Recently, PoP researchers Ben Mardell and Yvonne Liu-Constant met with Audrey Tang in her office in Taipei. An internationally renowned open-source coder and activist, Audrey is also Taiwan’s Digital Affairs Minister.
Minister Tang has a fascinating biography. She grew up in Taiwan, was child of two journalists, and dropped out of school at 14. By 19 she was an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. In her early thirties she retired from business to devote herself to public service.
We wanted to meet with the Minister because she is a quintessential playful learner and “what if” thinker (listen to this 2020 National Public Radio interview to get a sense of why we say this). When advocating for schools that cultivate playful learning and “what if” thinking, it is useful to have examples of adults who play with ideas for the betterment of their local and global communities. Audrey Tang is such an example.
During our half hour together, Ms. Tang touched on a wide range of big ideas: democracy as a social technology, intrinsic motivation and the problem with grades, education reform in Taiwan, and more. Here we highlight three evocative ideas discussed: inclusive playgrounds, playful politics, and trust.
We began our conversation by asking the Minister, “How do you go about identifying a problem and then solving it?” Her answer was swift and clear:
I don’t solve problems. I live with problems. I spend time with problems. The idea is simple. It’s about empowering people closest to the pain.
Ms. Tang then shared an example of this from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. In Taiwan at that time, pharmacists were experiencing a lot of pain. With the goal of getting masks to at least 75% of the population to prevent the spread of the disease, pharmacies had long lines at their doors, stressed customers, and, when supplies of masks ran out, an upset public. Tang talked to the pharmacists, asking, What if you were a webmaster, what would you do? [not an unreasonable question coming from an expert coder and webmaster]. One result of these conversations was a mask map, an accessible online tool that listed the availability of masks and wait times at different pharmacies. A feature of the map was that pharmacists were provided a “cloak of invisibility”— a button they could press when they ran out of masks, allowing them to disappear off the map until they restocked.
Describing her approach, Audrey explained:
My commitment is to make a space—an inclusive playground—where there can be better ideas.
We see this inclusive playground as a space where people can together imagine, try things out, iterate, and ask “what if.” Having such a playground can help account for Taiwan’s internationally recognized success against the virus.
Minster Tang helped fashion the three pillars of Taiwan’s response to Covid: fast, fair, and fun. Fun!? Having experienced Covid in the US, fun feels very far from the response presented by our own government (and likely other places as well). Ms. Tang explained why fun:
Optimizing for fun is very important in politics. Why? Because if it isn’t fun, people don’t share innovations with others.
It is critical that citizens share innovations and accurate information with each other. Audrey continued,
You have to have a higher R [replication] value than conspiracy theories…If our R value is even higher--more fun--it gives us a mental vaccine; an inoculation of the mind…When someone is in a playful mood, there is no room for conspiracy theories.
An example of fun is the Covid prevention Spokesdog, CEO Shiba（總柴). The cuddly pup went viral on Taiwanese social media, helping spread humor over rumor.
This idea of fun and laughter in the face of serious threats reminds me and Yvonne of Professor Lupin from the Harry Potter series. Lupin taught his students to laugh at monsters (in the form of “bogarts”) in order to make them disappear. It also reminds us of a concept Project Zero Director Daniel Wilson brought to our attention: playful politics. Politics, seen as a group of people collectively deciding how to organize themselves, is a complex endeavor. It isn’t, and can’t, always be fun. But regardless of how one describes it (with reference to R values or playful politics), it is clear the world needs ways to have (and spread) good ideas and inoculations against conspiracy theories. More fun doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
At the end of our conversation, we asked the Minister to spend time with a problem endemic to the US educational system (and likely other countries as well): a lack of trust. In the US, federal educational policy makers often don’t trust their state counterparts. State department of education officials don’t trust local districts heads. District administrators don’t trust school leaders, who in turn don’t trust their teachers. And it can seem like no one trusts the kids...trusting them to engage in learning without the threat of punishment. Which seems absurd, as we’ve never met a child who doesn’t want to learn—how to read, learn math, or explore the world.
Ms. Tang’s response was again swift and clear:
To give no trust is to get no trust.
Taking the issue beyond the specific case of education in the US, she argued,
It’s paramount that we start trusting strangers.
This advice is born out of experience. When Audrey was 14, having just dropped out of school, she began emailing scholars around the world about their research. Not knowing the message came from a teenager, they responded with thoughtful answers. She has fond memories of how these strangers responded with respect.
She provided an example from education in Taiwan that operationalizes this view of trust. In rural areas with less social privilege, educators are connecting young people with experts in fields in which they are interested. To communicate with these experts, the teenagers are getting tablets. Audrey explained,
We trust the children to use the tablet well. And because we trust the children, the children may trust us back. The goal of the program is to make children the hosts of their own learning.
A very similar notion to the PoP idea that playful learning involves children leading their own learning!
The idea of schools as inclusive playgrounds, where children and young people play with ideas, individually and collectively asking what if...in educational systems without trust, this is a goal that feels far out of reach. Yet talking to Audrey Tang fills one with hope. Quoting John Lennon, as she did in our conversations, Audrey would say, "It's easy if you try."