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 Very quickly, the Supreme Court in the US ruled that as unconstitutional, and the Act was repealed.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.
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