Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.
This is what Jimmy Wales did when he created Wikipedia, he told the audience at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Monday as part of the Ringling College Library Association Town Hall Lecture Series.
The site, which operates as an online encyclopedia, launched in January 2001. Now, it is the fifth-most used internet site, serving users in 270 languages, though not all of its articles are fully translated into all 270 languages. Wales said there is still work to be done, and with the recent increase in internet accessibility worldwide, now is the time to do it.
"When these people in small villages are getting online for the first time, they aren't doing unusual things, they're doing all the things that we all do," Wales said. "In a few years, we're going to see massive connectivity to the internet for hundreds of millions of people, and these people do not speak English or French."
But this effort hasn't been easy, Wales said. In fact, Wikipedia has even been banned in two countries — Turkey and China.
Wales said this is in large part because of Wikipedia's change from HTTP to HTTPS formatting, making it more secure for users. However, it made it impossible for countries to block certain articles from Wikipedia. Instead, the countries had to block the whole site or allow all of its content.
Wales said he hopes to find a solution with Turkey and China, and expand to even more countries because informal learning, to him, is the future of learning.
"I don't think it will replace universities by any means, but people can begin to do better because if they need extra help, it's right there," Wales said. "If people hear about something happening in Azerbaijan, they can then look up Azerbaijan to learn more about the issue or the country."
Because he knows people use the site to learn, Wales said the company has an onus to provide accurate information by creating content that has verifiability, meaning it can be backed up by a credible source.
"For us, a bunch of geeks who just want to make an encyclopedia for the world, it's been very upsetting to hear all this talk about fake news," Wales said. "We don't live in a post-truth world. Facts matter. Truth matters. The further we get away from those traditional ideals ... we have big problems."
Providing knowledge to all users is the model, and it is something Wales said the company has been more able to do with new technologies such as Alexa or Google Home.
"My kids think Alexa is the smartest person in the world," he said. "I have to remind them, 'Yes, she is the smartest because she reads Wikipedia.'"