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"The word 'command' is the antithesis of a peer-to-peer relationship. As soon as you command, that person is not your peer anymore."
Conversations
7 December 2017

Audrey Tang is radically transparent

Interview by Mele-Ane Havea
Photography by Sean Marc Lee

Mele-Ane Havea on Audrey Tang...

Audrey Tang [唐鳳] is many things: transgender, a coding genius, the youngest Member of Parliament in Taiwan and the first person to hold the portfolio of digital minister. She has a personal mission to “be a channel” and I must admit, it’s this that most intrigues me. I was curious to know what it means to her and how it is realised in her new role in government.

To begin to understand this, I took a step back to learn about Taiwan, its history and governance. Taiwan is small in size (215 times smaller than Australia) but not in influence. It is the 22nd largest economy in the world and ranks very well on measures of social progress (ie. freedom of the press, healthcare, public education and economic freedoms). Despite this, Taiwan has had a complicated history of power and control, and a fraught relationship with its neighbour China who still does not recognise its independent existence. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Taiwan changed from a one-party military dictatorship to a multi-party democracy. As Audrey notes, this shift happened at the same time the World Wide Web was born. In her mind, there is a direct relationship between the democratising power offered through the connectivity of the Internet and the evolution of democracy in her country. Growing up in Taiwan and online, she has been an active citizen in both realms. With this perspective, she is uniquely positioned to act as a bridge (or, as I realised, a “channel”) between the online world and Taiwan’s democratic processes.

As we speak, I can see how that deep philosophy informs Audrey’s reality. For her, trust and radical transparency are central to good democratic governance and distributed power. It permeates everything. It’s in the way she talks about her team. She doesn’t command anyone; she calls them “peers,” and believes that only through peer-to-peer relationships can real trust develop. In addition, her office is set up to maximise transparency—during meetings she projects the screen of her tablet onto a wall so that everyone can see what she’s writing. She also audio records all her meetings with the aim of publishing the transcripts daily. There is an openness to these practices that I wouldn’t expect to see in a government setting.

There is also a deep openness in the way Audrey relates. She’s obviously incredibly intelligent—racing through ideas and concepts—but what’s most remarkable about our exchange is that it feels ego-free. She has not attached to any of the labels that might be put on her: she’s not “transgender” or a “coder” or a “parliamentarian.” Instead, she’s present, she’s alive, and her contribution seems to flow through her as though she is a channel—uninterrupted and free. Of the many things I learn from Audrey in this conversation, her way of being was the most significant of all.

This story originally ran in issue #53 of Dumbo Feather

MELE-ANE HAVEA: Maybe we can start exactly where we are, which is in Taiwan, in Taipei. Can you talk to me a bit about what it is that you’re doing here?

AUDREY TANG: So we are in Taiwan. Taiwan is an island that’s been around for four million years. It’s at the intersection of two plates on earth, and we’re raising five centimetres every year here, which is why there are so many earthquakes. Taiwan was around for a very long time before human beings, giving rise to a very diverse ecology. Also, the oldest people who live in Taiwan are now widely considered to be the origins of all the indigenous people in the Pacific Ocean.

Which, by the way, is where I’m from.

Oh, really?

Yeah. My dad is from Tonga.

Oh, okay. Awesome. I think Taiwan is really interesting because we’re a very young democracy. We only got democracy 30 years ago. Thirty years ago, there was the lifting of the martial law. My generation is the first generation to enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. We’re really new to this democracy thing. Interestingly, we’re the first generation to directly elect the president of Taiwan, and also the first generation to experience interconnectivity and ICT-based development because the World Wide Web came in ’96. It was also the year where we had our first presidential election. In many older democracies there were people working on dominance and people working on innovation, and they weren’t considered the same tribe. Here in Taiwan I’ve seen a bunch of people doing democratic innovations and ICT innovations simultaneously. I think that’s kind of special.

My role here as digital minister is to work as a channel between the civil society—as well as our international friends who work on various innovations that improves their work conditions, their living conditions, the planet really—and the government, which still in many cases works in a non-digital way. The government’s reporting and communications structure still mimic a time when there were only telephones and papers. As the digital minister, I mostly oversee a refocus on service design, a refocus on what we call “human experience”—I try not to use the word “user experience”—and the way that collaboration, both between ministries and between sectors, can improve the experience of people interacting with government—be it to enjoy their services or provide ideas, create petitions, and so on. That’s my main mandate.

