Digital Democracy in Taiwan, basis 8 for Synthecracy

Audrey Tang

Audrey Tang, Photo by Billy H.C.Kwak

Updated Jan. 31 2021 Article in Wired Nov. 19 2019, see below

Updated Jan. 26 2021: added German language interview, see below

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Below is my translation, with permission of the author, of an interview by Julie Blussé in the NL quality newspaper NRC June 8 2020, page 14-15, with Audrey Tang, Minister for Digital Policy in Taiwan. https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2020/06/03/de-democratie-is-toe-aan-een-upgrade-a4001600

And also below the translation, with permission by the author, of a second article about Tang by Anouk Eigenraam in Financieel Dagblad (FD) a couple of days later.  Here is the link to that article: https://fd.nl/profiel/1348303/taiwans-jongste-minister-voert-onorthodoxe-strijd-tegen-nepnieuws

But the essence of this blogpage is not only about Audrey Tang, but  is to show that, after the present transitions and class/ generation revolts, Digital Democracy can be put in practice with success by young activists who are brave and able to do the right things at the right time.

It is very superficial to think that Democracy = taking decisions by majority of counted  votes. It is much more, and more  clever, deeper and more broad.

  1. It is essential that an issue can be commented on, discussed and percieved from as widely different angles of background and perception as possible. Idea formation. Contradictions. Broadness bypasses bubblevisons, prejudices. Innovation, creativity. Audace.
  2. These views can be combined into proposals to tackle/solve the issue by a number of fractions. Clustering and design by specialists and experienced & competent.
  3. There should be an “house” of representatives who can then vote=choose the best policy and ways to tackle & solve the issue.
  4. Those representatives should be held accountable for their decisions, be officials for a limited time.  The majority should listen and use suggestions by the minority. Because they can be the majority the next time around.

During this democratic process digital transparency is important (all should be informed and have same info <hologram>, possibilities of comment and contributions), everybody should be involved in learning from how unexpeced things where handled, and it should be able to react fast with solutions. And learn together.  Sure, mistakes will be made, but not repeated. Concensus and quality can only be achieved by working in parallel and distributed like light in a lens. And taking local circumstances into account. Digital tools and communication links are making new distributed ways of democratic communities possible. And by distributing it the community can handle complexity (not reduceable) better than a central point diktator who has to simplify in order to rule.

5. Crux of democracy is that the general & long times interests are connected in a loop(s) with the well understood short time & self interests of the participants. If such loops are formed, all ships will rise ! (non zero sum games)

6. In such networks < information, knowledge and wisdom>  can digital percolate P2P through society, and will be holographic: everywhere and nowhere, without the need for endless meetings and without the endless speeches of ‘leaders’, thank heavens.

Hierarchies and power/central authority no longer play much of a role. Napoleon invented them to control a large army in the field, by vertical command and control, but that was because there was no way to inform soldiers and lower ranking officers in a two way mode about the overview and reasons for commands. But now we CAN. Information from bottom to top flowed fast and simple enough for those Napoleontic times. But this way of command and control is now seriously outdated, even for businesses and states and cities,  and has to be replaced. And it now is possible to communicate many-to-many and handle complexity by distributing updates and info from the field with the help of ICT.

This transition to a functioning digital democracy is one of the key changes towards #Synthecracy we see happening, and it is what the low wage workers are essentialy demanding in their revolts and demonstrations. Yes, the DEMOS in Democracy means ‘Civilians in Power’.

PS1. A demonstration of the POWER that the Digital Demos ( THE LITTLE BROTHERS) can suddenly have, is what K-Pop fans did to the Trump Convention in Tulsa: a Flash NON-mob 🙂 organized with Tik Tok (popular with young population):

K-POP flash mob

What do you mean, you got forty tickets?

PS2. Here is an observation about how  ‘democracy” in Russia is organised: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/russia-forced-referendum/

Digital Democracy is no long a soft and idealistic movement. The activists that participate have AGENCY. They aim to get things done.

jaap van till, TheConnectivist

===================translation with permission of the author==========

Julie Blussé

She preaches the blessings of Digital Democracy

Until recently she was considered, inside and outside Taiwan, as an inspiring utopist. But since ‘Corona’ she is taken very seriously. “Democracy is in for an UPGRADE” !

