Zettelkasten Forum


The Problem with Seeing the Zettelkasten as a Note Storage System

A lil something I wrote today. Figured someone in here might get something out of it. Citations are still just reminders for later.


The inclusion of the zettelkasten into the lexicon of contemporary productivity scenes, many of which view note-taking systems through the lens of task and project management, has led to confusion as to what a zettelkasten is and for what it can be used. This confusion becomes particularly apparent when comparing zettelkasten to other note-taking methodologies, where the zettelkasten is seen as an advanced (and sometimes outdated) way to store and retrieve notes. I'd like to argue that the zettelkasten should not be considered within the lineage of agnostic note-storing systems and apps, but rather as something else entirely: a note-making and note-linking methodology with intent. One that is specific both in usage and objective.

The Ol' Store and Retrieve

Storing notes suggests retrieving notes. For example, in Tiago Forte's PARA system, the act of storing and retrieving notes is a fundamental principle. Articles, meeting notes, atomic notes, to-do lists, chapters of books, how-tos, and important emails may all find a home in the PARA system. Most importantly, however, is the fact that these "notes" may be both unprocessed or even unread, existing, in a sense, as raw material. To deal with this, Tiago emphasizes a form of delayed "progressive summarization," where these sometimes large text documents are processed on a need-to-use basis rather than at the time of capture.

Like many productivity-minded note-taking systems, the intention is not to link your ideas regarding an article on "tiny house building" to a note on "permaculture." The goal is to be able to retrieve each separate file when the time is ripe, process it in the moment, and make use of its information in the form of "intermediate packets." Doing so, it is suggested, enhances a person's ability to write papers and books, potty train their child, or build a house.

Seeing the zettelkasten as a complementary note-storing system along the lines of PARA, as many productivity-minded PKMers mistakenly do, confuses what a zettelkasten is typically used for, leading some to dismiss the zettelkasten as too time-consuming to maintain or simply as an outmoded note-taking system made obsolete by advances in digital technology.

At the root of these critiques, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the zettelkasten functions, and especially so over time. In his essay "Communicating with Slip Boxes" Luhmann mentions the changes in function that come with a mature slip box:

"The slip box needs a number of years in order to reach critical mass. Until then, it functions as a mere container from which we can retrieve what we put in. This changes with its growth in size and complexity."1

Could it be that due in part to the rapid increase in interest in zettelkasten over the past two years, the speed at which ideas and opinions about zettelkasten are shared, and the genuine lack of source material on the methodology in English that we are living in an environment of misinformation? It wouldn't be the first time. Perhaps both criticism of the zettelkasten and misinterpreting it as a note storage system are each the result of making sense of something that for the vast majority of people has not matured with age.

I Rarely Look for a Single Note

Rarely do I engage with my zettelkasten with the intention of finding a single, specific note on, say, basket weaving (full disclosure: I am not a basket weaver). Instead, I look for "clusters" of notes 2. I look for areas of my zettelkasten that are bulking up, pushing at the seams, tapping me on the shoulder saying, "Hey, you seem to be taking a lot of notes on basket weaving these days. Maybe it's time you converted some of these basket weaving notes into an article on basket weaving?" This is, in part, how many of us work with our zettelkasten, and is one of the principle workflows discussed in Ahrens' How to Take Smart Notes. Those of us who use the zettelkasten to maintain a writing schedule can let our zettelkasten "tell us" what we've been thinking about and what of this thinking might be ready for expression. This is how a zettelkasten can become, to use Niklas Luhmann's term, a "partner of communication."3

But, what if I wanted to find a specific note. Could I do so? Absolutely. There are enough touch points throughout the zettelkasten to make finding a single note easy to do. Enumerable links between notes; familiarity as to where notes live due to daily engagement; the use of alphanumeric codes at the start of note titles; structure notes, hub note, and index notes; tags; and, in the case of the digital zettelkasten, "search," make finding a single note almost...fun. But, again, finding a single note is not my typically use-case.

I, like Luhmann, see writing as integral to complex thinking.4 Therefor, my goal in keeping a zettelkasten is to link ideas and turn these links into essays, blog posts, books, and content for my newsletter. Writing is, to use Karl Weick's term, an act of sensemaking. A generic note storing system—were it sentient enough to have feelings—would not care if you made sense of the way your notes interacted or if you turned that sense into a book. But, a zettelkasten—with equal sentience—does. A zettelkasten "cares" that you connect your ideas and find ways to express them, because doing brings life to you, your creative work, and the zettelkasten itself.