I understand you’ve retired from working in Silicon Valley, and then you came here. You were invited to join the government.

That’s right.

That was in October of last year. Can you talk us through what new processes or systems you have introduced through the Taiwanese government and the way that it works?

It’s not just me. It’s a whole generation of people who occupied the parliament, and not to protest, but to demonstrate a better way of policymaking. The occupiers were protesters who demonstrated what we’d call a “scalable listening process”—not just blocking or boycotting but saying, “This process is actually a better process.” The government, of course, is very good at using radio or television to talk to millions of people, but it’s less good at listening to millions of people. It’s especially not good at getting millions of people to listen to each other. Listening and deliberation are often missing during a policymaking process. We can never be sure that the MPs are reflecting correctly the people who elected them. Many of them do, and do very successfully, but there is no systematic way to guarantee that the imagined ideas between the two voting election cycles are reflected properly into the policymaking process. Which is why the students occupied the parliament, because they wanted to express their ideas around one particular bill that the parliament refused to deliberate on. I was one of the people who supported the occupiers to further this process to make sure that everything gets transcribed and broadcasted, and so on. I’m working on the logistics, but I’m not alone in doing this.

So your work was actually born out of a protest?

Yeah, it’s called the Sunflower Movement. It was in March of 2014. It was about 22 days of Occupy. The parliament was occupied. It was non-violent. At one point we had a million people on the street.

This story originally ran in issue #53 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #53 of Dumbo Feather

At the front of the parliament?

Yeah. I was huge. Unlike many occupies around the world, where you get the tribes being more divergent and eventually losing any concrete consensus altogether, this Occupy ended up making a very clear and strong demand, which was then agreed on by the head of the parliament. It was a successful Occupy in the sense that its demands were met and people were just evacuated peacefully. It’s been compared to the 15-M movement in Spain. Of course, that was on a much larger scale. I think one of the comparable results is that right after the Occupy in both countries, the city-level elections were won by occupiers or Occupy sympathisers who themself did not expect to win the election. Just by participating in the Occupy or supporting it, they nevertheless then become heads of cities. The capital city here was won by an independent, which nobody would have predicted before the Occupy.

What do you think it was about this occupy movement in Taiwan that meant ideas converged rather than diverged?

There were many different forces at play. I think one is that it was completely peaceful. It was kept peaceful, because every corner during the occupy was filmed and live streamed and we made sure that a week or so into the occupy there was fibre optic internet line connecting directly to the camp outside the parliament. Even before that, we made sure that there was Ethernet—local network—connecting the different sites. So whatever happened was filmed like The Truman Show and immediately projected. It’s as if the walls are transparent

Anyone passing through the street could look at the projector and see what was going on in the occupied parliament—no room for rumours to spread.

We even arranged for stenographers, court reporters in the parliament to type everything they heard and then add it to the projector screen so you can just pass by and see the captions of what’s happening there.

Very interesting. To have that level of transparency. And so tell me about your work in Silicon Valley. I understand you were there for many years. Are you happy to be home?

First, I worked with Apple and other companies. I didn’t really work for them. I didn’t take commands. Also, I physically always lived in Taiwan. I travelled to the Valley only for a few weeks at a time, but for most of the time I was in Taiwan. The reason is I don’t really like very long meetings, so if I am in Taiwan because of the time zone, when Silicon Valley wakes up, it’s midnight here. So it’s maybe one hour of meeting them, which is fine, then I go to sleep—and I don’t get caught up in the bureaucracy. I never really visited Cupertino, despite working with Apple for six years. I think this really gives me a perspective of the limits of the state-of-the-art technology, of how far can we go using tele-presence, using video streaming, using online collaborative software. I don’t have an unfounded imagination of what it can do, but neither am I blind to what it could offer in a remote working relationship.

