Zettelkasten Forum

Old memory on knowledge management

An old memory popped into my mind yesterday, something I could have forgotten but perhaps dredged up by thinking about Zettelkasten so much.

It was from the mid-1970s. I was a graduate student at the University of Alberta, running engineering programs (my own) on the university's Amdahl mainframe computer. This was before the days of desktop computers. I was given an account with which to access a few MB of file storage and a whopping 64KB of memory within which to run my programs. You worked from a dedicated, green-screen terminal, "typed" up your program on a card punch machine, and ran the program by submitting it using a card reader. Heaven help the graduate student who tripped and spilled his or her box of cards all over the floor!

The (data only) file storage structure was completely flat: you had one directory and the file names followed the standard of having no more than 8 characters. I printed out a list of all files and then hand wrote their description beside each file name so that I could remember the contents.

Speaking to a visiting professor one day, he wistfully remarked: "I don't understand why this computer system doesn't use a hierarchical (i.e., nested) directory structure - it would be so much more efficient. And while they are at it, they should allow longer file names". To me, this was an astounding and radical suggestion. At first, I couldn't understand how it would have any use. It took a few days for me to wrap my mind around the concept and understand that he wasn't just being subversively critical of a different university. It took a few years to appreciate how much of an improvement that would make in my work habits (not until I graduated and starting working on a PC at a consulting company).

it seems when we start using a computer for some task, we first go backwards, then catch up and then finally move beyond what we used to do with manual systems and analyses. It's only taken 50 years in regard to how engineers store, access and process information to barely catch up with Luhmann.


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