When a run on toilet paper started in Taiwan, the government very quickly distributed  a cartoon-like picture, in which the vice-president, with butt turned to the camera, calmly pointed out the facts to the population: “You have only one butt”. Under that text was explained in a businesslike fashion why the Taiwanese did not have to fear a shortage of toilet paper. Sure, this was not very sophisticated, but in Taiwan the joke was widely shared and forwarded.

This is just an example how the Taiwanese government updates, with digital media, the population on the Corona Crisis: blindingly fast, full of humor, and often with animal pictures: “Keep three shiba inu’s distance”.  This tactic is called “Humor over Rumor” by minister Audry Tang, in an interview via Skype. The minister for Digital Affairs developed this approach originaly in reaction to dis-information campaigns from the area of China, who still consider the de-facto independent island as a renegade province.

“We do not appy that strategy because we are a country of jesters”, she says laughing, “although that is correct.We use it because that is the only way that WORKS.” Furthermore a more authoritarian approach, like censorship can count in Taiwan directly on critique. “A large part of the population would immediatly say: ‘isn’t that exactly what they do in China?’ So we are more or less forced to innovate, nearly in the opposite direction of China.” And what makes Tang hopeful: “That optimistic way works, also for facing Corona.”

Until recently Audry Tang was considered, inside and outside Taiwan, as an imagination inspiring utopist. In a TedTalk she told how in Taiwan they are constructing “the Democracy of the Future“, for instance with online discussion fora. Since the coronacrisis her larger than life ideas are proving themselve in practical reality: technological knowhow plays an important role in the succesful fight of Taiwan agianst the outbreak. Only 440 people where infected on the island, only 7 people died thusfar. The densely populated country, with 23 million people ((NL: 17 million)) did not even have to go into lockdown. That is surprising if you realise how much Taiwan is connected with neighbour China.

Tang (39) is Digital Affairs minister since 2016. She emphasises not  to work “FOR the state but WITH the state.” For instance with “presidential hackathons” she made it possible that civilians can help shape governmentpolicy, improve it and discuss it.  “Democacy is a Technology” expresses Tang. “We no longer think it is sufficient to vote for a president or major once every four years. With that act you upload as a matter of speech only 5 bits of information to the system, and with a referendum every two years only 10 bits or 20.”

Silicon Valley  Since 2014 she is active in politics. That year the tech-enterpreneur returned from Silicon Valley to participate in Taiwan in the progressive Sunflower Movement. That movement of young activists occupied the building of Parliament as a protest against a disputed commercial treaty with China. Tang ran the ICT services for the movement so the whole country could follow livestreams of the meetings of the young activists online. The Sunflower Movement was not only a protest, it was foremost a demonstration of Digital Democracy” she says. Everybody could see that civilians aided with social technology could together form deeply thoughtful plans.”

When two years later the progressive opposition party came to power, Tang was asked to take the position of minister for Digital Affairs, especially created for her. and she made it her mission to Upgrade the Taiwanese Democracy with digital tools. In recent months Tang sees that civilians take the lead in developing  technological solutions for the crisis. A favorite example of Tang is an app that a software programmer developed in February, when facemasks where baught and hoarded. By way of the app users could online exchange information where facemasks where still available. Tang describes that this app was so popular that it crashed within days. “But it was a huge social innovation, a kind of gps-system that guided you to the nearest apothecary where they had facemasks in store. Coordinated by Tang the Taiwanese govt helped with network processing power to keep the app online available. In addition to that the ministry enriched the app with extra govt data that gave users an even more accurate picture of the actual nearest facemask storage situation. Later the ministry added the personal service to reserve a weekly quotum of facemasks or donate to countries where there is a shortage.

Apps with hotspots  Since the beginning of the corona crisis Taiwanese civilians have developed hundreds more of such technological tools, most often based on data available for the public. For example there are apps with which you can check yourself if you have been on or near hotspots for infections. There are chatbots with which you can factcheck dubious corona news or gossip. According to Tang these tools help to increase the “collective intelligence” of the population.  “It is a collective learning experience, instead of a top-down authoritarian approach.”