When I say I retired from the Valley, it’s that I stopped getting payment from those companies. I still get paid a lot. It’s just I become more of an independent consultant, meaning that I don’t work on specific projects; nine-to-five contracts. I was in that role for I think three years or so before joining the cabinet. I still bring a lot of the same work ethics to my current role. I still organise the team in a way that enables remote or at-home work. I also still do office hours and participate in hackathons weekly to meet with random community participants. I still work as a bridge that is not obeying commands from either side, by making sure that people understand their mutual concerns and so on.

Tell me about this word “command,” because you’ve used it five times or so. What’s your relationship to that word?

The word "command" is the antithesis of a peer-to-peer relationship. As soon as you command, that person is not your peer anymore.

In order to include more stakeholders in the dialogue, the government is now learning to trust people more. This needs to happen before asking people to trust the government, because it’s mutual. Someone has to move first. A government trusts people by not issuing commands, and instead setting up ways where stakeholders can convene, and listen to each other, and collaboratively determine, with the government endorsing the process instead of trying to take over and command the process.

It’s very different from the way that so many governments around the world operate. Is this widespread in Taiwan, or is this just with you and the world that you are building and are part of here?

I would say that first, this is not my invention of any sort. This is the first political thing I engaged with when I was a child, when I was 12 or so. When I was 12, I started working with people building the early internet that was before the World Wide Web. When I was 15 or so, I dropped out of high school to work fulltime on World Wide Web and its technologies. When people were forming the earliest World Wide Web Consortium, they actually gave up the patents, the intellectual properties, ensuring that they did not have control over its use, which makes the ecosystem very diverse and very bright. How do we work with the browsers, the vendors, the websites, the different interests trying to grow the World Wide Web, instead of harming each other’s web by working out proprietary or non-compatible extensions? You remember the early days it was Java applets, Flash and so on. While it’s technical, it’s also political.

It’s power.

It’s power. It was a new medium by which we recognised the world, and who hosts this medium really holds the power to that world, as you would now see with the social media. It is very much a power thing, and we were very acutely aware of that at the time.

You were aware of that as a 12, 13-year-old?

Yeah, of course. I’ve been reading philosophy, anarchists, for a very, very long time before really diving into what we now call Internet governance. My earliest memory of that was the Blue Ribbon campaign. I think that was in ’94, when Bill Clinton at the time signed an act called the Communications Decency Act that banned not just pornographic images, but also text, from the internet. The Act says websites need to identify the actual age and identity of people accessing them, otherwise they face fines or whatever for spreading indecent material. Now this idea seems very quaint to us now, but at the time the government really looked at the World Wide Web as any other television channel, in which this kind of Act is normal. The internet community reacted very quickly, I think organised by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. All the websites that I went to at the time turned their background dark. They become black and featured a blue ribbon which, when you click on it, goes to the link of websites that explains why freedom of speech should be upheld online, why the internet platform providers should not be taxed with the same warranty or the same duties as the people posting on it, otherwise nobody will post on their website anymore; it will just be another television channel platform. For user-contributed content to happen, there needs to be some risk in people posting pornographic content. It was argued very eloquently during the Blue Ribbon campaign, where I cut my teeth. It was my first experience in learning that the internet is not just a space for academics or for sharing scholarly text, but it’s also a space for assembly, a space for social movement, a space for petitioning and for getting the government to meet its demands. Very quickly, the Supreme Court in the US ruled that as unconstitutional, and the Act was repealed. It was widely celebrated as a victory. It’s interesting, because these people all around the world, who have never met before, were celebrating a victory together, which illustrates the potential for internet as a political space, intermingling but separate from any sovereign space. We certainly did not act as representatives of our states. We were individual activists back then.

Can you take me back to yourself as a 12, 13-year-old? I read that you couldn’t work within the school system.

