Democracy as a Platform: Learning from Taiwan

Yesterday, Jeremy Till (who I’m proud to say was at one point my university tutor) shared with me a link to this extraordinary interview by Matthew Taylor with Audrey Tang 唐鳳, the digital minister of Taiwan. If you haven’t listened to it, do. It’s utterly fascinating. Tang is next-level smart, and in this interview she talks about some of the creative digital design interventions by Taiwan’s government, which contributed to the country’s extraordinary success in combating COVID-19. But as well as being fascinated, Jeremy also described an instinctive discomfort with the idea of a state using technology with such effectiveness and with such behavioural astuteness. He asked for my thoughts. And student habits die hard… so here they are.

Why does it make us nervous when governments use digital tools so effectively? Should it?

One of the stubborn category errors we have repeatedly made in recent decades — especially in the US and Western Europe — is that we have tended to frame digital technology and the Web as an exclusively private sector phenomenon. Or worse a ‘Silicon Valley’ phenomenon. ‘Tech companies’, Facebook, Google, Amazon and so on. And so we subconsciously bundled digital tools and methods with the values and purposes we have seen them put to thus far (by capital).

But the web is not an exclusively private sector phenomenon, unless we let it be so. The web is no more a tool of capital than paper was. Paper is paper; you can inscribe it with any set of values and use it for any purpose. It just depends who controls it and how they use it. Code is no different. All code is political, but what those politics are is up to us. Digital technology and web are the organising medium of the 21C in the same way that paper was the organising medium of the 20th.

The problem is that democratic states, having initially funded the research that led to the creation of the microchip, the Internet and world wide web, have since dropped the ball, and now they’re late to the party. Government finds itself trying to regulate a world that runs in code armed only with a pencil. But some governments at least are now racing to catch up.

All this is revealing another framing error. We were always told that ‘the state’ and ‘the market’ were opposites. ‘The State vs The Market’. The obvious implication being that ‘big state’ means ‘small market’, and vice versa.

It is now unambiguously clear that this is a myth. In reality the state is not the opposite of the market: it is the platform on which the market runs, providing the infrastructure and conditions for businesses to succeed. It is maker and shaper of property and markets. (I wrote a bit more about this concept here; I’d also strongly recommend ‘The Entrepreneurial State’ by Marianna Mazzucato and ‘The Code of Capital’ by Katharina Pistor)

Whether we like or not, in the 21st Century the state will be the (digital) platform on which society and the economy run, or it will be nothing at all.

So the real question is, what kind of platform do want it to be? Roughly speaking, there are three options.

  1. The Captured State as a Platform Wherein increasingly weak and corrupted institutions act as a state in name only – in reality both Gov and state functions will be outsourced and owned by a small group of powerful lobbyists and rentier companies providing closed, often poor quality services, harvesting citizens data and acting largely in their own interest. This includes looking the other way when it comes to protecting citizens rights and wellbeing.
  2. Authoritarianism as a Platform The full Orwell. Where a strong state uses the web and digital methods as a tool of strategic power to centrally control markets and citizens behaviour, with little regard for privacy or citizens rights. (Basically, China. It is not a coincidence that it is Taiwan that is energetically demonstrating a counterpoint to this model. China’s looming geopolitical shadow must have the effect of sharpening the mind considerably.) But it is not a binary choice between state surveillance and surveillance capitalism. There is another way:
  3. Democracy as a Platform Where capable, well-resourced and accountable institutions use lean, open digital tools, infrastructure and funding to create and regulate prosperous markets and protect citizens rights. This, I would suggest, is what Taiwan are pursuing. I wouldn’t say it is utopian, it’s just asking the question: what does democracy look like in a digital era? How do we apply the principles of liberal democracy in an age where information, money, goods and people can move much, much faster, and digital devices can collect unprecedented amounts of data? The image of competent, digitally-savvy, democratic institutions using open infrastructure and drawing-on citizens’ creativity only looks utopian to us because we have neglected our own institutions and ideals so badly. Digital interventionism should not be mistaken for infringement of rights. As this piece points out, Taiwan’s digital tracing app seems to have had the principle of protecting citizens confidentiality inscribed into its code. As a result, it was trusted, and Taiwan’s citizens ended up experiencing far less imposition on their liberty than those of us in countries with no contact tracing app.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which of these three models the UK is headed towards. As Mariana Mazzucato has articulated so superbly, what COVID 19 has revealed is that in the UK and US especially, Government has spent so long believing that its job is to ‘get out of the way’ — so long thinking that its only strategic objective is to enable big business — that it is literally no longer capable of acting effectively to achieve strategic social aims, even when it needs to, because it has stripped-back and outsourced its own capacity.

Taiwan’s ministers at a press conference wearing pink face masks, as part of a deliberate campaign to de-gender the colour.
Taiwan’s ministers at a press conference wearing pink face masks, as part of a deliberate campaign to de-gender the colour.

The UK Government couldn’t build the same kind of open PPE supply data dashboard Audrey describes, because despite the work of organisations like GDS, NHSX and small digital teams across government, it literally doesn’t have access to standardised supply chain data: or the open, shared digital registers with APIs. Companies do not have to share this kind of data into shared commons. In the UK, even the government’s own maps and postcode systems are privately owned. During the COVID crisis, the UK Gov has handed out £bns in private contracts without competitive tender and seems to have remarkably little to show for it. Contact tracers sat at home doing nothing. An accountancy firm won a contract to run testing stations, then did a pretty pants job of it. Perhaps more terrifyingly, NHSX awarded a contract to handle citizens contact tracing data to Palantir for only £1. It is unlikely this was an act of altruism on Palantir’s part: more likely, they were taking the loss in order to get access to something of far greater value.)

One of the most impressive things we did achieve was the rapid assembly of the NHS Nightingale hospitals — which was done by the Army.

In the interview, Audrey also talks about the ‘social sector’ – citizens and non-profit organisations. In the UK we barely know how to even talk about these sectors, let alone invest in them or recruit them at the service of big civic goals or systems innovation challenges (which is ironic given that Operation Dynamo — where hundreds of small private vessels were used to rescue the British Army from Dunkirk — is such a celebrated part of our cultural memory). So instead, we just end up with Amazon, Google, Capita, Deloittes etc.

Of course, Britain’s version of Democracy as a Platform might look a bit different to Taiwan’s – but there’s much here to take inspiration from, and — I would suggest — very little to be nervous about. In the UK we need to take COVID19 as a huge wake-up call. When the next big crisis hits — and arguably it already has, and is, everyday — we can’t afford for our governments to be unable to act effectively. We can’t afford to have governments that don’t understand the technological age we’re now in, or how to use digital design tactics in a principled way. We can’t afford to have a government that doesn’t know how engage us as citizens, and instead sees citizens only as (applauding) spectators and a PR problem to be solved.

I’d also suggest we shouldn’t wait for government to work this out. Anyone, anywhere with time, talent or command over resources can start working on something society needs. Often it’s only by trying to do something that we find out what else needs doing. We need to see Democracy as a Platform as a massive, collaborative design project, and we’ve barely started.

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