Nevertheless civilians are not allowed to join in employing all technological tools in the fight against the Corona Virus. take for instance the “digital fence” that played a key role in Taiwan’s Containment Policy, that was activated as early as January by the government. Nearly everybody that enters Taiwan is as a result ordered to stay two weeks in home quarantaine. With mobile phone user data digital location surveillance is done to check this. Tang admits “that it is a violation of privacy”.

No sneaky step She does not see this Fence as a first step in the direction of a survellance state- although she understands that fear. “We also had that fear during the SARS-epidemic in 2003.”  Tang describes how a SARS breakout forced the govt to take the rigorous meaure to bring a whole hospital under quarantaine for indefinite time. for weeks nobody was allowed to exit it, while inside the building more and more doctors and patients got infected and died.

“That was a collective trauma”, tells Tang. “Everybody thought: we do not want thar ever again. Afterwards we had a lenghty public debate about the question in what extent breaking into privacy is acceptible to safeguard public safety.”  That debate resulted in a verdict of our suppreme court that sets clear boundaries for the government: it is allowed to put civilians, during a public health crisis, digital under homequarantne for a maxmuim of two weeks, after which all collected data must be erased immediatly. Tang calls it a lucky coincidence that the incubation time of corona is two weeks.

” I will not fake it that everybody is happy with this policy” says minister Tang, “and I also will not say that the Taiwanese solution is best. But I do think that other countries should have the same kind of public debates, which in our case SARS had allready forced us to do. Thát Taiwan learned important lessons from the SARS epidemic gives her nevertheless hope that the rest of the world will learn from Corona too. We did have to undergo a kind of societal inocculation back then.”

Time for Reflection  Until quite recently the succes of Taiwan went by unnoticed on the world stage. Under presure of China Taiwan is not allowed to be member of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which makes it difficult for Taiwan to exchange information with the rest of the world. “Let me be loud and clear about this, everybody suffers that we have no access to the WHO” states Tang. But meanwhile we have established a number of bi-lateral realtions with epi-centers of the pandemic, like New York.”

On the technology plane this means that other countries are encouraged to work, like Taiwan, with open source software. Also we help guide them to copy and adapt Taiwanese code for their own use. The UK has adopted parts of Taiwanese code to devellop a social distancing-app, tells Tang, and South Korea has develloped their own version of the face mask app.  But we try foremost to spread the idea that it is NOW to go through the debate, where Taiwan took years to do that:

  • ” what are our core values ? ((see other blogposts of me))
  • what do our constitutional laws mean ?

Soon you will find your country in the same situation as Taiwan in January: a low number of infected and the experience of an epidemic as hindsite.”

“The coming month we will have to choose direction.” sees the minister in our future. “If people decide that they are willing to move in the direction of a surveillance state and sacrifice their freedoms in exchange for public health, than that will happen.” Technology can then nearly instantly realize that, thinks Tang.

But she remains optimistic: in the time before us also “something UTOPIAN can happen ((my guess: #Synthecracy)).  “Technology scales, but what you scale up with that are the fundamental ideas that are dormant in society.”

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=============article from FD translated here with permission by the author=======

Re-blogged from AUGSBURGER-ALGEMEINE (in the German Language):

Taiwans Digitalministerin: “Sehen die Demokratie selbst als eine Technologie”

Audrey Tang ist Digitalministerin Taiwans.
Bild: Audrey Tang
 

Taiwan setzt im Kampf gegen das Coronavirus auf Technik und Daten. Teil 1 der Serie zur Zukunft nach Corona, einer Kooperation von “The New Institute” und unserer Redaktion.

Was hat Taiwan im Kampf gegen das Coronavirus richtig gemacht?
 

Audrey TangMan muss wissen, dass es bereits das zweite Mal ist, dass wir vor der Herausforderung durch ein solches Virus stehen. Das erste Mal war die SARS-Pandemie im Jahr 2003, und da gerieten wir einfach nur in Panik. Die Zentralregierung verhängte Maßnahmen, die im Widerspruch zu denen der Provinzverwaltungen standen, und riegelte ohne Vorankündigung ein ganzes Krankenhaus ab, insgesamt starben 73 Menschen. Im Jahr 2004 beauftragte das Verfassungsgericht die Legislative mit einer umfassenden Untersuchung aller Fehler und der Einrichtung einer neuen Institution, dem Zentralen Kommandozentrum für Epidemien (CECC), um sicherzustellen, dass die Kommunikation möglichst schnell funktioniert und das Wissen der Schwarmintelligenz, das Input der Bürger, ohne Verzögerung ans CECC gelangt.

