How a Transgender Anarchist Genius Solved the ‘Uber Problem’ in Taiwan
This past October, a junior-high school dropout and self-declared anarchist by the name of Audrey Tang became Taiwan’s minister of technology, the country’s first transgender cabinet officer. On May 9th of this year the Los Angeles Times published a profile of Tang, headlined ’She’s young, transgender and an anarchist, and is leading Taiwan’s drive to become a digital powerhouse.’ The piece is a worthy introduction to Tang, who at 36 is also the youngest government minister in Taiwan. She’s a fascinating and singular individual. According to another profile in the Taipei Times, Tang “reportedly has an IQ of 180”, and according to her parents “was reading classic[al] literature in a variety of languages and solving simultaneous equations…in first grade.” Despite dropping out of school at age 14 (the same year she started her first company), she “was able to harness the exponential growth of new technologies to advance her education.” While neither article speaks to the origin of Tang’s anarchist philosophy, perhaps her autodidactic and entrepreneurial tendencies had something to do with it. Regardless, she has already brought her anarchic sensibilities to bear on state policy.
Last year Tang posted a fascinating essay on her Medium page about her work in 2015 as “co-facilitator of the 7th vTaiwan e-Rulemaking public consultation meeting”, which sought to address concerns around the entry of Uber into the market. While that may sound horribly bureaucratic, a careful reading of Tang’s essay reveals something different: a non-hierarchical, non-coercive model for incorporating the positions and interests of all stakeholders (including the public) in public policy, in order to arrive at consensus-based recommendations. The meeting was a project of gov.tw, which is described as “…a way to combine online and offline activism…following the model established by the Free Software community…a [social media] platform for social production, with a fully open and decentralized cultural & technological framework.” It’s an entirely volunteer-run project that employs the crowdsourcing model to make recommendations on internet regulation to policymakers.
Tang’s work on the ‘Uber Issue’ was a success: at the end of her essay she matter-of-factly informs the reader that “on May 23, 2016, the administration pledged to ratify…all consensus items into a new regulation [such that] app-based taxis [like Uber] are free to operate.” Uber did have to agree to tighter regulation, but previously there had been no coherent policy at all, and the government simply acted reactively, having issued the company over $1 Million [USD] in fines prior to the agreement. Traditional cab companies, long-established tax-paying entities, were the clear beneficiaries of this capricious government regulation. With the new consensus, however, those cab companies agreed to “work with [Uber] under mutually-agreeable terms…[and to] offer better services.” While the result is a small but encouraging win for free market competition, the real story here is no doubt the consensus itself: the result of a technology-intensive process that distilled feedback from all parties in the interest of finding a mutually agreeable solution.
It would seem self-evident that public policy should be formulated with the input of all parties, but in reality, of course, it is those parties most willing and able to spend money on the political process that generally achieves their aims. In the model Tang describes, community volunteers gather the data necessary for a given policy, which is collected and analyzed in a well-defined and transparent process. The broad range of input, as well as the disinterested nature of the volunteers themselves, can lead to what Tang calls “blended volition.” ‘Blended Volition’ is her term for the positive result of a process designed to “focus on the stakes—regulations and policies—instead of [on the] stakeholders, “ thus “creating [a] nonviolent medium to reduce friction.” In an atmosphere of unproductive and unpredictable regulation, only entrenched players or highly-capitalized upstarts can afford to compete. But in the absence of regulation new competition can flourish. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the entire project is the fact that now “other Uber-like apps…are entering the [Taiwanese] market.” Promisingly, Tang indicates that there are plans for ‘public consultation meetings’ that will address the perennial debates over “Airbnb regulations and internet liquor sales” as well.
This may seem like quite incremental anarchism, but there may be real and significant potential here. If the gov.tw process that Tang champions can be replicated enough times, perhaps the last piece of the equation—government regulation—can ultimately be jettisoned in lieu of voluntary cooperation between all parties. Regardless, the ‘e-Rulemaking’ model is a decentralized initiative worthy of further exploration. And no doubt about it: Audrey Tang is a transgender anarchist genius worth watching.