XXVIII.6 November - December 2021
Page: 36
Digital Citation

Online experiments and participation within Chile’s extraordinary constitutional process

Gloria Baigorrotegui, Matías Valderrama, Patricia Peña

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We write this article coming from a troubled and uncertain situation. The Chilean democracy has not been sensitive or responsive to the people's demands for greater equality and dignity. The so-called Penguin Revolution in 2006, the student mobilizations of 2011, the feminist protests of May 2018, and the demonstrations for No+AFP in 2017 are just some of the acts of civil disobedience and resistance that Chile has experienced during the past two decades; several others exploded during the "social outbreak" of October 2019. The government's response thus far has been to assemble a gender-equal and Indigenous-inclusive constitutional convention, raising hopes as well as presenting considerable challenges. During this period, we have increasingly recognized the need for new forms of participation. If before it was believed that the problem in Chile was a profound political disaffection, today it is clear that the problem is in fact the reduction of participation to a purely electoral issue. Public participation has overflowed traditional channels of democracy; therefore, it is necessary to design more direct, more inventive, and deeper modes of participation.

ins01.gif Protesters show their dissatisfaction with the Chilean government. Santiago, Chile, Nov. 28, 2019.

back to top  Technologies as a Constituent Condition of Participation

One key question is what infrastructures and formats should be designed for public participation. Participation does not happen in a vacuum but instead rests on architectures, designs, and objects such as microphones, video recorders, and voting systems that silently mediate it. Making publics is always a fragile and momentary socio-material achievement that depends on a heterogeneity of devices and settings [1]. Thus, we must consider the social life of these technical objects, which includes problematizing their ownership relations and economic interests, examining the beliefs and diversity of their developers, considering the multiple meanings and reorientations made by users, and taking care of the mundane practices involved in their maintenance. If we start from the premise that these devices support ways of organizing and doing politics, instead of putting them in brackets, we must make them visible and approach them with care. This claim becomes especially relevant in the Chilean constitutional process. By trying to include more voices, one can end up trapped by platforms from the Global North or accepting configurations that drive debate on certain issues but not others. The material devices involved in the constitutional debate must be considered a constituent part of the participation process.

back to top  Insights

Digital technologies are not a panacea for mediating democratic discussions about the design of a new frictionless constitution.
The design of deliberative processes requires considering who will be included/excluded within those processes.
Identifying and eliminating digital gaps is important for the democratization of a constitutional discussion.

Digital technologies are repeatedly heralded as the ideal means of participation. But in the face of discussions about Chile's new constitution, we must examine new technological solutions or techno-fixes that promise to mediate and efficiently resolve people's desire for engagement and generate frictionless forms of democracy. We must be attentive to the logics inscribed in these devices and be aware of their political implications. In the past decade or so, we have seen promises of new forms of smart or data-driven government that often include new possibilities for digitally mediated participation. Ordinary citizens, not experts, would become the "sensors" of their cities, continuously generating data to participate in the decision making of public authorities. In this system, it would be the citizens who drive changes in urban planning, public policies, or even new constitutions.

An illustrative case in this regard is Chilecracia, an online platform for experimental crowdsourced participation developed by an interdisciplinary group led by physicist César Hidalgo. During the Chilean social outbreak of October 2019, Chilecracia presented a controversial system for ordering citizen demands. The system showed users two public policy proposals, and they had to choose which one to prioritize. By repeating the process, millions of votes were obtained, allowing hundreds of proposals to be collaboratively ordered in no time and generating rankings and networks of policy preferences. This pairs-comparison technique, inspired by previous work by Hidalgo and colleagues who studied the perception of the safety, class, and uniqueness of neighborhoods, was adopted because it would allow thousands of people to participate quickly and easily, even from mobile phones. For Hidalgo, it would be a "very low-friction participation model, which makes it scalable and simple" [2].