(Edited @ctietze): This first appeared on @taurusnoises blog: https://bobdoto.computer/zettelkasten-storage

Post edited by ctietze on

Comments

  • @taurusnoises very nicely written. A few weeks ago, I happened upon an old Zettelkasten link from two years ago (not Zettelkasten.de). What was once a thriving blog post, full of promise and volumes of accolades from users intent on following the system, has not seen a comment in over a year. As you so clearly suggest, many who attempt to use the zettelkasten in the sole form of a note storage system will be sadly disappointed.

  • Would love the see it, @Steve625. And, thanks for the compliment!

  • edited February 22

    Great piece. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    @taurusnoises said:
    Could it be that due in part to the rapid increase in interest in zettelkasten over the past two years, the speed at which ideas and opinions about zettelkasten are shared, and the genuine lack of source material on the methodology in English that we are living in an environment of misinformation? It wouldn't be the first time. Perhaps both criticism of the zettelkasten and misinterpreting it as a note storage system are each the result of making sense of something that for the vast majority of people has not matured with age.

    Yes, 100%. I'll be writing about this in the future. There are a wealth of "Latter-day Ahrensians" (those who base their source material of Zettelkasten off Sönke Ahrens's book, and not Luhmann himself). Ahrens's interpretation of ZK is, indeed, an interpretation. Luhmann himself never used the terms Fleeting Notes, Literature Notes, or Permanent Notes. In fact, in viewing his Zettelkasten, it little resembles what Ahrens describes. Then you have articles upon articles which then interpret and add their own inventions onto Ahrens's already curated collection of inventions, and you're left with a lot of confusion out there.

    It's actually quite similar to what happened in Christianity.

    There you have Jesus of Nazareth who was an illiterate zealot Jew (a follower of John the Baptist to a large extent), and then you have a guy, Paul (a man who didn't know Jesus and who once persecuted Jesus's followers) effectively create a religion out of him forty years after his death and invent the term Christianity (a Greek term which Jesus wouldn't even be able to read).

    Anyway, I'll stop myself from continuing down this rabbit hole now.

    Scott P. Scheper
    Website | Twitter | Reddit | YouTube

  • Thanks for the kind words, @scottscheper. I really appreciate you taking the time to read it.

    I, perhaps, have slightly less allegiance to Luhmann's source texts, though I do consider them radically important (at least the ones I am able to read). I find them to be foundational, but more so as something to work with/from/within. I do not see them as comprehensive of the methodology as a whole, because the methodology will continue to change.

    Just as the words of Jesus are fundamental to the Christian faith, interpretation of Jesus' words is the entirety of the religion. In the same way that Christianity is not only Jesus, but also the Desert Fathers, the Ranters, the Quakers, the liberation theologists, the folk Catholics, the little old ladies saying rosary, the you name it, so too is the world of zettelkasten a living, breathing, morphing entity. Ahrens' work is, be it an interpretation, a core aspect of the current state. Hopefully there will be others for it to rub up against in the future. Stasis is death.

  • @taurusnoises
    Here is the link. https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/NfdHG6oHBJ8Qxc26s/the-zettelkasten-method-1
    I know that many of the top commentators just 18 - 24 months ago no longer post or appear to be active even here. Of course, it is entirely possible they found their zettelkasten "flow" and are off performing incredible feats of literary genius. Still, I wonder if perhaps they saw the methodology as encumbered and moved on.

  • edited February 22

    @Steve625 Perhaps they "rationalized" their way out of it.

    Oh, and I think I cam across this a while back. I'll re-look and see how it reads now. :smile:

  • @taurusnoises said:
    Thanks for the kind words, @scottscheper. I really appreciate you taking the time to read it.

    I, perhaps, have slightly less allegiance to Luhmann's source texts, though I do consider them radically important (at least the ones I am able to read). I find them to be foundational, but more so as something to work with/from/within. I do not see them as comprehensive of the methodology as a whole, because the methodology will continue to change.

