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