The Wi-Fi ride of Paul Revere

The Wi-Fi ride of Paul Revere

TWO HUNDRED and twenty-nine years ago today, Paul Revere made his famous ride across the Massachusetts countryside. But to W. David Stephenson, a Medfield-based homeland security consultant, this is the occasion for more than a sentimental history lesson. “Revere and the Minutemen are an ideal model for public participation in the war on terror,” says Stephenson. “But instead we have Tom Ridge, who prefers to dole out information to us when he sees fit. As long as the Bush administration is in office, we may have to take matters into our own hands.” Ideas called Stephenson at his office to talk about reinventing the Minutemen for the 21st century.

IDEAS: How might ordinary citizens use gadgets like Wi-Fi laptops, smartphones, and PDAs to respond to terrorist threats?

STEPHENSON: Everything we're learning about the failure of government agencies to share information on terrorist plots in time to prevent them indicates that what's called for today is not only new communication methods but a new mindset. Instead of top-down, tightly controlled communication, when it comes to homeland security what we need is a network like the Internet, which empowers individuals and links everyone together. A system like the one that lets PalmPilot owners download breaking news to read on the go, for example, could allow citizen volunteers to download real-time information in case of emergencies. We could also learn from the US military to set up “mesh” networks — in which wireless devices are programmed to seek each other out, bouncing phone calls and e-mails from point to point during crises. But even more important than Internet technology is Internet thinking.

IDEAS: Was Paul Revere employing “Internet thinking” in 1775?

STEPHENSON: Absolutely. In a loose alliance of seven overlapping groups planning for independence, Revere was a member of five — he was what some network theorists call a “connector.” But William Dawes, who also rode out to warn colonists on the night of April 18, 1775, didn't know as many rebels. Because Revere stopped at all the right farmhouses, activating a network of local leaders, people who lived along his route knew what was going on in a matter of hours. Those who lived along Dawes's route didn't find out until much later.

Today, America finds itself fighting a networked enemy — and this time we're the Redcoats, marching along in formation, waiting to receive orders from the top brass. [Boston Globe — Ideas Section]

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