Imagine a place where social media unites rather than divides, forging consensus on crucial issues. Well, that's how the new democracy in Taiwan now operates after the government appointed a hacker as their Digital Minister.
Back in March 2014 the people of Taiwan got very upset about a trade bill with China. Opponents to the bill felt not just defeated, but invisible. The government had promised to listen to their concerns, but simply hadn’t done so, rushing the bill through Parliament.
So, a mass of disgruntled citizens stormed the Parliament building and streamed onto the floor of Taiwan’s ‘legislative Yuan.’ The occupation became known as the Sunflower Revolution and was one of those pivotal moments when a new era begins. It was all about persuading Taiwan’s government to engage with its people and to listen better.
The Taiwanese government, remarkably, decided to engage with the idea. Instead of turning to the usual suspects, like lobbyists or political consultants, a government team showed up at a bustling lecture theatre on a university campus to ask for the help of a group that very few politicians knew even existed: the civic hackers.
Taiwan’s civic hackers were organized around a leaderless collective called g0v (pronounced “gov zero”). Many believed in radical transparency, in throwing opaque processes open to the light, the idea that everyone who is affected by a decision should have a say in it. They preferred establishing consensus to running lots of majority-rule votes.
In the wake of the Sunflower Revolution, members of g0v joined the government, and one of its members, Audrey Tang, became the country’s Digital Minister. The worlds of power and politics began to mix with technology and hackerdom in ways never seen before in an attempt to create a new way of making consensus-orientated political decisions. One wonders what neighbouring China thought about this...?
As g0v saw it, the problem of politics was essentially one of information. Votes were strung out too far apart to really give lawmakers much of an idea of what the public wanted and votes, referenda, run-offs and debates - as with many parts of the world - often split the public down the middle. They needed a way not to measure division, but construct consensus.
Naturally, they thought the internet could offer a solution. But in Taiwan - like everywhere else - the internet was part of the problem. The kinds of online spaces where political debate happened were engineered for an entirely different purpose: to capture attention. Whether it was Twitter’s timeline or Facebook’s news feed, these platforms served up information that was shocking, horrifying or mad enough to keep people glued to their screens. And that often meant enhancing the politics of division and outrage rather than the subtle complexities of compromise.
This is a view echoed by former US president Barak Obama in a speech he gave last week.
Obama said he’s concerned that society is losing an understanding of truth and facts. He said once people have fallen into their own perceived reality, it’s hard for them to break out of that to see the fuller picture. “Everyone wants to believe what they want to believe,” he said, before evoking the late U.S. Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”
Although Obama criticized Internet services for fueling division, he also suggested that they have created more opportunities for people to access information. He also said that if used properly, social media networks can serve as valuable tools to better inform people and create more understanding and less division. “The virtual world works best when it translates into action."
And the 'action' adopted by the hackers' in Taiwan was called vTaiwan. (The “v” stands for virtual.) A mixed-reality, scaled listening exercise, for an entirely new way to make decisions. The platform invites citizens into an online space for debate that politicians listen to and take into account when casting their votes. Government would start a new vTaiwan process on a political question it was deliberating, and Taiwanese people from across the full spectrum of opinion would join one another to discuss it online.
Crucially, however, the discussants found themselves in an entirely new kind of online space - exactly the opposite of a social media platform that encourages strife. vTaiwan used a platform called Polis, designed by Seattle-based technologists, that turned the engineering of the tech giants like Facebook on its head. Like any other social media platform, Polis would let anyone share their feelings on the issue with everyone else, and agree and disagree with the opinions of others. But that’s where the similarity ended.
As the debate began, Polis drew a map showing all the different knots of agreement and dissent as they emerged. As people expressed their views, rather than serving up the comments that were the most divisive, it gave the most visibility to those finding consensus - consensus across not just their own little huddle of ideological fellow-travellers, but the other huddles, too. Divisive statements, trolling, provocation - you simply couldn’t see these.
They found that re-engineering the online 'arena' had exposed a deeper human truth. In politics, humans spend most of their time concentrating on what they disagree upon. But if you gamify consensus, you expose points of unity that were previously hidden.
Soon, vTaiwan was being rolled out on issue after issue, especially those related to technology, and each time a hidden consensus was revealed. Underneath an angry debate about Uber regulation, for instance, it emerged that what everyone really cared about was safety. Then there was the extremely angry debate about whether to change Taiwan’s time zone. But what initially had all the hallmarks of geopolitics (closer to China, or further away?) really wasn’t about that at all - everyone wanted Taiwan to maintain its autonomy, they just disagreed on whether a time zone was the way to do it.
The participants even began to change the questions themselves - rather than argue over whether drunk drivers should be beaten with canes, everyone began to focus on how to prevent drunk driving in the first place.
Most valuable of all, by clearing away the noise and divisiveness, vTaiwan created outcomes that the government could actually act on. It has formed the core of around a dozen new laws, ranging from revenge porn to Fintech regulation. More are waiting to be passed.
New worlds may begin in the old, but they don’t remain there. Civic technologists are spread all over the world, and the achievements of Taiwan - and Audrey Tang herself - have redefined what is possible. Could this spread elsewhere to transform democracy and help governments make decisions more effectively.
That’s a reason to be cautious, but also a reason for optimism. The system’s potential to heal divisions, to reconnect people to politics, is a solution made for the problems of our age. What started with a protest on the floor of Taiwan’s parliament may lead us towards a world governed by systems that look very different from any parliament at all.
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