Was sind die zentralen Elemente Ihrer gegenwärtigen Corona-Strategie?
 

TangWir handeln nach drei Prinzipien: fast, fair and fun – schnell, fair und unterhaltsam. Schnell: Es gibt eine gebührenfreie Nummer, die jeder anrufen und zum Beispiel den Mangel an Masken melden kann. Fair: Wir stellen durch die Nationale Krankenversicherung sicher, dass mehr als 99,9% nicht nur aller Staatsbürger, sondern auch aller sonstigen Einwohner, Zugang zu rationierten Masken haben. Und zuletzt soll es auch Spaß machen, entsprechend unserem Leitsatz „Humor statt Gerüchte“: Wir bekämpfen die Infodemie der Verschwörungstheorien, indem wir Meme und niedliche Figuren wie Shiba Inu entwickeln, die in den sozialen Medien weit häufiger geteilt wurden als Verschwörungstheorien.

 
TangDie wichtigsten Technologien in der Corona-Krise sind Seife, Desinfektionsmittel und der physische Impfstoff, die Maske. Dazu haben wir aber auch viele neuartige digitale Tools zur Bekämpfung der Pandemie eingesetzt – wie eine App, die von Bürgern entwickelt wurde, von „staatsbürgerlichen Hackern“, wie wir sie hier nennen. Diese App visualisiert die Verfügbarkeit von Masken in Apotheken und ermöglicht es den Menschen, evidenzbasierte Interpolationen und Kritik anhand realer Daten vorzunehmen.
 

Transparenz schafft Vertrauen.

 
 
TangEin Schlüsselfaktor ist der Abgleich: Jeder kann sehen, dass die Apotheken, um bei diesem Beispiel zu bleiben, auch wirklich das Ziel verfolgen, möglichst vielen Menschen Zugang zu Masken zu verschaffen. Der andere Faktor ist Rechenschaft und Verantwortung: es kann nicht nur jeder die Ausgabe von Masken in der App überprüfen, sondern auch bessere Methoden der Verteilung vorschlagen.
 

Wie garantieren Sie dabei die Sicherheit der Privatsphäre?

TangWir nennen das partizipative Selbstüberwachung. Bei Orten mit hohem Risiko, wie zum Beispiel Bars, verlangen wir von den Leuten, dass wir sie im Falle einer Infektion kontaktieren können. Die Informationen werden aber dezentral und distribuiert gespeichert, so dass die an solchen Orten oft erwünschte Anonymität gewahrt bleibt.

Ein Taiwanese mit Mundschutz in einer U-Bahn-Station.
Bild: Chiang Ying-Ying/AP, dpa

Und was genau ist ein „staatsbürgerlicher Hacker“?

TangIn Taiwan gibt es eine Online-Community namens G0v. Die Idee dahinter ist, dass alle digitalen Dienste, die die Regierung anbietet, aufgespalten werden können – dass sie also in Abspaltungen weiterentwickelt werden, der zentrale Wert aber beibehalten wird. Das führt zur Weiterentwicklung der Arbeit durch eine Schattenregierung, was immer auch mehr Spaß und Partizipation bedeutet, oder?

Wie kommt es, dass die taiwanesische Gesellschaft so offen für neue Technologien ist und sich so schnell an sie anpasst?

TangEin wichtiger Faktor ist, dass die Demokratie in Taiwan noch sehr jung ist. Die ersten Präsidentschaftswahlen fanden 1996 statt, das World Wide Web existierte da bereits. Wir sehen die Demokratie selbst als eine Technologie, eine angewandte Sozialtechnologie. Die Verfassung verstehen wir als etwas, das man optimieren und verändern kann – wir haben sie bereits fünf Mal überarbeitet und erwägen gerade einen weiteren Eingriff. In gewisser Weise unterscheidet sich die Demokratie nicht wesentlich von der Halbleitertechnik – jeder kann sie verbessern.

Welche weiteren Faktoren gibt es?