But every aggregation of preferences is always partial and arbitrary in its design. For example, the initial default setting of Chilecracia was to choose between "new constitution" and "increase minimum wage." The team decided to change this setting later, once the platform gained popularity. They also agreed to not require user-verification mechanisms. Asking for identification from users in a politically active situation would generate a database that could identify voters. Thus, the choice was made to keep the platform frictionless with more informal and anonymous participation.

With the involvement of thousands of people, Chilecracia began to appear in the media. A controversy occurred when right-wing actors shared Chilecracia's ranking of preferences to justify their argument that Chileans did not want a new constitution and to criticize sectors of the left for not knowing what the people really wanted. According to Hidalgo [2], the device began to be "politicized," as if the whole experiment were devoid of political overtones before. A wave of criticism of the methodology and the intentions behind the experiment was unleashed. Some people interpreted it as a way of overshadowing the hundreds of local assemblies, or cabildos (see [3]), that were spontaneously generated across the country to openly discuss people's needs and demands. While the creators of Chilecracia emphasized from the start that they did not seek to achieve a representative sample or replace traditional forms of participation, they had not taken into account how the experiment's results could be politicized.

Technology should be designed not as an answer, but rather to cultivate and pluralize our abilities to respond and be responsible in uncertain and disturbing times.

The Chilecracia experiment shows that participatory devices can always be used in ways different from how they were intended, and that work must be done to justify their use, focusing not only on the technical efficiency of these new platforms but also on their legitimacy and context sensitivity. It is not a question of positioning Chilecracia against democracy. That would be to once again fall back on the false idea that democracy can be materialized without devices that allow the channeling, aggregating, or mediating of preferences or concerns. The point is to recognize that these devices are insufficient for the democratic game and to be aware of their configurations, consequences, and reorientations. We can't look back on older technological solutions to solve our political crises and continue to think of participation as something to be made easy or optimized. Instead, following Halpern et al.'s "smartness mandate" [4], we need to more broadly problematize the situation and accept Donna Haraway's invitation to stay with the troubles, breakdowns, and fallibilities of our democracies and engage in reciprocity. Technology should be designed not as an answer, but rather to cultivate and pluralize our abilities to respond and be responsible in uncertain and disturbing times.

back to top  Online Scriptural Practices Overflow Deliberations on the Chilean Constitutional Convention

Democracy enables people to engage in collective decision making, ideally through participatory and deliberative forms. This does not mean, however, that deliberation is synonymous with robust participatory arrangements per se.

The ambivalences of these practices and the historical conflicts of specific communities are no longer considered limitations. On the contrary, there are instances where the contentious and the frictional has its place. In October 2019, a mass evasion in the payment of public transportation, mobilized by high school students under the slogan "It is not 30 pesos, it is 30 years," opened an unexpected horizon. Facing a social crisis, the political parties agreed to hold a plebiscite asking for a new constitution. Workers, Indigenous people, and women involved in agricultural work and fishing made presentations to their popular representatives. In the end, 155 people were directly elected in a process that guaranteed gender parity (unprecedented in the world) and quotas to represent the country's original ethnic diversity. These people would form the constitutional convention responsible for writing the new constitution.

While the popular election of convention members was a significant step, the design of mechanisms for citizen participation during the convention itself will be of crucial importance to its legitimacy, inventiveness, and diversity.

If it is the growth of online and offline assemblies that make some technologies possible over others, then we would expect discussion and argumentation to be central to the initial activation of bodies, actions, and ecologies. Frustrated online deliberative experiments in Chile [5] have demonstrated the need for people to understand what is being discussed and to be able to participate in writing the agreements being reached. We recommend that moderators respond as quickly as possible to manage exchanges and reactions during online meetings. We also suggest that they make sure the people who speak first or speak the most do not end up overshadowing the opinions of others, and that comment threads do not dominate the discussion. To this end, automated techniques for detecting bots or filtering spam or hateful comments can be of great help, provided they do not end up censoring other perspectives.

