Digital Democracy in Taiwan: A Conversation with Minister of Digital Audrey Tang

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When we see “Internet of Things,” let’s make it an Internet of Beings.
When we see “Virtual Reality,” let’s make it a Shared Reality.
When we see “Machine Learning,” let’s make it Collaborative Learning.
When we see “User Experience,” let’s make it about Human Experience.
When we hear “the Singularity is Near,” let us remember: the Plurality is here.
                                                                                                                                           Audrey Tang

The Department of Communications at John Cabot University together with the Office of the President organized an event called Inside Taiwan’s New Digital Democracy: A Conversation with Taiwan’s Minister of Digital Audrey Tang on November 14, 2019. The talk was part of the Communications Department’s Digital Delights and Disturbances Lecture Series.

Taiwan's Minister of Digital Audrey Tang in Telepresence at JCU

Taiwan’s Minister of Digital Audrey Tang in Telepresence at JCU

In August 2016, Audrey Tang was appointed Taiwan’s Digital Minister. Tang is a civic hacker, a computer programmer who uses open-source software to tackle real-world challenges. Tang’s interest in the internet started at the age of 12, when she started learning the Perl programming language. Two years later, she dropped out of school and now describes herself as self-taught. Tang is thought to be one of the ten greats of Taiwanese computing personalities, and in 2019, she made the top 20 in the list of the World’s 100 Most Influential People in Digital Government issued by Apolitical, a peer-to-peer learning platform for government.

Audrey Tang chose to employ technology to deliver her talk from remote. A fully interactive robot controlled by Tang remotely moved around the Aula Magna Regina and engaged with the audience. When asked about whether robots and A.I. have feelings, Tang made a joke saying that “this silicon-based body” certainly has feelings, referring to herself as indistinguishable from the robot. Tang explained that she prefers to “travel digitally” in order to reduce her carbon footprint. Traveling digitally is also easier, because Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, and its citizens require visas to enter a foreign country. Tang added that attending talks in telepresence allows her to participate in multiple talks in different parts of the world. As for the environmental impact of her use of technology, Tang said that she can easily keep track of it.

The advent of digital democracy
According to Tang, democracy gets better when more people are involved in it, and digital technology is one of the best ways to increase participation. Platforms such as VTaiwan (virtual Taiwan) allow citizens to interact with governmental institutions on a daily basis. Representatives from the public, private and social sectors come together on VTaiwan to primarily discuss policy solutions to digital economy problems. Tang also believes that participatory politics could help contrast fake news. In Taiwan, whenever people hear a rumor, they can flag it by forwarding it to the Cofacts system, a chat-bot with an end-to-end encryption that does fact-checking through collective intelligence.

4G internet coverage is guaranteed on 98% of Taiwan’s territory and is considered a basic human right. The open-source and open-access approach allowed Taiwan to rank first in The Global Open Data Index, the annual global benchmark for publication of open government data. According to Tang, the world of digital and democracy go together. Open data policies in Taiwan have helped counter the lack of transparency in public documents, which can be easily accessed by anyone.

“In Taiwan, digital technology is boosting civic dialogue and infusing government with the spirit of social innovation. By giving everyone a voice, Taiwan is strengthening its democracy for the future,” Tang told the New York Times.

As for the use of digital technologies in schools, Tang said that a way to avoid cyberbullying is to make sure that children don’t get addicted to their gadgets and that they understand the distance that exists between themselves and their avatars. “The only way to get my attention is to behave,” said Tang, referring to her habit of ignoring the internet trolls that she frequently encounters on the web. Tang said that digital technologies are good to establish collaborations between peers, but that “children need to seek warmth from physical places.”

Audrey Tang served on The Taiwan National Development Council’s open data committee and K-12 curriculum committee, and led the country’s first e-Rulemaking project. She worked as a consultant with Apple on computational linguistics and with Oxford University Press on crowd lexicography. She actively contributes to g0v (“gov zero”), a vibrant community focusing on creating tools for civil society, with the call to “fork the government.”