Law in the Internet Society

The pursuit of knowledge

By MartaPanella - 9 January 2022


"You were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge". In Dante Alighieri's Divina Commedia, these words are attributed to Ulysses, one of the first men to travel across the Pillars of Hercules, stepping into the unknown. Dante believed that the pursuit of knowledge is the very reason of human's existence, reaffirming the theory already expressed by Aristotle, that humans naturally aspire to knowledge.

In this paper, I will try to expand on this idea that there is an Úlan in all human beings towards the amelioration of ourselves and the world surrounding us, analysing its impact on the theory that innovation is driven, mainly, by the desire for profit.

Knowledge and profit

Over the centuries, knowledge - and its more evanescent declination as "culture" - has often been a privilege of Úlite classes and of people who benefited from the hospitality or protection of rich patrons, particularly until authors, artists and scientists started to get paid for their work.

The development of technological instruments facilitating the reproduction of other people's work brought governments to pass copyright laws, at the very beginning aimed at surveilling ideas rather than protecting them. Nowadays, the main argument in favor of copyright is that it drives innovation, protects ideas from exploitation and the rightsholders' capacity to maintain control of their work. Regulators all over the world are preoccupied not only with the protection of authors or performers, but they are afraid of creating frameworks that could potentially inhibit innovation.

However, the risk of inhibiting human willingness to create is probably significantly lower than we generally recognize.

The idea that the pursuit of knowledge is essential to human consciousness, a trait inherent to human minds, has been embraced by multiple scholars across history, from Cicero up to Keynes. Tolstoy wrote that "The totality of causes of phenomena is inaccessible to human understanding, but the necessity of finding causes is innate in the human soul". In these terms, the need to investigate the reasons behind phenomena and events is inherent to human consciousness, it is what sets us apart from other species, it is the driving force behind most discoveries, behind science and progress, or even religion.

Nowadays, the push towards innovation is often associated to the pursuit of profit more than knowledge itself; however, it is interesting to observe the results of recent studies, which have found that users' generated content is becoming increasingly relevant in many sectors as a force driving innovation (E. Von Hippel, "People don’t need a profit motive to innovate", Harvard Business Review, 2011). Individuals have showed increasing creativity within their own areas of interest: their push towards innovation is not driven by the promise of future profits, but it mainly responds to their interests and utilities. They often acquire the knowledge necessary simply because they are passioned about the subject area, with results that might be beneficial for society as a whole.

The quality of knowledge: the acquisition costs

Given the relevance of specialized abilities' role in today's production mechanisms, an analysis of the costs necessary to acquire these tools is essential to assess whether people actually have the practical opportunity (and not only a natural tendency) to innovate.

The advent of the digital era created an illusion of generalized knowledge: highly specialized information on almost any subject was readily available with a rapid search on internet, and the social value of being an "expert" in a certain area appears substantially reduced.

However, while the amount of information available increased exponentially, the quality of the knowledge acquirable is not always equally valid. Firstly, data profiling and algorithms changed our approach to knowledge and information, exposing us only to content which reflected our supposed interests and opinions. Secondly, the information we obtain is not always reliable nor readily verifiable, and even when it is, we might not have the tools we need to ascertain it.

It is probably possible then to draw a line, distinguishing from practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge. On one hand, the acquisition costs of the technical knowledge necessary to develop new ideas or improve existing products are lower than they have ever been before: the main price paid for acquiring it is our time and, often, our data. On the other hand, purely theoretical knowledge, lacking an immediate application in real life - and thus the accreditation of a rapid efficiency test - remains more difficult to acquire through the low-cost processes granted by the internet.

Therefore, we might argue that even assuming that there is an inside push towards innovation in human beings, the possibility to invent still depends on the quality and cost of accurate information on the specific sector taken into consideration.


The digital revolution constitutes one of the biggest equalitarian tools that were ever available to humankind. However, the knowledge people could have access through it is often affected by lack of privileges in terms of internet access, verification mechanisms and awareness of options granting users' privacy (or access to them).

Studies have noted that human innate thirst for knowledge and amelioration is already independent from the aspiration to profit in certain sectors. Psychologists call it need for cognition and epistemic curiosity, traits characterizing human beings and defining their personalities, inner attributes that often don't need external motivators.

If this tendency were allowed to scale, by reducing the costs of information gathering not only on practical questions but also with regard to "theoretical" knowledge, we might be able to fully benefit from a collective effort.

Given the challenges that lie ahead for the future (from the finiteness of resources to global warming), we might soon need every brain on Earth to be able to reach its full potential, when the driving force behind innovation will be survival rather than profit.

This way, going back to the mentioned Pillars of Hercules, we can all hope that, as the cover of Francis Bacon's Instauratio Magna put it, multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia, many will pass through and knowledge will be the greater.

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r4 - 10 Jan 2022 - 00:33:32 - MartaPanella
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