I could, but there was the World Wide Web, with scholars posting their papers. When I looked at those papers, they were like 10 years in advance of the textbooks I was reading—it was cutting edge research. Before, scholars would have to go through the academic publishing system in order to reach the audience. With the World Wide Web, they could post their pre-prints. That is to say, before printing in the journal, they could post their drafts for the entire peer-to-peer community to look, and maybe find issues, maybe collaborate. When I looked at those papers, first, I learned about the interesting issues that I wanted to learn, I wanted to solve, these people are working on it—whereas in the textbook, I was just reading about it. It’s very different. Second, everyone is just one email address away. When I write an email saying, “I find these issues with your paper. Can you explain more?” the researcher would actually write back and react intelligently and direct me to a forum or something. Of course, they don’t know I’m a 13 or 14-year-old, because everybody is an email address. Then I discovered this academic online community that provides a much better learning experience than high school. There really is no comparison. It’s not that I can’t work with the high school. It’s just it’s a much better alternative here.

You made the decision not to go to school anymore.

Mm-hmm.

Were your parents okay with that?

Yeah, of course, but they had to be convinced, because it was mandatory education at the time. The principal actually talked to me for a while. Especially by that time, I already got a guaranteed spot at a top senior high school—because of placing first in the national science fair. When I dropped out of high school, I gave up that spot. The principal really wanted to understand what was happening with me. Was I hit with depression or something? No, there is this whole universe of schools out there. I tried to talk with the principal, and she eventually agreed, and basically faked my records of school attendance so that I wouldn’t get fined. It was compulsory education, after all, so she lied to the bureaucratic system. I still went to the monthly examinations and sent out blank pages and scored zero every time. That’s how I managed the one-year-and-a-half of my junior high school days.

When you think back to your own experience at high school and the education system—mandatory education—and the way that our system is structured, is there anything you would change, in the same way you are working in government to change participatory democracy?

We did that. The people working on alternative education, a few years ago already passed, in my opinion, the most advanced law, at least in Asia, here in Taiwan. So now people from the first grade of primary school all the way to the third year of senior high school can choose to learn at home, at any of our universities, at a supporting group, whatever, as long as they can write their own curriculum and have their city board review it and approve it. I think it gives rise to hundreds of students who either want a different learning experience, or want to specialise in something. I think this is a really progressive movement, which also then informed the mandatory compulsory education system. When the new curriculum is going in effect, two years from now, it actually includes many of those alternative school’s mandates. Instead of just training students in particular skills, now it builds people’s way to be autonomous, make a decision for themselves, to be literate in media literacy, critical thinking, and so on. I looked at all the senior high school proposals very fairly, because I did not participate in senior high school [laughs]. It was very awesome working with the top educators, who all agreed that

we're now in an age where we can't predict how the world will be 12 years from now. It is important that we still have children being able to be autonomous, to be constant learners, to work with each other, but it's less important to train them at any particular skill anymore.

So, we re-wrote a curriculum, and it’s going into effect maybe a couple of years from now.

That’s amazing. What I love about it as well is this kind of deep assumption of trust. There’s trust in the individual to be able to understand what is good for them. I think so many systems around the world have that opposite assumption—that we don’t know what we’re doing, we can’t be trusted to make decisions for ourselves about our savings or our education.

If children, their parents and their supporting community are not trusted by the government, then they grow up not trusting the government. It’s a vicious cycle, so we’re breaking it.

That’s incredible. You yourself have had an incredible personal journey. You described a lot online and I’ve done some research about you. You’ve shared the process of becoming a woman and also beautifully articulated your purpose, which you’ve used the word “channel” to describe—being a channel for intelligence and strength to come together.

That’s exactly right.

I’d love to know about your journey to becoming a woman and how that connected to finding your purpose and now being able to articulate it so clearly.

I think I was raised without a particular gender stereotype. My mum, in particular, can be very assertive and even tomboyish at times, but also feminine when the situation calls her to be. It’s like Judith Butler’s idea of gender as a performance, not as something intrinsic, so I grew up learning that. Also, I think

one of the key influences was Internet culture, because the computer really doesn't care which gender you are. Across the screen nobody really cares about race or gender or whatever.

All the prejudices just simply drop away because of the lack of accurate representation [laughs]. So I think it was very liberating in not fixing myself into a certain social script. I think that was formative, especially during my adolescent days.