TangEin zweiter hängt mit dem ersten zusammen: Menschen über 40 erinnern sich in Taiwan noch an das Kriegsrecht. Jede Technologie, die die Gesellschaft in die Ära des Autoritarismus zurückzuwerfen droht, ist in Taiwan zum Scheitern verurteilt. Man kann einfach fragen: Wollt Ihr das Kriegsrecht zurück? Wollt Ihr den Schrecken des alten Regimes zurück?

Was sind für Sie nichtautoritäre Technologien?

TangWir beschäftigen uns intensiv mit Technologien, die demokratisierend wirken, wie freier Software, Open Source oder der Distributed-Ledger-Technologie von Blockchain. Wir hinterfragen auch historische Rituale der Demokratie wie zum Beispiel Wahlen im Vierjahresrhythmus. Ist das wirklich sinnvoll? Bekommen die demokratischen Institutionen so wirklich die besten Anregungen? Wir haben das Wahlverfahren verbessert und Referenden, den Bürgerhaushalt, E-Petitionen und vieles mehr eingeführt.

Die westlichen Demokratien scheinen in dieser Pandemie mit sehr unterschiedlichen Reaktionen auf die Herausforderung durch das Coronavirus zu kämpfen zu haben. Wie sehen Sie das?

TangDas Großartige an der Demokratie ist die Resilienz. Sie ist darauf angewiesen, dass die Menschen ein wissenschaftliches Verständnis entwickeln und sie fortwährend als Institution erneuern. Beim nächsten Mal wird sie besser reagieren. Genauso wie Taiwan im Jahr 2004 eine neue Infrastruktur aufgebaut, jährliche Testläufe durchgeführt und auf die neuesten digitalen Technologien zurückgegriffen hat. Ich bin mir sicher, dass auch die Länder, deren Gesellschaften jetzt zum ersten Mal mit SARS 2.0 zu tun haben, viel besser zurechtkommen werden, wenn SARS 3.0 ausbricht.

Ist diese neue Infrastruktur, von der Sie sprechen, vor allem eine technologische?

TangJa und nein. Die partizipative Selbstüberwachung beruht auf Breitband als einem Menschenrecht. Wenn es keinen Breitbandzugang gibt, können die Menschen zwar immer noch fernsehen und Radio hören – aber sie haben keine Möglichkeit, sich in Echtzeit zu melden und zu berichten. Das zweite Element ist die Medienkompetenz und die digitale Kompetenz – jeder Mensch ist im Wesentlichen ein Medium. Die mit der Pandemie einhergehende Infodemie hat die Notwendigkeit deutlich gemacht, dass den Menschen diese Kompetenzen vermittelt werden.

Wie arbeiten Sie als staatliche Institution mit den Bürgern und anderen gesellschaftlichen Akteuren zusammen?

TangWir etablieren einen Standard in Bezug auf Daten, der dem sozialen Sektor Priorität einräumt – weder dem öffentlichen Sektor, was staatliche Überwachung und das Sammeln von Daten wie in autoritären Staaten bedeuten würde, noch dem privaten Sektor, was Überwachungskapitalismus und die Abhängigkeit von multinationalen Unternehmen und Konzernen bedeuten würde. Wenn es um die sektorenübergreifende Zusammenarbeit zwischen Menschen, dem öffentlichem und dem privaten Sektor geht, steht bei uns immer der Mensch an erster Stelle.

Welche Verantwortung kommt den Bürgern in dieser Krise zu?

TangWir haben versucht, an das rationale Eigeninteresse der Bürger zu appellieren. Wenn man sagt: Trage eine Maske, um Dich vor deiner eigenen ungewaschenen Hand zu schützen, dann betrifft das jeden einzelnen. Sagt man: Trage eine Maske, um die älteren Menschen zu schützen, dann werden Leute, die nicht mit älteren Menschen zusammenleben oder denen sie egal sind, keine Maske tragen. Wenn wir sagen: Trage eine Maske aus Respekt vor deinen Mitmenschen, dann werden diejenigen, denen nichts an einem solchen Respekt liegt, keine Maske tragen. Oder? Ein am Eigeninteresse ausgerichteter Individualismus ist tatsächlich für das Kollektiv die bessere Strategie als der Aufruf zum Kollektivismus.

