Alva James-Johnson: Internet helps us reclaim our power

May 22, 2014 

Alva James-Johnson

The Internet changed our lives forever.

That's no longer news. But I recently ran across a theory that caught my attention.

It's called "Cognitive Surplus," the idea that collectively people across the globe have enough free time and brain power to positively impact the planet. The problem is too many of us have been wasting it on a frivolous activity called television. That's right, you "Scandal" watchers.

Clay Shirky, author of "Cognitive Surplus," says the world spends more than a trillion hours watching TV a year. We've morphed into passive consumers of information and products rather than active participants in creating and building a better world.

But that's changing now that social media is on the scene, Shirky says. Time is wasted there, too, he admits, but people are also learning to collaborate and share ideas, which could lead to a brighter future.

The whole thing might sound a little overblown, like technocratic optimism gone awry.

Hasn't Shirky heard about all the cyberbullies and pedophiles lurking on the Internet? Hasn't he seen the Facebook posts about everything from bathroom misfortunes to pimple outbreaks? We humans can take a good thing and ruin it no matter the potential.

And this "free time." Who has it? I don't know about you, but I never feel like there are enough hours in a day. Between work, home and other activities, it seems I hardly have time to breathe, let alone watch TV.

But as I read Shirky's book, some of his theories began to resonate.

I was recently listening to my father-in-law as he reminisced about the days when he was a kid. People didn't have the resources that they have today, so children had to make their own toys and entertainment. My father-in-law and his friends used pieces of wood and scrap tires to make scooters.

But today, if it's not produced by a factory or associated with a name brand or pop star, kids don't want to have anything to do with it.

And the same with many people of my generation. Whenever there's a problem -- whether it's a deteriorating neighborhood or failing school -- we look to institutions to fix it, when there's much we can do ourselves. Could it be that while we were busy watching the latest episodes of "Cheers" and "The Love Boat," we were robbed of our ability to find solutions?

Unlike television, the Internet is an interactive medium. And some people are already using it to collaborate and make change through crowd funding websites such as, where people can propose and financially support projects and causes they believe in. Others have used social media to mobilize liberation movements like the Arab Spring.

People no longer have to depend on institutions. They can build networks with like-minded people from all over the world and make a difference. All it takes is coming together, pooling resources and being creative.

It also wouldn't hurt to turn off the TV every now and then -- if you can.

Alva James-Johnson, reporter, [SoftReturn]

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