I did a biological check of my testosterone levels when I was 24. It was somewhere between the average male and average female levels. I was born, I think, not just with a heart defect, but also with something about testosterone that’s, roughly speaking, maybe at an 80-year-old man’s level when I was a teenager, where the testosterone level was supposed to be the highest. That gives to a different development, I think, both psychologically—that I don’t really have as much macho psychological needs as other people [laughs]. I’m always happy with being whatever pronoun people want to describe me with online. But it remained true that I hadn’t gone through a female puberty, so there were many things I’d written that didn’t really match my personal experience. This is why, around when I was 24, I decided to take hormones, to go through a hormone replacement process and to go through a female puberty, in order to both better understand the firsthand experience of people and how the hormonal balance effects different tastes and different perspectives, and empathy building. It really does change perspectives.

What did it change? Tell me about going through female puberty.

Sure. The body certainly asserts itself more. There is much higher resolution to whatever the body is experiencing. It becomes very difficult to ignore the body feeling connection. That becomes very powerful in a way that it moves my mind into corners that the existing abstractions do not capture. I had to find new words for it.

It’s beautiful. That’s beautifully said.

I think that’s one of the things that one can’t learn from books. It really comes from the interactions and from empathising with the surrounding, not just surrounding people, but animals and plants, and, you know, hearts and in the body, because you feel it. When I say “feel it,” it’s not just metaphorical, it’s something that comes out of the guts, the skin. It’s the assertion of the body—I think that really changed during the hormone replacement process. Also, because I also took antiandrogen, it lowered my aggressiveness, which was already very low to begin with, to non-existent.

[Laughs].

It’s not that I became less assertive. It’s that I became assertive with a purpose. Whereas before, when the testosterone was driving me to be assertive, I was being assertive without a purpose. It’s not like taking a long-term drug. It’s eye-opening in a way that it moves the psychology to places we’re unfamiliar with as people. I ended up stopping the antiandrogens and estrogens, but it doesn’t mean I’m not learning anything new after three or four years of going through the female puberty. I am still at somewhere biologically between the two sexes, but I think my mind has been opened, in the same way that people say their mind has been opened after experiencing living an indigenous livelihood or things like that.

You don’t want to stay in the female puberty for longer than three or four years.

Sure [laughs].

That would be a horrible existence [laughs].

It would, actually. Relationships do suffer.

Yes. Then, back to the purpose, which you talked about beautifully, this idea of channelling. When did that become clear for you? When did you get a sense that this is what your purpose is?

I think it’s because I was born with this congenital heart defect. There was a hole between the two lower parts of my heart. So I couldn’t really run or get upset when I was a baby, because my mum said that when I did, there was not enough oxygen, so my face would turn purple and I would faint. Basically, my aggressiveness, in addition to the testosterone thing, was capped to a certain level above which my body responds violently. I learned very early on, whenever I start feeling really angry to breathe very carefully and relax, because my body couldn’t sustain very high levels of upsetness—or happiness for that matter—and so the emotions were dulled down. After I went through the surgery when I was 12, it was fixed. Then I sought out very happy experiences, but I didn’t see how being very angry helps so I didn’t really seek those experiences. I have not been very angry at any moment in my life. In any case, what I’m getting at is that

because of this uncertainty of whether I will sleep and wake up the next day for the first 12 years of my life, I had this idea that whatever I do for the day, I'd better just contribute because there may not be another day when I wake up.

Even after the surgery, and now it’s reasonably sure that when I sleep I can wake up the next day, this feeling remains. I think this is what gives to this channel-like behaviour. It’s because I am not holding anything. I cannot really imagine myself holding anything. I think that’s the origin of this feeling.

How interesting. You talk about empathy, and you raise this idea of indigenous perspectives. The way I look at the world, sometimes I feel sad and overwhelmed with challenges that we as humans—and the planet—face. I think what we’re missing, or what I wish there was more of, is empathy. I’m interested in your view on this, whether you agree that empathy is something we need more of, and secondly, if you think there are technological solutions or ways to step into each other’s shoes.

There are, certainly with virtual reality—it’s now much easier for people. I had an artist visiting me here. One of his projects was to have people in very different situations wearing the goggles, and looking, literally, through the eyes of each other. Just for example, there’s physically a man and a woman, but they use their VR headsets, and they look down and look at each other’s bodies, and they respond to, for example, “Raise your right hand,” and they raised their right hands at the same time, so that it really feels like being in somebody else’s body, in this kind of empathy machine, for lack of better word.