It is also important to incorporate intermediate deliberations that allow the inclusion of variety without reducing the debate to exclusive nodes. Thus, the representatives would need to generate binding processes for face-to-face agreements to promote diverse discussions about territorial conflicts.

On the other hand, there is the danger of excluding those who find the instantaneity of these actions difficult to participate in and those who are not yet considered legitimate speakers, such as children and adolescents, as well as ecologies and lives more than human. The constitution considered a set of scriptural practices that are dynamic; therefore, evaluations, in periods that the assemblies extend, beyond one year would be welcome. The convention works on its regulations to take care of evaluative processes and ethical principles, and to prevent any corruption.

The current president of the constitutional convention, the Mapuche academic Elisa Loncon, has promoted poyewn ("love" in the Mapuche language), which goes beyond the modern practice of rational defending arguments and moves toward accepting the different worldviews that exist in the convention and in the country. This is illustrated, for example, by the creation of a library, available to all constituents, where ideas of decolonization guide Loncon's proposal for a plurinational constitution [6].

In the countries of the Global South, those defined as "others," especially Indigenous communities, have suffered a historical dispossession of their existing humans and more than humans [7]. Thus, the opportunity for plebeians [8] to write their constitution poses the challenge of their scriptural practice. If we think of constitutions as infrastructure technologies of democracy, their writings, rewritings, and overwritings can only be a means of adaptation, appropriation, and repair of popular knowledge that has historically been obliterated.

back to top  Digital and Social Divides: Tensions and Challenges for Online Participation

Much of the discussion prior to the implementation of the constitutional process in Chile has been related to connectivity. This in turn is one of the demands intended to be enshrined in the constitution itself: the right to connectivity or guaranteed access to the Internet [9]. Although Chile is often highlighted as one of the Latin American countries with a developed technological infrastructure, especially its mobile connectivity, the pandemic has made visible the vulnerabilities and inequalities of the country. Digital access and connectivity gaps persist in large parts of Chile, especially in the so-called red zones in urban areas, where companies do not see it as profitable to expand, modernize, or extend cables and connectivity infrastructure, and in rural and semirural areas, where mobile access points are unavailable. We have heard stories of students and families throughout Chile who must climb hills or onto the roof of their houses or go outside to gain access to WiFi or mobile towers.

The dimensions of the digital access and connectivity gap in Chile are unclear, because there is no precise data on the total number of households and people connected. However, data from the Undersecretariat of Telecommunications confirm that there are some 23 municipalities in the country with serious connectivity problems. Other estimates indicate that while 75 percent of the households with the highest income in Chile have Internet access via broadband, only 25 percent of the poorest households have it. It is important to understand this digital divide as a multidimensional problem [10]. It not only reflects a gap in access to devices or connectivity infrastructure but also social gaps—for instance, in digital literacy, income, and access to education and work. Similarly, gender differences are amplified. Women who are heads of households with high demands for domestic work and caregiving have less time to train in digital skills or to engage in online spaces.

During the first two months of the Chilean Constitutional Convention, several demands have been made concerning news coverage of and access to information about the debates. Web platforms have been created to deliver news and monitor the convention, such as La Neta (www.laneta.cl), Plataforma Contexto (plataformacontexto.cl), and the LaBot chatbot (https://www.labot.cl/). Groups concerned with communication rights have insisted that broadcasts of the convention be carried on more than just its Web platform (www.chileconvencion.cl) because there are many people and communities without a way to connect, nor the interest or opportunity to follow the discussions online. It was repeatedly requested that discussions of the convention be broadcast on public television and regional, local, and community media. Chile does not have an organized institutional framework for this, so convention members are demanding that the right to communication be enshrined in the constitution, especially with regard to democratizing the media and communication ecosystem.