Wir würden Sie abschließend bitten, den folgenden Satz zu vervollständigen: Für mich ist diese Pandemie etwas Persönliches, weil –

TangFür mich ist sie etwas Persönliches, weil eine Angelegenheit, die alle betrifft, auch der Mithilfe aller bedarf.

Vielen Dank für das Gespräch.

TangIch danke Ihnen. Lebe lang und in Frieden.

Zur Person: Audrey Tang ist die Digitalministerin Taiwans.

****

Dieses Interview ist in Kooperation mit The New Institute entstanden. Das Institut ist eine Neugründung in Hamburg, deren Ziel die Gestaltung gesellschaftlichen Wandels ist. Von Herbst 2021 an werden hier bis zu 35 Fellows aus Wissenschaft, Aktivismus, Kunst, Wirtschaft, Politik und Medien gemeinsam leben und an konkreten Lösungen für die drängenden Probleme in den Bereichen von Ökologie, Ökonomie und Demokratie arbeiten. Gründungsdirektor ist Wilhelm Krull, akademische Direktorin für den Bereich der ökonomischen Transformation ist Maja Göpel. The New Institute ist eine Initiative des Hamburger Unternehmers und Philanthropen Erck Rickmers.

 


 
 
 
 

============== End of reblog Augsburger- Algemeine======

WIRED also noticed the Taiwan “Digital Democracy” :

Things start to change when the “Little Brothers” aka #Pirates are connected directly to the Government

==============begin of reblog from WIRED=============

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/taiwan-democracy-social-media

Government

Taiwan is making democracy work again. It’s time we paid attention

Social media has opened up vast social divisions and brought democracy to its knees. In Taiwan, the people are fighting back.

By CARL MILLER


Tuesday 26 November 2019

On March 18, 2014, a large crowd seethed around Taiwan’s parliament. Protestors fought off guards and kicked the doors of the building open, streaming onto the parliamentary floor. Thousands more surrounded the building as an occupation began – one that stretched from hours into days, then weeks.

That moment, when the power of the parliament was pitted against mobilised crowds willing to risk arrest or violence, would later be known as the Sunflower Student Movement. Yet for the citizens not only of Taiwan, but of polarised and weakened democracies everywhere, what happened next might be more important. In the wake of the movement, an experiment began. It was an attempt to better unite parliament and crowd, changing how government listens to its citizens, and makes decisions. An attempt to reinvent democracy itself.

One of the people in the crowd that evening was Audrey Tang. She had begun coding at the age of eight by typing on a keyboard drawn on a piece of paper. At 14, she had dropped out of school to learn about technology, and then spent time in Silicon Valley as an entrepreneur before returning to her native Taiwan in her thirties. Joining a collective called G0v – “gov zero” – she’d become an activist whose worldview was interwoven with technology. For most of her life, Tang had been active in a global community of engineers, tech workers, officials and NGOs that had formed to work out rules to govern the internet. Owned both by everyone and no one at the same time, the internet needed a new politics, and this community called it “multistakeholderism”. The idea was that anyone could have a seat at the table as long as they were animated by transparency, willingness to listen and consensus-finding, in order to bring together the different tribes of the internet.

These people called themselves “civic hackers” and, from 2012 onwards, they’d moved from the politics of the internet itself to using the internet to open up mainstream politics. Yet as G0v started grappling with Taiwan’s politics, they found that it was opaque, fractious and deaf to civic society – the opposite of multistakeholderism.

The spark for the Sunflower Student Movement was a trade bill that was seen by protestors as a step towards uniting Taiwan with China. The movement eventually derailed the bill but, to the civic hackers, it was only the symptom of a deeper malaise: there had been no consensus, no listening. The ruling party had tried forcing the bill into law simply because it had the votes to do so. That opened up questions that had nothing to do with trade. Why hadn’t the government listened? Was there a better way of doing things?

After the Sunflower Student Movement, something astounding happened. A government representative asked G0v for help. The government wanted to listen, and stop anything like the Sunflower Revolution from happening again. Civic hackers were asked to step into power. Members of G0v joined the government to form a new team, called the Public Digital Innovation Space (PDIS). Tang went from civic hacker to Digital Minister of Taiwan.

Civic hackers thought that elections were simply not enough. Two-way votes held years apart didn’t allow information to flow easily from citizens to government. Likewise, not enough information flowed out of government about what they actually were doing and why. Direct democracy didn’t work either: referendums often split society, and simply showed a government that the country was divided. Something different was needed.