Also, one of my first VR experiences was to wear the headset, and to look at the Earth from the International Space Station. It was an overview effect that really brought the clouds away, because from the ground, you can’t really feel the planet as one thing. It takes abstractions. From space, it’s a good feeling, which is why many people came to space and go back a better person, because they could feel that it were one fragile blue dot here. Through virtual reality, it’s much easier to get into the same perspective, not just on the planet, but also on a certain region. I do think virtual reality really helps. That’s one of the technologies. The other one, I think, is really high-resolution, like 4K and 3D video conferencing. Through Skype or the previous generation of silicon high-definition video, we lose a lot of subtle signals, what we call micro expressions, like where the eyes are looking at, the gaze. It’s very difficult to reconstruct that from a piece of glass, no matter how dense is the pixel. We can actually improve on that, which uses a lot of bandwidth, but kept with the sufficient technology, one can track where your eyes are looking at, or one of the glasses can know where my eyes are looking at. One, it can give the impression to the other side of the telecommunication that there really is an avatar, and representing very clearly both the micro expressions and where the attention is. So there are technologies now that we’re improving to make sure that people can still reach what we call “attunement” over a distance. Whether that builds into empathy is between those two people, but at least the technology is getting there.

When I hear about your work, and the education system, the radical transparency in activism, the multi-disciplinary inclusive policymaking, these are all incredible uses of technology and of connection. But then it is also this dark side of this world.

When you talk about policing, of course people think about Artificial Intelligence now, because that’s the technology that needs policing, if there’s any technology that needs policing. I just use it as an example, but it applies to other technologies as well. I think of AI as like the invention of fire. When human beings invented fire, we took something that is internal to our body, which is the digestion of proteins and other molecules into smaller molecules, to the external. The thing is that our body can only burn things very slowly and not very efficiently. Then fire was invented and people started moving one part of digestion to the external, which is technology, what we call cooking or preparing the food. Those people become healthier, because it’s antibacterial or whatever, but also people were able to produce food in bulk, which protected people against dry weather, and then it gives rise to the whole civilization. What I’m getting at is that fire is very dangerous. We’ve seen fire destroying entire cities. We’ve seen fire cause enormous damage, not to mention all the weaponry that was built upon the principle of inflicting. It is violent, but the

civilization's relationship with fire was never one of policing, it was always one of education, of making sure that even very young people were taught, as part of how to cook, the dangers of fire.

That is democratised in a way that says, “If you can cook for yourself every day, you can pass on this knowledge to your children, or whatever, without having a state regulating the use of fire.” It’s done as part of normal daily work; it’s not done as part of their discipline, or as a technology, so the same with personal computers. It could be argued, instead of the personal computer revolution, we have just supercomputers, and everybody was given terminals, access into state supercomputer as George Orwell imagined in “1984.” It’s a plausible scenario, and many parts of the world did become that at some point. We need to build artificial intelligence into the devices and have children grow up with artificial intelligence not as one class, or how to use fire in class, but as part of the education system where they work with the teachers so the children learn to see first that the teachers are in a symbiotic relationship with artificial intelligence. It’s not chasing teachers out of work, and second, that everybody is confident enough to use some AI in doing their homework or their research or whatever in a democratic way, an accessible way. We could easily imagine, like many parts in Taiwan, if we don’t say, “We need to have internet access, access to cheap computation as a human right,” if we don’t say this, then we easily see that people in large cities become eventually a different species, the fire-wielding species, and the rural areas eventually become Neanderthals or something. That could actually happen pretty quickly, maybe over a couple generations. What we’re now doing is that we’re saying to all the taxpayers that, “Sorry, but internet access and access to cheap AI computation facility is a human right, and we’re now supporting it with your taxpaying money, and we’re not sorry for it because otherwise, we’re just leaving one country permanently, perhaps, behind.” When we’re working this into the education system and having the collaboration as part of curriculum, I think the society gradually gives trust to people who are doing AI research to keep polishing, to keep sharing whatever it found, because the alternative would be they’re afraid of being lynched by the mob and only sharing to an elite society, which leads to our imbalance.

