Election '08: A Transparent Disaster?

12/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the driving concepts behind the social web is transparency: Instantly networked communications allow virtually anybody see whatever they want.

This has not escaped the attention of the two Presidential campaigns. And tomorrow's public exercise in democracy will become the first example of a massively transparent election.

Voter fraud, voter intimidation, poll conditions, wait times, machine failures, on-the-spot partisan interventions, even get-out-the-vote actions will all be recorded and available for all to see.

I predict a paralyzing info hell as a rickety, distributed, incoherent, often incompetent, long-invisible voting system is exposed to the harsh light of Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, FaceBook, iReports, youReports, themReports, cell photos, almost-real-time blog postings and whatever self-interested data-motes are broadcast by, um, legit journalists on the national networks on TV and online.

I predict legal intervention, litigation and a long postponement of official results.

Let me say I believe a transparent democratic process is the only kind worth having. Now that we have [primitive] tools to see behind the curtain [well, not behind that curtain] we must use them. And celebrate the moment they represent.

But the infrastructure to manage and adjudicate all this input does not exist. We are in for an unprecedented act of citizen journalism in ten thousand "newsrooms" with no editors. This will result in massive incidents of unintended consequences. They will make hanging chads look like sweet, slightly comic anachronisms.

* How could any self-respecting partisan not collect and broadcast whatever scraps of data that might help his or her cause?
* How can election officials possibly figure out which information represents a legit matter of concern and which is meaningless? How can they detect citizen reporting fraud?
* How on earth can they figure out what to do with it all?
* How can they do it in a timely fashion?
* How can the media responsibly resist broadcasting the most egregious examples of whatever plebiscite sins they gather?
* How can election officials safely ignore it all in the name of expediency and subject themselves to charges that they are not upholding the integrity of a process they are sworn to defend?
* And how [therefore] can we avoid a real-time, life-or-death extended battle waged by the "losing" parties -- not just for the Presidency, but for the Senate, the House, Governors and thousands of local elections across the country?

I'll be watching results on election night -- not just on John King's Magic Map but across the social web. I won't be able to keep up and I won't have a clue how to feel about it other than baffled.

This will be an extraordinary moment in the history of democracy.

And it will be a freaking mess.