Descartes, the New York City Fire Department and Facebook

How knowledge and power are shifting in our brave new world

I was driving into work yesterday, stuck in the long, long line that was the Schuylkill Expressway (one day it’s a disabled vehicle, the next it’s a road crew), when I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition about the New York City first responder who had the wherewithal to realize that the smoking SUV parked in Times Square last month was no ordinary car fire, but rather a car bomb. Among the tip-offs for fire department lieutenant John Kazan, Dina Temple-Raston reported, was that the smoke inside the car was white, instead of the usual black or gray. Kazan also noticed that while the owner is usually found waving frantically near a car that’s on fire, in this case, no owner was to be seen. Kazan had been trained in counterterrorism by the fire department—not a traditional role for that agency, but one that paid off. [SIGNUP]

In Temple-Raston’s report, Joe Pfeifer, chief of the department’s counterterrorism and emergency preparedness unit, made an interesting point. “It used to be,” he said, “to have power, you hoarded information within your organization. The shift is that to be powerful with an emergency response, [you] share information.”

Also in the news yesterday was an Inquirer story about the discovery of a long-lost letter written by French philosopher René Descartes. It was found in the bowels of Haverford College’s library’s special collections, where it had lain unremarked for more than a century. The letter, part of a trove stolen in France in the 1800s, was unearthed when Haverford special-collections head John Anderies inventoried some papers bequeathed to the college in 1902 and posted the results online. A researcher in the Netherlands came across the list and asked Anderies to send him a scan of the letter, written by Descartes in 1641 to a priest he was friendly with, asking advice on how to keep from being excommunicated by the Catholic Church for his philosophical musings. (Haverford is returning the letter to the Institut de France, which is honoring its honesty with a $19,000 reward.)

And last Friday, I read about a woman who found her missing children, abducted by her husband when they were toddlers, by entering her daughter’s name on … Facebook. There she was, after 15 years. The mom has been awarded custody of her daughter and son, now teenagers, and the dad’s in jail.

Three completely different incidents. What they have in common is what Pfeifer remarked on: the gradual but undeniable change in how power is perceived and held in our society. Private collections of things, like letters of famous men and works by famous artists and sculptors, used to be just that: private. Their owners’ power and pleasure came from exclusivity, from not having to share. The power of the father who abducted those children came from secrecy, from his ability to hide their whereabouts. And the status of a fire chief or police officer came from what he knew and held close to his chest.

Now, though, we live in the Great Age of Sharing. And while, frankly, I wish my kids would stop making so much of their lives available to anyone with an Internet connection, there’s something wonderfully democratizing in the dissemination of knowledge—something, even, that touches the heart of why we associate goodness with illumination, and evil with the dark. Nowadays, the guys with the big bucks are the ones figuring out new ways for us to share with each other. And even if that means too many YouTube clips of folks incinerating their main courses on Memorial Day—not to mention Farmville—it’s still a paradigm shift.

Imagine cops and corporate honchos and—hell, why not?—even politicians gradually coming around to the notion that information—true, real, valid information—ought to be shared instead of hidden and hoarded. They’d be willing to admit it when they don’t have the foggiest notion of how, say, to cap a gushing underwater oil well. They’d tell the truth because they’ve learned that sharing is the path to power.

Who knows? The change might eventually reach violence-ridden Philly neighborhoods strangled by the strictures of a don’t-snitch culture, making it safe for witnesses to tell the truth instead of clamping their mouths shut out of fear for their lives. When it comes to the viability of our city, there could be no bolder paradigm shift than that.

SANDY HINGSTON is a Philly Mag senior editor.