Civic hackers thought the internet could be part of the solution, but in Taiwan – like everywhere else – it seemed to be part of the problem. Online politics was polarised. It made people angry and bombarded political leaders with lobbying and abuse. The internet created only heat and noise, and gave citizens no way to express preferences the government could act on.

Their answer to the government’s request was to create a new kind of political process. They wanted to allow citizens to not only vote on questions posed by the government, but also control what questions were asked in the first place. And they wanted these questions to be based on attitudes held in common across Taiwanese society rather than on its divisions. They called the process vTaiwan.

READ NEXT

It came out of the G0v hackathons, developed by volunteers, but attended and listened to by government officials. Through constant tweaking, they worked out a set process, partly technological, partly face-to-face, that could be started by government on a specific question. It had to be open for anyone to join, and could only work if people were involved with skin in the game from all sides of any particular question. But it also had to create concrete outputs that the government could turn into new laws.

They knew that online discussions would most likely attract the younger, digitally savvy crowds first, so vTaiwan was at first mostly used to debate questions of technology regulation: “should Uber be allowed?”, or “should alcohol be available to buy online?” Whatever the question, vTaiwan sought to design away the incentives for trolling and abuse and move political debate closer to internet-powered governance: transparent, inclusive and, above all, consensus-seeking.

One evening in mid-July 2019, I saw vTaiwan in action. Citizens gathered around tables in a softly lit room, together with officials from the Ministry of Transport. The issue was electric vehicle regulation. Many had arrived on Segways and e-scooters – vehicles that the government deems illegal – but there wasn’t any shouting. Everyone – government, riders, e-vehicle sellers, pedestrians – had come to talk about what they had in common with each other. This debate was face-to-face, but the people in it had already been drawn closer to each other: vTaiwan had already used an online debate to identify what G0v call “consensus items” – statements many people across most groups broadly agreed with.

Votes on vTaiwan are aggregated to show clusters of consensus

On any usual social media platform, the opposite would more likely be true. Those platforms are engineered to keep you on the site, and this usually means serving up content that provokes the strongest emotions – either zealous agreement or spluttering outrage. People would focus on the most polarising statements. Using the Internet to pull people together rather than split them apart requires designing an environment very different from the usual online forums for political debate, such as Twitter or Facebook.

To do that, vTaiwan used a platform called Polis, the creation of a team of technologists and former activists based in Seattle who aim at turning online debating on its head. “We wanted a comment system to be able to handle large populations and stay coherent,” says Polis co-founder Colin Megill, “to make it easier to successfully decentralise power in organisations of all kinds.” Like any social media, it allows participants to share their feelings and to agree or disagree with others. But as they do so, the platform draws a map of the debate, and shows everyone where they are in it. In the case of the debate on electric vehicles, for instance, two knots of people with similar views had emerged: one that wanted e-vehicles legalised today, another worried about safety.

“When people started using Polis, we found that it became a consensus-generating mechanism,” Megill says. To bring the groups closer together, Polis has reengineered many of the features we take for granted on social media. No reply button – hence no trolling. No echo-chambers, replaced by an attitudes map showing you where you are in relation to everyone else. The platform does not highlight the most divisive statements, but gives more visibility to the most consensual ones. The ones that get attention are those that find support not only in one cluster, but across other groups, too.

“People compete to bring up the most nuanced statements that can win most people across. Invariably, within three weeks or four, we always find a shape where most people agree on most of the statements,” Tang says. “People spend far more time discovering their commonalities rather than going down a rabbit hole on a particular issue.”

This technological change exposes a deeper human truth: on most issues, there might be half a dozen points of bitter division, but 20 or 30 of broad unity. The trick is to make these more visible.

“[Social media] mostly divides people. But the same technology can also be designed in a way that allows people to converge and form a polity,” Tang says. vTaiwan has allowed citizens to sidestep the gruelling divisions that define online politics. vTaiwan didn’t necessarily try to resolve the areas of bitter disagreement, but instead to forge a way forward based on the numerous areas most people agreed on.

