Zettelkasten Forum


Communication with Zettelkasten?

I'm trying to figure out what Luhmann meant when he wrote he "communicates" with his Zettelkasten but I don't understand what he means by "communication" here. It does not seem to match my understanding of the word.

Luhmann seems to consider his Zettelkasten as a communication partner just like people.

It concerns me and someone else, namely my slip box [or index card file]. [...] For both of us, that is myself and my slip box, it is easy to think of systems theory. [...] But what about the slip box? How must it be conceived that he will acquire the corresponding communicative competence? -Luhmann

What does Luhmann mean by "communication"? Would he concede his slip box some intelligence like a Chinese Room?

One of the most basic presuppositions of communication is that the partners can mutually surprise each other. Only in the way can information be produced in the respective other. -Luhmann

This does connect well to Shannons Information Theory which can be described as Information is surprise.

Is a surprise enough for communication to happen?

As a result of extensive work with this technique a kind of secondary memory will arise, an alter ego with who we can constantly communicate. It proves to be similar to our own memory in that it does not have a thoroughly constructed order of its entirety, not hierarchy, and most certainly no linear structure like a book. Just because of this, it gets its own life, independent of its author. -Luhmann

We note a Zettelkasten requires some critical mass of information.

Every new entry can of course become isolated, like with the key word “Picasso” for the Picasso exhibition. If, however, we seek communication with the slip box, we must seek internal possibilities for linkings which result in the unexpected (i.e. information). We could try to generalize the experiences of Paris, Florence, New York under general concepts like “art” or “exhibitions,” or “crowding” (inter-actionistic), or “mass,” or “freedom” or “education,” in order to see how the slip box reacts. Usually it is more fruitful to look for formulations of problems that relate heterogeneous things with each other.

In any case, communication becomes more fruitful when we succeed to activate the internal network of links at the occasion of writing notes or making queries. -Luhmann

This means the actual association to more general concepts must be done by the human. The surprise connection occurs when a general concept is already present and linked to other notes.

What about other associations than generalizations?

Wikipedia describes communication as "the act of conveying meanings from one entity or group to another through the use of mutually understood signs, symbols, and semiotic rules." and lists 8 steps. Most are implicitly covered by writing and reading. The interesting ones in this context are message composition (2) and interpretation (8). The human certainly composes (writes) and interprets (reads) messages but in what way does the Zettelkasten system do either of those?

What is "meaning" by the way? Wikipedia is not helpful because it defines "meaning is the information or concepts that a sender intends to convey, or does convey, in communication with a receiver." This definition forms a circle with communication. Neuroscience has something better:

We understand the meaning of an object in terms of the meanings of other objects – other chunks of reality to which our brains have assigned certain characteristics. In the brain’s taxonomy, there are no discrete entries or “files” – just associations that are more strongly or more weakly correlated with other associations. -Ben Thomas in Huffpost

So we can equate meaning with hyperlinks. A Zettelkasten does not create links by itself, so it does no interpretation. That would be an interesting venue to explore. I heard Roam shows "backlinks" from other pages which just reference the title. That might be a first step. Anyways, Luhmanns physical Zettelkasten certainly did nothing like this.

Does a Zettelkasten write something on its own? In software we could consider search results as such. Again, Luhmanns physical Zettelkasten did nothing like this.

Conclusion: I still have no idea what Luhmanns means when he writes his Zettelkasten "communicates" to him.

Comments

  • Keep in mind that Luhmann has a very specific concept of communication. But I don't thing it would be helpful in practice.

    I think that in practice the communication thing boils down to you reacting to reading and exploring. You reaction happens in the form of thinking and then writing or further reading and exploring. The magic of a Zettelkasten is its activation potential.

    I am a Zettler

  • You can also think of the zettelkasten as a record of your former self's thinking. With enough time having passed between writing your notes and you recalling them now, it becomes like entering into a dialog with your former self. And being surprised by thoughts you forgot you had then sparks new thoughts in the present.

    :wq

  • If you go long enough between seeing notes, sometimes they will surprise you. So in that sense it is communication because proper communication is like a bunch of mini surprises.