What I’m hearing you saying is that there is the philosophical underpinnings that we can agree on, and that we can build our relationship with technology according to those.

Exactly.

If we believe that we don’t want to leave anyone behind, if we understand our interdependence with each other, then you live in a rural village, and I’d make sure you’d have computer training. That’s the…

That’s the social contract, because otherwise it’s not a society anymore. It is the have and have-nots.

Beautifully said. I have one more question. You mentioned that after you had your operation when you were 12, you then had the capacity to have deep feelings, either happiness or anger. You avoided the anger. I want to hear about what brings you joy, what it is that you love.

Many things [laughs]. I love translation. I translated quite a few poems. I write poetry. Also, I love partaking in community building. That is something that really gives me joy.

Whenever I travelled around the world when I was 24 or 25, as part of the transition, I was also working internationally to build a new community in computer programming.

It’s bringing people in. I think that year I had excess of maybe 20 countries [laughs]. Basically, just engaging people who were disagreeing online by paying them visits in person, and bringing them together so that they work together. This kind of community building gives a lasting impression, because many people say even to this day that they learned how to work with these open source communities because they randomly go to one of the chat rooms, one of the channels that is set up. They come to complain, and then I welcomed them, I hugged them, and basically said, “Your complaint is valid and you’re given the right to build this thing, this computer programming language called Perl 6.” At that time, it was very radical, by saying anyone who complains automatically gets citizenship [laughs]. It is a radical idea. Nowadays, it’s becoming more common [laughs].

Right, a country of complainers [laughs].

Exactly, because then they start complaining, then they might as well fix it themselves. It takes radical trust, because it was before Wikipedia was very popular. Now that Wikipedia is really popular, people can point at Wikipedia as saying, “You know, we know random edits doesn’t destroy an encyclopedia.” It was before Wikipedia was really popular, so we had to really radically trust our contributors, and they have an understanding. Even though I moved away from the community to other projects, the community still builds the Perl 6 language very successfully, and always keeping a very inclusive way. Now that they officially say that

the only entry ticket to this community is that you know how to be good to other people, or that you want to learn how to be good to other people and everything else.

It’s one of the things that brought me the most joy, to build communities like this.

Beautiful. You said many other things. What else comes to mind?

There’s also the joy of caring for animals. I lived with seven cats and two dogs. They constantly remind me that the abstractions, the concepts really don’t matter much [laughs]. Whatever I read about animals doesn’t change the animals [laughs]. It gives a much more direct resonance of my actual state of being as an animal, not as an abstract thinker of something. I think that really gives me joy in that I was able to maintain a stable relationship for a decade or so with individuals, but on a nonverbal level, I think that really brings some joy as well.

Do you have any spiritual practice?

Hmm, a lot [laughs]. Where do we begin? I believe in beliefs. I have faith in faith. I don’t really need an object to believe in. It’s like praying to a prayer, right? As a channel, as I described my life in this kind of mindset, it’s very for me to enter one of those more spiritual states of mind, where there really is no “myself,” but only relationship with the environment or with the the ecology. I used to, when I was a child, maybe seven or eight, learn the Daoist meditation methods. I think that’s still with me. Then, I also went to Tibet, I went to Nepal, and to India, to the Osho Center, and actually many other places as well. I wouldn’t say I practice any traditional discipline, but I really do enjoying just being with the practitioners of whatever discipline they are practicing. My grandparents on the father’s side also are devout Catholics, they could in their prayer trance very easily enter a very calm, peaceful state of mind. It’s also a kind of spiritual experience. I wouldn’t attribute that to any particular agent. Whatever they call it is just fine, but I do feel this kind of spiritual experience very easily.

Mele-Ane Havea

Mele-Ane comes to Dumbo Feather with a varied background, from corporate law to community and human rights law, with an Oxford MBA thrown in for good measure. At business school and the Skoll Centre for Social entrepreneurship, Mele-Ane became enamoured by the idea of social and responsible business, and the power of story-telling. When not rallying the troops at Dumbo Feather, she works on a number of projects that promote the idea of business as force for good, in particular with the B corporation movement.

 

Photography by Sean Marc Lee

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