The origin of one world always begins with its feet in another. And so it was on March 18, 2014.
A large crowd had formed, pressing against a tall wire fence that separated them from a large, gray building, resembling something of a mix between a bunker and a temple.
That evening, the crowd — as crowds do — wanted change. The flashpoint had been a trade bill, purporting to bring their country, Taiwan, closer to China. But the problem, the anger, was deeper.
Hundreds of Taiwanese protesters occupy parliament on March 18, 2014. Credit: Wikipedia
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 onto the Parliament floor. They had the votes; they could get it through. So that evening, protestors scaled the fence, kicked the door open and streamed onto the floor of Taiwan’s Parliament, the ‘legislative Yuan.’
The occupation became known as the Sunflower Revolution. It was one of those moments where a new direction is taken and a new era begins. For as it settled one question, that of trade, it opened another, much bigger one: How could Taiwan’s government listen better?
To answer that question, Taiwan did not turn to any of the usual suspects. They didn’t ask lobbyists or political consultants. Instead, one Saturday several months later, the government arrived at a bustling lecture theater 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, and in multi-stakeholderism, 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. These were all principles, incidentally, that parallel thinking about how software should be designed — a philosophy that g0v had begun to apply to the arena of domestic politics.
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 political decisions.
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 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, Facebook’s news feed or the recommendations on YouTube, these platforms served up information that was shocking, horrifying or crazy enough to keep people glued to their screens. And that often meant amplifying the thundering politics of division and outrage rather than the subtle complexities of compromise.