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Taiwan’s Digital Minister Has an Ambitious Plan to Align Tech With Democracy

11 minute read

Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s 43-year-old minister of digital affairs, has a powerful effect on people. At a panel discussion at Northeastern University in Boston, 20-year-old student Diane Grant is visibly moved, describing Tang’s talk as the best she’s been to in her undergraduate career. Later that day, a German tourist recognizes Tang leaving the Boston Museum of Science and requests a photo, saying she’s “starstruck.” At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a trio of world-leading economists bashfully ask Tang to don a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of their research center and pose for a group photo. Political scientist and former gubernatorial candidate Danielle Allen, confesses to Tang that, although others often tell her that she is a source of inspiration to them, she rarely feels inspired by others. But she has found an exception: Tang inspires her. 

Few visiting dignitaries elicit such reactions. But to some, Tang symbolizes hope. 

In an era when digital technologies—social media, artificial intelligence, blockchains—are increasingly seen as a threat to democracy, Taiwan seems to offer an alternative path. In Taiwan, civil society groups and the government work together to harness technology, giving people more say in how their country is run, and tackling problems like tracing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and combatting electoral disinformation campaigns.

Tang, the world’s first openly transgender minister, played a pivotal role in all of this, first as an activist hacker and then from within the government. Now, she is stepping back from her ministerial duties to embark upon a world tour to promote the ideas that have flourished in Taiwan. These are ideas captured in Plurality, a book Tang has co-authored with E. Glen Weyl, a 39-year-old American economist at Microsoft, and more than 100 online collaborators.

Tang aims to be a global ambassador, demonstrating how technology and democracy can coexist harmoniously. “In Taiwan, for the past decade, this is the dominant worldview,” she says. “Just to see how that narrative—how that overarching, intertwined feeling of tech and democracy—can grow in non-Taiwan places. I'm most looking forward to that.”

The tour's objective is not only to disseminate the book’s ideas but also to expose people to Tang herself. “It would change the world if every major world leader gets to spend 30 minutes with Audrey,” says Weyl, the primary orchestrator of the plan. “It’s about the experience of being with her. It changed my life.”

Tang’s unique charisma was shaped by a rare set of circumstances. At the age of 4, Tang—who was born with a serious heart condition—was given just a 50% chance of surviving long enough to undergo life-saving surgery. If she ever became upset, or angry, or excited, she would lose consciousness and wake up in an intensive care unit. She soon learned to keep her composure, and though an operation corrected her condition when she was 12, her equanimity remained.

“If you've been living with that condition for 12 years of your life, that’s your core personality,” she says. “I convinced myself to go on a roller coaster once or twice, rationally knowing I would not die. But it wasn't very pleasant.”

Tang grew up alongside democracy and digital technologies in Taiwan. Aged 8, she taught herself to program by sketching a keyboard on a piece of paper, feigning typing, and then writing the output on another piece of paper. (After a few weeks of this, her parents relented and bought her a computer). By 14, Tang had left formal education to pursue programming full-time; she spent the next two decades contributing to open-source projects both in Taiwan and abroad.

“The idea of personal computing, to people in Taiwan, is inherently democratic,” Tang says. Computers and internet access meant the ability to publish books without state sponsorship, and communicate without state surveillance, a stark contrast to the martial law era that only ended in 1987, six years after Tang was born. 

All of this fueled the rise of the g0v (gov zero) movement in 2012, led by civic hackers who wanted to increase transparency and participation in public affairs. The movement started by creating superior versions of government websites, which they hosted on .g0v.tw domains instead of the official .gov.tw, often attracting more traffic than their governmental counterparts. The g0v movement has since launched more initiatives that seek to use technology to empower Taiwanese citizens, such as vTaiwan, a platform that facilitates public discussion and collaborative policymaking between citizens, experts, and government officials.

In 2014, the movement’s influence became clear when protestors, many affiliated with g0v, occupied Taiwan’s legislative chamber to oppose a trade deal with China. “Democracy needs me,” Tang wrote to her colleagues at California-based software company Socialtext, before leaving to support the protesters for the duration of their 24-day occupation by helping them to peacefully broadcast their message.

E. Glen Weyl and Audrey TangMichele Zanini/Creative Commons 1.0

The protests marked a turning point in Taiwan. The government made efforts to engage with young activists and in 2016, Tang, then 35, was appointed as digital minister without portfolio. In 2022, Tang was named Taiwan’s first minister for digital affairs, and in 2023 she was made chairperson of the board of Taiwan’s National Institute of Cyber Security.

In many regards, Taiwan leads the world in digital democracy, thanks to initiatives led by Tang and others. Taiwan’s agile response to COVID-19, including a widely-praised contact tracing system, exemplifies this success. (At one point, the island nation went 200 days without a locally transmitted coronavirus case.) Such achievements, Plurality argues, are partly responsible for Taiwan’s remarkable economic, social, and political success over the last decade.

However, it’s important not to overstate the impact of Taiwan’s digital democracy initiatives, cautions Sara Newland, an assistant professor at Smith College, Massachusetts, who researches Chinese and Taiwanese politics. While Taiwan is a well-governed country and it's plausible that the various examples of digital democracy contribute to this success, it’s also possible that these initiatives came about because Taiwan is well-governed, she says. The vision outlined in Plurality borders on utopian, and Taiwan’s case may not provide enough evidence to prove its feasibility.