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Since 2014, the government has repeatedly asked for vTaiwan to be used to find consensus where none seemed to exist. Groups both supported and rejected caning for drunk drivers, but – rejecting the government’s phrasing of the question – eventually united around how to prevent drunk driving in the first place. In another instance, vTaiwan found that both groups in favour of and against changing Taiwan’s timezone were keen for Taiwan to be seen as more unique – the disagreement was about whether changing time zone would be an effective way of doing this. In its most famous case, the regulation of cab-hailing app Uber, vTaiwan initially found hardened factions set around either its convenience or illegality. Yet the debate ended with a series of practical points of agreement: Uber could operate, but only with licenced drivers.

One precious thing about consensus is that it can actually be acted upon. By clearing away the noise and division, the government was able to connect debates with decisions. The outcomes of the vTaiwan have been put in front of Parliament, by government, to form the core of 11 pieces of laws and regulation, with eight more waiting to go on everything from revenge porn to fintech regulation.

This was only the beginning. The vTaiwan process itself has remained outside of government, run by G0v volunteers – even though the government uses the results. For Tang and PDIS, the next step was to move the same principles and thinking into government itself. Later that week in July, I see the same process playing out in the chilled, echoing marble corridors of a government building. A civil servant with rolled-up sleeves leans on a table looking down at a giant sheet of paper, next to a young man wearing a backpack. Both are part of a vTaiwan-inspired process called “co-gov”, that brings citizens into government ministries. The issue at hand is that there are too many empty houses in Taipei at the same time as skyrocketing rent.

The most agreed-upon statements are highlighted, encouraging consensus over polarisation

Co-gov is designed to map out the issue, understand the stakeholders involved, and then find the areas of consensus. Tang and PDIS train civil servants to run “vTaiwan-inspired” processes of their own, using Polis whenever they need to listen to large groups of people. All government drafts of law are now subject to 60 days of public commentary which – although the details are still being worked out – is set to be similar to vTaiwan. The next step is to use this kind of deliberation to shape what people are asked in referendums. “We’re making hacker culture part of public service culture. We’re not bringing the hackers in, we’re turning government into hackers,” Tang says.

This experiment has as many challenges in front of it as achievements behind. So far, it has only focused on emerging digital issues, unlikely to affect people who don’t use technology. Some in G0v feel that it has still to face its acid test: a national issue riven with entrenched polarisation. On the streets of Taipei, few people have heard of it: only 200,000 people have so far been through the process.

If you’re cynical about politics, you’re just likely to be cynical about digital democracy too – just another way for politicians to get what they want. Cynicism aside, deliberation of any kind is always time-consuming and tiring, and a struggle for people to fit into their busy lives. It has also been slotted into a system of representative democracy which, in a sense, it both challenges and relies upon. “Citizens can really make some change through this digital platform. But those digital democracy platforms don’t have any kind of real authority,” says Taiwanese parliamentarian Karen Yu. “Legislators still have more power for legislative change.”

It is ironic that a project aimed at spreading power outwards is so dependent on a small number of individuals, including Tang. If the ruling Democratic Progressive Party loses power in 2020, the experiment might vanish overnight. It remains to be seen whether the Sunflower legacy will be enduring.

But Taiwan has lessons for democracies all over the world, proving that the character of political debate is partly down to platform engineering. Polarised and angry content keeps us engaged, and that is exactly what platforms have been designed to show us. Design a platform to find consensus, and you see it arise in the debate.

Tang thinks that vTaiwan might become a power that could exist quite apart from representatives or ministers. “Once people get the idea that you don’t need a government to do governance, then people get into the true spirit of collaborative governance,” she says. “It may take a generation or more for people to see the state as a useful illusion and only use that illusion whenever convenient.”

In countries such as the UK, democracy has fossilised in a particular form. In Taiwan, a young democracy that doesn’t carry the same weighty legacy, it is being upgraded. It might stand a better chance of adapting.

=====================end of reblog from WIRED ==========================

About broodjejaap

See ABOUT on TheConnectivist.wordpress.com
This entry was posted in agency, Audrey Tang, democracy, Digital Democracy, infodemic, K-Pop demonstration, P2P Collective Intelligence, P2P Power, participation democracy, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Digital Democracy in Taiwan, basis 8 for Synthecracy

  1. Pingback: Digital Democracy in the USA, in the UK? | The Connectivist

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