The next months of the convention, during which the articles will begin to be discussed, are critical to the success of the whole process. While the popular election of convention members was a significant step, the design of mechanisms for citizen participation during the convention itself will be of crucial importance to its legitimacy, inventiveness, and diversity. Otherwise, the writing of the constitution may turn out to be detached from local communities and their demands. This could lead to a low level of participation in the next plebiscite to decide whether to accept or reject the new constitution. A decentralization commission was created within the convention to organize meetings, assemblies, and self-managed citizens' councils in different territories and communities, to effectively promote other mechanisms for dialogue, listening, and discussion beyond the formal sessions held at the convention's headquarters in Santiago.

In this article we offered points to consider in the design of these mechanisms, including the technological and social gaps in a highly unequal country, the embrace of the frictional, and the constituent power of devices. Will this moment help us rethink our ways of participating in and doing democracy collectively? Will we be attentive to how digital, and nondigital, technologies are shaping participation in the constitutional process? Could the argumentative forms of participation be complemented by an increasingly participatory, ritualistic, and activist public? These are open questions that must be problematized to move forward in a collective, plurinational writing, based on poyewn and mutual understanding. Only in this way, as Loncon said, will it be possible to articulate futures for our democracy.

back to top  References

1. Marres, N. Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2012.

2. Hidalgo, C.A. La historia de Chilecracia. The Clinic. Dec. 1, 2019; https://www.theclinic.cl/2019/12/01/la-historia-de-chilecracia/

3. Ureta, S., Cortes, A., Martínez, J., Tello, P., Vera, F., and Valenzuela, C. Constituting Chileans: the Cabildos of October 2019 and the trouble of instrumental participation. Social Identities 27, 5 (2021), 1–17.

4. Halpern, O., Mitchell, R., and Geoghegan, B.D. The smartness mandate: Notes toward a critique. Grey Room 68 (2017), 106–129.

5. Pellegrini, A. and Zurita, L. Evaluación preliminar de la Primera Conferencia de Consenso Ciudadano de Chile. Rev. Panam. Salud Pública/Pan Am J Public Health 15, 5 (2004), 351–357.

6. Retamal, P. Los libros que mostró Elisa Loncon en la Convención y que apuntan a una "biblioteca plurinacional." La Tercera. Aug. 8, 2021; https://www.latercera.com/culto/2021/08/03/los-libros-que-mostro-elisa-loncon-en-la-convencion-y-que-apuntan-a-una-biblioteca-plurinacional/

7. Galeano, E. Las venas abiertas de América Latina. Siglo XXI, Buenos Aires, 1971.

8. Vergara, C. Assembling the Plebeian Republic. Popular Institutions against Systemic Corruption & Oligarchic Domination. Ph.D. Thesis of Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Columbia University, 2019; https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-q072-rj66

9. UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council. The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet. Jun. 2016; https://www.article19.org/data/files/Internet_Statement_Adopted.pdf

10. Pimienta, D. Brecha digital, brecha social y brecha paradigmática. Concepto y dimensiones. en Brecha Digital y nuevas alfabetizaciones: el papel de las bibliotecas. Documento de Trabajo Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2008; https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7609213

back to top  Authors

Gloria Baigorrotegui has a Ph.D. in the social and political studies of science and technology from the University of the Basque Country, Spain. Her research focuses on two areas: i) the sociotechnical analysis of energy policy, energy communities' initiatives, and collective actions; and ii) environmental, waste, maintenance, and repair thinking. She also has research experience in policy areas such as the environment and energy. [email protected]

Matías Valderrama is a Ph.D. student at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick. He has worked on different Fondecyt research projects and studies for non-governmental organizations that addressed the social implications of multiple digital technologies in Chile. His areas of interest include digital culture, media studies, social movements, digital methods, surveillance studies, network analysis, and social theory. [email protected]

Patricia Peña has an M.Sc. in information, communication, and society from the London School of Economics. She is currently an academic at the Institute of Communication and Image at the University of Chile. Her research areas include: the impacts and social uses of digital communication and information technologies, digital activism, cyberfeminism and techno-feminism, public policies on technologies and telecommunications, and freedom of expression and the Internet. [email protected]

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