Still, while Plurality might draw heavily on Taiwan’s experience, its scope is global. The book’s core lays out the fundamental rights that societies must promote, how digital technologies can aid in promoting them, and the collaboration-enhancing technologies that could strengthen democracy. For each technology, examples are drawn from outside Taiwan. For example, “immersive shared reality technologies,” futuristic cousins of virtual reality headsets like Apple’s Vision Pro and Meta’s Quest, could foster empathy at a distance and allow people to step into another’s shoes. The book cites Becoming Homeless, a seven-minute virtual reality experience designed by researchers at Stanford to help the user understand how it feels to lose your home, as a primitive example of an immersive shared reality technology.

Plurality aims to offer a roadmap for a future in which technology and democracy not only co-exist but thrive together; in writing the book, Tang and Weyl put this collaborative ethos into practice. The book, which is free to download, began life as a blog post authored by Weyl; although Weyl and Tang conceived of the project and Weyl was the primary author, anyone could contribute to the book’s development. More than 100 people contributed—some copy-edited, some designed graphics, some wrote entire chapters, says Tang. While juggling ministerial duties, Tang spent hours each week working on the book, contributing ideas and building the website. “At the end of the day,” she quips, “I was still a coder for some reason.”

The fledgling plurality movement faces a daunting challenge: countering the threat from the two dominant digital technologies of our time—artificial intelligence and blockchains—and their effects on society. Plurality argues that both of these are undermining democracy in different, but equally pernicious ways. AI systems facilitate top-down control, empowering authoritarian regimes and unresponsive technocratic governments in ostensibly democratic countries. Meanwhile, blockchain-based technologies atomize societies and accelerate financial capitalism, eroding democracy from below. As Peter Thiel, billionaire entrepreneur and investor, put it in 2018: “crypto is libertarian and AI is communist.”

Weyl sees echoes of the 1930s, when fascism and communism battled for ideological supremacy. “But there was another option,” he says—liberal democracy. Now, Weyl and Tang are striving to articulate a new alternative to AI-powered authoritarianism and blockchain-fueled libertarianism: “plurality.” They hope this idea—of a symbiotic relationship between democracy and collaborative technology—can profoundly influence the century ahead. 

Plurality concludes with a call to action, setting bold targets for the movement it hopes to inspire. By 2030, the authors want the idea of plurality to be as widely recognized in the tech world as AI and blockchain, and as prominent in political discourse as environmentalism. To get there, the pair aim to cultivate a core group of 1,000 deeply engaged advocates, distribute 1 million copies of the book, and build sympathy among 1 billion people. “Frankly, I'm starting to feel like these [goals] maybe are actually under ambitious,” Weyl says.

This isn’t his first attempt at movement-building. Weyl’s first book, Radical Markets, generated huge buzz when it was published in 2018, prompting him to channel that enthusiasm into launching the RadicalxChange Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to advance the book’s ideas. (Tang and Weyl are both members of the Foundation’s board, along with Vitalik Buterin, the “prince of cryptocurrency” who introduced the pair in 2018.) However, while the Foundation has had some success, it fell far short of the targets Weyl has set for Plurality’s impact on the world. And history is littered with extinct political movements, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, that failed to meet their goals. If Weyl thinks his targets are under ambitious, many might think them delusional. 

Weyl is unperturbed. Last time, he didn’t have a plan. With Plurality, he says, he’s taking a more ambitious approach—one that hinges on Tang’s star power. Weyl has enlisted Oscar-winning director Cynthia Wade to shoot a short documentary about Tang’s life and Taiwan’s democratic evolution, with the goal of premiering it at film festivals later this year.

As Hollywood shut down during last year’s strikes, working through footage of Tang has been soothing, says Wade. “When you're editing a film, you're living with somebody. So [Tang has] been living in our household for the last quarter,” she says. “There's a way in which she encourages you to stop and reflect that feels very different, and maybe even more participatory.”

A feature-length biopic is also in the early stages, with Weyl floating the idea of casting trans actor Ian Alexander in the lead role. Tang, characteristically deadpan, offers an alternative: “Sora, maybe,” referring to an unreleased AI system developed by OpenAI that generates videos from text prompts.

This playful exchange captures the duo’s dynamic. Over the course of four hours at Weyl’s house in Arlington, Mass., Weyl earnestly expounds on the book’s ideas and aspirations, while Tang interjects with droll asides. The evangelizing, the ideological battle of the 21st century, the numerical targets in the millions and billions—these all come from Weyl, they say. Tang would never think in those terms, Weyl says, “without me constantly badgering her.”

Tang nods in agreement, seemingly unfazed by the weight of his expectations. Despite embarking on a journey that could—if Weyl’s goals are met—change the course of history, she remains remarkably laid-back. When a friend asked her last year why she was devoting so much time to the book, she replied simply: “Just to make Glen feel better and sleep better.” 

Such serenity is not the most natural quality in a representative for what Weyl hopes might be a century-defining ideology, but it is, perhaps, the reason for the strong reactions Tang provokes. In fact, it may be Tang’s poise, as much as Weyl’s zeal, that gives the plurality movement some hope of achieving its lofty goals.

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Write to Will Henshall at will.henshall@time.com