As America goes to the polls today, the only consensus is that nobody can call the outcome. In part, this is because the events of the past three years have tested that country's tradition of bipartisan politics seemingly to breaking point. We'll leave that for future historians to explore.
The other major factor is technology. No part of the democratic process has been untouched by developments in IT: as a result, the rules have changed and everyone -- politicians, pollsters, media and voters -- finds themselves in a strange new world where old ideas may not apply.
Take mobile phones. The American polling organisations call people up to gauge opinion, but until now have only targeted people with landlines. Yet an entire demographic has shunned fixed phones for mobiles, and has been off the radar – and those people are very pro-Kerry. In a race where handfuls of votes count, this is very significant.
Then there are the bloggers, who time after time have driven the news by concentrating on seemingly insignificant details that would never have received much scrutiny by the mainstream media. In return, online news publications such as Salon have served as focal points for the wired community and driven stories back onto television and into newspapers.
The Net has become our memory. Politicians have learned that anything they say has already been taken down and will be used as evidence: there's a lot of noise, but a lot of new vitality. Tainted information gets filtered -- the Drudge Report is a busted flush -- while the good stuff prospers and makes a difference. And who would have thought that we would be unable to see George Bush's campaign Web site -- closed to the rest of the world -- but able to read every word of Osama Bin Laden's curiously cogent election broadcast?
Yet everything is in flux. Perhaps the move to subscription-only newspaper sites will cut off that huge pool of history that's been so useful in judging what people have done compared to what they say. This should be resisted – it would be a crime to stifle one of the greatest innovations in the history of journalism.
Not all innovations are welcome. An unseemly rush by some jurisdictions to electronic voting seemed poised to exchange accountability for convenience -- or something more sinister -- in its choice of closed, proprietary and frankly unreliable machinery. Yet big business and rotten politics found themselves confounded by a concerted revolt, largely orchestrated online, which was as effective as the official oversight process had been useless.
Tonight, the election belongs as never before to the people not only of America but of the world. We, like you, will be glued to our browsers as the story unfolds. Welcome to 21st century democracy.