and senior high when they get to start movements like banning plastic straws. They feel fully democratic empowered the day they turn 18 instead of just learning about this democracy process starting from the day they turn 18.
This is something which is continuing to develop and grow. I suppose the tendency. It’s easier to organize that stuff when there’s a KMT government. There’s perhaps more to oppose. You’ve got a more progressive government, but you still see civic society as developing in a positive way.
There’s a common urgency. On the mask, vaccines, and rapid tests, of course, there’s a common urgency. For climate change, there’s also a common urgency for the sea turtles choking on the plastic straws. That’s an urgency too. [laughs]
Also, you have been trying to nurture this start up culture as well, which I guess is parallel to what we talked about the white hats. It’s something which is quite critical. Isn’t it? It goes to the base fundamentally about the economic future, and the ability to turn Taiwan into more of a start up hub. Is that something which is…?
My portfolio is about social innovation, which means the impact investors need to put their money into not any start up, but start up that does not cause the negative social and environmental externalities and work actively to solve the common problems faced by the environment and society.
What I mean by that is, for example, people crowdsourcing to build solar panels for the places least economically empowered to transition fully to green energy or people designing new systems so that the delivery boxes can be fully upcycled instead of being just blunt.
There are many social innovators in Taiwan, and for a young person choosing to be a social entrepreneur rather than just any startup founder. They would then enjoy much better access to impact investments, loans, state grants.
It’s my job to steal the startup energy which is already there. It’s not my credit. From startup in general answering to the shareholders into the startup that solve social issues and institute stakeholders.
There’s a sense as well in this. That I was having a conversation with someone the other day. We were talking about patriotism. One of the points they were making is that there is a civic nationalism in Taiwan.
A pride in what the country has achieved, whether it’s through democracy, social activism, which is in stark contrast like so much else with the rather rabid ethnic nationalism that you see across the street.
What we’re doing, essentially, is to make sure that people identify with their urgency in furthering democracy. Democracy to us is not something static. Is like semiconductor or any computer code. It’s something that people can contribute, can improve, and share the innovation with the world.
Yes. The old democratic systems suffer from the problem of lack of bandwidth, high latency – every four years – and not connecting to sufficient amount of people. Certainly not people younger than 18. What we’re doing is to improve the democratic system so that it has higher bandwidth, lower latency, and connects to more.
Tell me about the impact of Ukraine. My sense is it’s focused a lot more people for a whole number of different reasons there’s been a wake up call from the severity of sanctions, the unity of purpose we’ve seen, but also in people thinking, “Hang on, let’s look at Taiwan.”
Internationally, I think people now understand that liberal democracy has its own advantage in conflicts like this, which is collective intelligence and resilience because a top down fully authoritarian decision making process were hailed as efficient not too long ago. Liberal democracies were written off as less efficient, just a few years ago. [laughs]
Nowadays, people don’t say that anymore. People will see that you do need a fully empowered democratic society in order to have resilience and a very efficient top down decision making process. Although it could be efficient on the right things, it could also be very efficiently doing the wrong things.
That has been a collective awareness, I believe, in the international community. Especially in Taiwan, a lot of people are now saying, “What can we do then during a escalation of tension?” We don’t need to wait for the Ministry of Defense or anyone to tell us what to do. We should be preparing ourselves to the eventual situation of communication loss or whatever tensions.
Also, I think that there isn’t a lot of difference between Putin’s vision of Russkii mir — the Russian World — unifying the Russian World and Xi Jinping’s vision of his Chinese dream of unifying the Chinese world. They’re scarily similar in a lot of ways.
Anyway, [laughs] being open about it helped a lot because people are naturally curious. Then I’m like, “No.” I’m not saying that I identify with this, and then that. I said I had this experience with puberty and in that experience of puberty.
In my mind, I don’t have this binary distinction. Half the population is more similar to me, and half population less similar to me. I’m nonbinary on pretty much anything, not just gender. People also learned about my nonbinary party affiliation because I wrote none as my gender in the HR form but also none in my party affiliation.
Basically, any of those binary distinctions do not apply to me. It was very warmly welcomed because people do see the merit in not saying that half of the population is unlike me because that actually feels polarization does the basis of polarization.
Or none. “None of the above.” I don’t have to do that anymore on many of the forms because US also start issuing X passports now. During the pandemic, we’ve got a lot of new systems to do contact tracing, to do border quarantine. They also need to equally apply to foreign travelers, and many of them are already at least having the possibility of carrying the nonbinary passports.
That led to our entire system being redesigned so that there’s a lot of the third choice — nonbinary choice — now in this form. All those forms are now also being revamped. Partly, I guess, because the pandemic.
My role in this, mostly, is to show that it’s natural. It’s like in marriage equality. People said that it’s unnatural for the family to family kinship relationship to be redefined because of marriage equality. When people are fighting for the equal rights, people care about the individual rights and duties, and so on. These two are not zero sum.
It’s possible, as Taiwan did, to redefine the individual to individual wedding, the by laws, without touching the in laws, the kinship relation. In Taiwan, when two same sex people individuals wed, their families don’t. That is the conservative part of me. I’m like, “Trying this new institution does not actually disrupt the existing institutions.”
I don’t really care, because, in Mandarin, the pronouns were not gendered. I do not have this gender pronoun natively. Of course, I spent a year in Germany when I was 11, I believe, and everything is definitely that. [laughs] You have to think about these things.
There was a journalist that wrote in Hebrew. He was like, “There’s no way because in Hebrew, everything needs to be gendered,” and I’m like, Innovate. Then, finally, he wrote the report alternating the pronouns [laughs] that he used for me. That’s another way of ticking those boxes. I’m like, Innovate.
How about a general point to finish on it. When you look at the strength of Taiwanese democracy, it’s always struck me that the liberalism, diversity, democracy, these in many ways are one of Taiwan’s greatest points of defense.
It’s not about a single solution that fits all, but rather empowering the local goddesses and gods and Bodhisattvas. People are very much free to — even spiritually — think about different solution spaces, instead of being fixed out just one particular solution.
The monotheistic institutions in Taiwan, also had really good relationship with these more multi- or transcultural, spiritual traditions, because they work together. For example, earthquake recovery, typhoon recovery, and so on.
They also took a much more inclusive nature. Instead of us versus them, a lot of people in Taiwan are very comfortable with working with people of different faith, of different traditions, and just come on innovate on something that we can all live with.
The one I’m working on now, which is interview will go in is a sequel to that, called, “The Fire of The Dragon,” and it’s looking at China internationally, but Taiwan is a thread that runs through the book. That’s due out in August.