  • Although I think that Luhmann is indeed talking about communication
    in a technical sense (and am more certain about that after @sfast's remark),
    I actually like the idea of communication as it slows me down.

    You see, it is not about simply creating more notes and dumping them,
    since it is not a hard drive where I save a file; moreover, when I want
    to find something, it is not simply a database query.

    If I want to "tell" my Zettelkasten something, I should start by asking what
    it knows about it, and see how it connects to the new piece of information
    I have -- if for nothing else, just to find good links for this new note.

    Similarly, I have got the impression that I do not go for it to "find" something
    as much as I go to it to "reason" about something, so that I browse around,
    restructure things, look for patterns.
    And I also think that the bigger it gets, the more this will be true.

  • I'm no philosopher. Untrained, unskilled, and uncouth.

    @copacetic said:

    In any case, communication becomes more fruitful when we succeed to activate the internal network of links at the occasion of writing notes or making queries. -Luhmann

    This means the actual association to more general concepts must be done by the human. The surprise connection occurs when a general concept is already present and linked to other notes.

    What about other associations than generalizations?

    I find the specific to have more surprises than the general. For example.
    I just did a search (asked my Zettelkasten) how "specific AND general" relate and low and behold my Zettelkasten revealed (communicated) to me a note "201912151757 Yearning for specificity" from last year. In it is a meme that I find surprising and relevant. It was captured while processing a book titled "Nerves and Numbers" (recommended) by two brothers, both professors, one teaches in Environmental Literature and the other teaches Psychology. We tend to ignore the specific and gravitate towards generality "while our true goal is a yearning for specificity and connection." It is the connection which we crave and what our Zettelkasten can provide once it built to a sufficient critical mass. That critical mass is different in different thought streams.

    I heard Roam shows "backlinks" from other pages which just reference the title. That might be a first step. Anyways, Luhmanns physical Zettelkasten certainly did nothing like this.

    The Archive can do this also. Simply select the target notes self-referential link and all back-linked notes show in the Note List.

    Does a Zettelkasten write something on its own? In software we could consider search results as such.

    Yes, when you when asking questions and doing research, this is a way for your Zettelkasten to communicate with you. I call the output serendipity. During the note creation process adding links and looking for connections is also a form of search where "surprises" often happen. I call the input serendipity.

    Conclusion: I still have no idea what Luhmanns means when he writes his Zettelkasten "communicates" to him.

    Who cares what Luhmann meant by his Zettelkasten "communicates" to him?
    I don't want to be Luhmann, I don't want to understand his thinking. I want what Luhmann had. I just want to connect in my own way with my own Zettelkasten.

    Dive in and you'll see - connections - surprises - 'communication' pop up unexpectedly.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • To see how little a TL;DR summary of Luhmann's theory actually helps, have a look at this:
    https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Communication_Theory/Social_Systems#Communication_as_selection

    "Communication is coordinated selectivity. It comes about only if ego fixes his own state on the basis of uttered information” (Luhmann, 1995, p. 154).

    I just like the systems theory stuff in general because it reminds me of programming and designing complex (computer) systems from scratch. Godspeed to everybody who wants to dig into this. It's akin to learning a new language.

    In the context of Luhmann's writing, Luhmann's article has a different meaning, but all of the things that these fine folks above have said make the point sufficiently clear to be useful, I think.

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • Luhmann's concept of communication does away with traditional sender/receiver models. Some of his arguments:

    • When A is saying something to B, A doesn't loose what is communicated (the message).
    • The sender/receiver model puts the emphasis on the sending part of communication, that is, the message
    • ... but a message is only relevant in as much as it is actually "picked up" by the receiver: If A says can you lower the volume of your music and B doesn't hear her, then no communication happened.
    • A message is not the same for sender and receiver, even though the conventional model makes it sound like it would be: If A says "Damn, the weather is nice today!", would B guess that A meant that as a couch potato she dreads the peer pressure of needing go out?
    • When A is saying something to B, conventional models of communication are overlooking the fact that the something is also an active part of the communication, that is, it decides (by limiting or opening up certain avenues of continuation), too, what can come after
    • Communication in short should be thought as a threefold selection of A, B and the information itself, or: the information, the way it is communicated and the way it is understood

    Important to know, also, in order to make some sense of what Luhmann could have meant, is the concept of a selection, which is a certain choice out of some amount of choices.

