Forty years ago, as UCLA Professor Leonard Kleinrock and his computer science students logged onto a Stanford University computer and attempted to send data, the Internet showed great promise. Or did it? While that initial attempt–typing the word “login” and verifying that the letters appeared on the remote terminal–resulted in the Stanford computer crashing, the Internet has matured such that vast quantities of information are just a few keystrokes away; but it also delivers graphic pornography alongside beheadings by terrorists. Is the Internet a necessity or a secret partner?

Until 1987, the Internet was not accessible by the general public. Today, only 20-some years later, it has changed life as we know it, and some say in the wrong direction, since it seems to foster interaction via computer rather than face-to-face, a situation that itself seems to attract some of society’s less than sociable citizens. From “You’ve Got Mail” to SPAM, from Facebook and MySpace to the Craig’s List killer, all manner of evils have been perpetrated over the Internet, yet it has also spawned the explosive expansion of collaboration and information sharing. With YouTube and Twitter, chat rooms and blogs, we are able to express thoughts and debate issues of the day in ways completely unimaginable just a few generations ago.

President Obama saw the power of the Internet, and was the first candidate to use it to such positive effect, but has since found himself swimming against a tide of negative information, whether based on his stated positions as a senator or the contradictory views he now holds, or because of the recent “citizen journalist” take-down of an Obama czar. Regardless, the Internet is having a profound, direct effect on the White House and, more importantly, Obama himself.

Van Jones’s downfall was influenced to some degree by access to video on YouTube, and gives a clear indication that Americans today have unprecedented access to information, and that is good for America. But it also illustrates the desperate need for more action by grass roots organizations, since without them these important issues would never see the light of day.

YouTube, created in 2006, came about as a result of a dinner party discussion, in 2004, during which founders Steve Chen, Chad Hurely, and Jawed Karim discussed the difficulty of sharing pictures and videos via e-mail. Since its inception, YouTube has revolutionized the Internet, and will go down in history as the most important influence on politics in the first decade of the 21st century. More than ever, politicians’ speeches are being recorded or video-taped and posted on YouTube, where they are accessible to anyone with access to the Internet–and that accessibility led to Van Jones’s downfall.

Before the advent of the computer, to know what politicians actually said, people were dependent on radio and television broadcasts of their speeches, or first-hand accounts, such as those printed in newspapers. While it is difficult to modify the first two, the latter is prone to human error–or, worse, outright distortion. With citizen journalists capturing those speeches and making them available to any and all, that is no longer the case. We can’t be everywhere at once, but we now have a repository from which we can draw the information that enables us to keep politicians in check. We can dispel myths by “going to the tape,” as the saying goes.

Is this the dawn of a new and much-needed change in Washington, DC, whereby we put them on notice that we are, indeed, watching? In other words, has the Internet become our “secret partner” or is it nothing more than a necessary evil?

The Internet: Necessary Evil or Secret Partner?

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