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Information era’s waves billow against walls of caste

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WASHINGTON -- You saw the stories of the embarrassment at Encyclopaedia Britannica last week as the company's highly advertised free Web site was jammed into nonfunctioning.

The stories were of some 10 million hits a day clogging the site, www.britannica.com; of three separate apologies given to would-be users of the free reference service; of promises to get the thing up and running, perhaps as early as this week.More striking, though, is what the stories didn't say: What an extraordinary thing it is that people around the world suddenly have access -- free access -- to knowledge that would have been the envy of a university professor earlier in my own lifetime.

As for ordinary people, I remember how the encyclopedia salesmen would come around with their sample volumes, their memorized spiels and their offers of "easy" terms if you'd only sign up for Compton's or World Book. Owning an encyclopedia -- or "a set of encyclopedias," as we used to say -- was a pretty big deal for families of modest means, an unaffordable luxury for many of the folk in my hometown.

And now it's all free -- or will be as soon as Britannica works out the bugs. The reason it's free is that Britannica, whose hard-copy sales are down some 80 percent since 1990, is forced to compete with Microsoft's dominant Encarta encyclopedia.

But the encyclopedia is just one small illustration of the explosion both in knowledge and in our access to it since Thomas Jefferson's modest personal book collection formed the nucleus of the Library of Congress. Not only does my own house now contain more books than Jefferson ever owned, but my access to public libraries, bookstores and, of course, the World Wide Web, give my family information resources beyond the imagination of world-class scholars a short time ago.

I've just had a phone call from a friend who tells me that, in preparation for an upcoming trip to Benin, she's just downloaded 75 to 100 pages of information, from a score of sites, on that West African country -- information on everything from the local currency, political situation and weather to the latest local news and the street address of the American Embassy.

"I'm starting to feel almost like I know the place, even though I've never been there," she said. Marco Polo, eat your heart out!

Nor is it just information that is so profusely available. Think of the difficulties confronting a 19th-century music lover. He could, of course, hear local folk artists pretty much at will. But if he had a fondness for, say, Bach or Beethoven, he'd have to hire an orchestra and a place for it to perform -- which means he'd have to be powerfully wealthy. Today, any teenager with a CD-player (or even an FM radio, for that matter) can hear virtually any music of his choosing, performed by top musicians, virtually at will.

The same youngster could, at a whim, look at tens of thousands of paintings from the National Gallery of Art.

Think of laws forbidding anyone to teach slaves to read, think of Hitler's book burnings, think of all the attempts over the years to enforce either orthodoxy or the status quo by putting learning off-limits, and you begin to sense the power of what is happening. The walls of caste and class have not yet been razed entirely, but they are suddenly, irrevocably, more porous than we've bothered to notice.

And yet not completely porous. The pertinence of the so-called "digital divide" is its reminder that some Americans remain on the wrong side of it, cut off from the power of the knowledge revolution. We have to get serious not merely about the technology but also the psychology of bridging that divide: We have to infect our turned-off adults and our uninspired children with the desire to know more of what is within their grasp already and the oceans more that shortly will be.

If that's true of end-of-the-century America, it is immeasurably worse for much of the rest of the world. As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan remarked in a recent speech, "half the world's population has never even made, or received, a telephone call."

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com