    • an information is a selection (information is a difference that makes a difference, that is: a surprising selection of a possible continuation that makes sense)
    • the way A expresses the information is a selection (a spoken sentence, a poem, a handout, a love letter, etc.)
    • the way B understands A's articulation is also a selection (this is meant as an insult, this is telling me something between the lines, this is a constructive criticism, this person is mocking me, this is new, this is boring)

    Whenever the combination of these things coincides, communication can be observed.

    We can now try to understand the communication process between A (Luhmann) and B (Zettelkasten). First version, Luhmann Jr. is A the ZK is B:

    1. Luhmann selects an information (the systems theory of pancakes)
    2. He formulates how he communicates this to her ZK, by writing a search query in a particular fashion (systems theory AND pancakes)
    3. The ZK answers with whatever the query returns, in a particular way (…)
    4. …which in turn is a selection of the ZK which is communicated in a particular way which may be more or less interesting to Luhmann Jr.
    5. etc.

    Second version ZK is A and Luhmann Jr. is B:

    1. the ZK displays something that happened before our analysis (succulents as house plants) - here selection of information and selection of how to convey this has happened (search result)
    2. Luhmann Jr. understands that this is old data, but: it just so happens, that this is relevant (methods of poking holes into fingers)! This makes it information! Communication happened!
    3. …Luhmann Jr. writes a new linked Zettel to her actual task at hand (Zettel creation is indeed an act of communication as Luhmann Jr., the Information and the ZK have to come together to make it happen)
    4. etc.

    P. S. I am VERY intrigued about the relative dismissiveness towards Luhmann's actual theory in this thread, I have to say.

  • Thank you. I was not aware of Luhmanns different definition of communication indeed.

    On the one hand, I now find the statement "Luhmann communicates with his Zettelkasten" misleading as the word "communicates" means something different than most of the worlds population understand. (“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ :p )

    On the other hand, I see some value in a sender-less definition of communication. It might be ambiguous who the sender is. For example, the previous comment: Is it communicated to me by matti or by forum.zettelkasten.de or by my laptop screen or all of them? Also, thanks to Pareidolia, we humans can receive meaning from randomness. No sender put any "information" into the message.

  • edited May 25

    @copacetic Glad, if it helped! If you think that Luhmann's redefinition of communication is already interesting, you would have a lot of fun with his imaginative use of terms in general, let's put it that way. ;) I'd say, too, that terms get redefined all the time and an academic like him doesn't need to concern himself with common sense - he can rely on people actually engaging with his work.

    Offtopic: This is the weirdest antiquated forum software. It only lets you edit posts for a certain amount of time? My post from above changes genders of Luhmann Jr. at least once, but I can't edit it (anymore). @ctietze: What's up with that? EDIT: (hehe) it is btw possible to disable the timeout, if the docs are to be believed: https://success.vanillaforums.com/kb/articles/106-editing-posts

  • P. S. I am VERY intrigued about the relative dismissiveness towards Luhmann's actual theory in this thread, I have to say.

    Why?

    I am a Zettler

  • Why?

    Because people are interested in Luhmann's Zettelkasten method. And you would kinda expect that at least some of those would have ventured into studying the theory that came out of working in this way. Because it might also inform your understanding of the method.

  • @matti said:

    Why?

    Because people are interested in Luhmann's Zettelkasten method. And you would kinda expect that at least some of those would have ventured into studying the theory that came out of working in this way. Because it might also inform your understanding of the method.

    Ok. For some clarification: I read a bunch of his texts and am a great fan of his theory. But is a very technical and abstract entity. The Zettelkasten on the other hand is practical and there is little benefit to applying his theory of communication.

    I am a Zettler

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