Jimmy Wales is putting all of human knowledge at our fingertips - with your help.
"One of the biggest problems of the digital divide is the cost of access to information," says Jimmy Wales, 40, the visionary founder of the controversial, dynamic-and occasionally comically inaccurate-website Wikipedia. "We seek to make that cost as close to zero as possible." In pursuit of freeing information, what began as an anti-credentialist dream of an online, open source encyclopedia-which blares the reminder that "anyone can edit" from the top of the home page-has turned into something grander: a quest to make the known world visible to everyone.By placing the passionate amateur, the geeky fanboy, and the autodidact on the same footing as the Ph.D., Wikipedia has grown exponentially to more than 150 different languages, and the English-language site alone is home to over 1 million articles, more than three times the number housed at Britannica Online. The umbrella Wikimedia Foundation now encompasses not just Wikipedia, but also sites that provide definitions, quotes, and open-source music files, images, texts, and videos-all of which can be modified by anyone with internet access. With the growth of the foundation, the idea that the sites will one day represent the sum total of human knowledge has become more realistic. That means good things for those who could never afford a $100 reference book. "Our specialty is in providing free content," says Wales. "We hope that creative NGOs and entrepreneurs in developing countries will see an opportunity to distribute our content for a radically lower cost than any traditional encyclopedia."The site's newfound influence has also established Wales as a kind of internet demigod. He's the final arbiter in the often-furious debates surrounding Wikipedia content, and has the power to block users, and even communities, from contributing-this year, abuse by congressional aides led to a total ban on contributions from Capitol Hill computers. But incidents like these are just growing pains; a reminder that open source is still an experiment. For all the problems inherent in a website that anyone can edit, the vitality of the content makes the experiment an important one, and Wales defends Wikipedia's egalitarian roots and fanatically loyal community. After all, he says, "would you prefer to live in a world with Wikipedia, or without?"BARGAIN A full Encyclopedia Britannica print set costs $1,395, on sale.LEARN MOREwikimedia.org, wikipedia.org/wiki/jimmy_wales