    Just as the words of Jesus are fundamental to the Christian faith, interpretation of Jesus' words is the entirety of the religion. In the same way that Christianity is not only Jesus, but also the Desert Fathers, the Ranters, the Quakers, the liberation theologists, the folk Catholics, the little old ladies saying rosary, the you name it, so too is the world of zettelkasten a living, breathing, morphing entity. Ahrens' work is, be it an interpretation, a core aspect of the current state. Hopefully there will be others for it to rub up against in the future. Stasis is death.

    Good point! I just prefer to develop and evolve the branch of Jesus, not the one of Paul (even though I appreciate the beauty and tradition brought forth by Paul) 😉

    Scott P. Scheper
    Website | Twitter | Reddit | YouTube

  • "I just prefer to develop and evolve the branch of Jesus, not the one of Paul (even though I appreciate the beauty and tradition brought forth by Paul) 😉"

    Which version? M,M,L,J? 😉 @scottscheper for another forum I suppose.

  • @taurusnoises said:

    "I just prefer to develop and evolve the branch of Jesus, not the one of Paul (even though I appreciate the beauty and tradition brought forth by Paul) 😉"

    Which version? M,M,L,J? 😉 @scottscheper for another forum I suppose.

    None of those. The earliest (Mark) was written like 50-60 years after Jesus’ death. That would be like me writing about what John Lennon was like in the early 1960s based on stories I heard from my grandparents 😝

    Scott P. Scheper
    Website | Twitter | Reddit | YouTube

  • @taurusnoises

    Excellent thoughts - thanks for taking the time to write them down in a clear, concise manner.

    One of my intentions to is to have my ZK reflect the way I think about a number of issues and even communicate a set of values - not just now, but long after I've left this world. The idea is mainly to benefit my kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, etc. Sort of like the value descendants would find in a written personal history, but using a non-linear approach.

    I believe this is separate from the purpose you were describing for your ZK. Have you had any thoughts along the same lines and/or do you have any suggestions for how a ZK might be "structured" (using the term very loosely) to accomplish my stated intention?

  • @GeoEng51 said:
    The idea is mainly to benefit my kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, etc. Sort of like the value descendants would find in a written personal history, but using a non-linear approach.

    First, I think this is a wonderful thing you're doing. I'm jealous you have grandkids to whom you can leave this wealth of connected ideas. What a great look into how and what you thought about the world.

    Have you had any thoughts along the same lines and/or do you have any suggestions for how a ZK might be "structured" (using the term very loosely) to accomplish my stated intention?

    Personally, I think whatever you leave behind, and in whatever form you do so, is going to be perfect. The form and structure will inform the ideas and vice versa. Who wouldn't want to have access to such a wealth of insight from an elder?

    If you wanted to play around with the form and structure a bit, my first thought would be to look at Andy Matuschak's approach or what others call the "digital garden," which is a kind of fork from Andy's work (imo). I tend to find these approaches more narrative than zettels, while still retaining the rich linking and atomicity of each note.

    Not sure if this is a path you'd want to go down, though, as it might require a lot of work. But, as a way of giving your kids and grandkids something fun to experience, I think the DG approach has a nice intimacy about it.

    Funnily enough, I find other peoples' digital gardens beasts to wade through, and I've been curious about a use-case that would make sense to me. Opening a stranger's digital garden almost feels "too specific" to the person who created it, and not knowing them personally, I find it hard to connect with it. But! The project you mentioned above seems perfectly suited for it, because there's already an intimacy established between you and your family.

    Please keep me/us up to date where you land.

  • @taurusnoises said:
    A lil something I wrote today. Figured someone in here might get something out of it. Citations are still just reminders for later.


    ... a note-making and note-linking methodology with intent. One that is specific both in usage and objective.

    Writing, in my case. Same as in Ahrens and Luhmann. This is a much needed article. Thank you!

    Erdös #2. ZK software components.~~~~ “If you’re thinking without writing, you only think you’re thinking.” -- Leslie Lamport.

  • @taurusnoises

    Some good ideas - thanks. I am familiar with Andy Matuschak's approach but less so with the "digital garden" concept. I'll check that out. From what I've seen so far, the digital garden isn't too different from a ZK - it just seems to be more focused on sharing your thoughts on the web, using TiddlyWiki or similar software to create your links and back links. There has been discussion of using a TiddlyWiki for a ZK on this forum, of course, and I did try it out for a while. But I don't see a fundamental difference between the digital garden approach and building a ZK. One obvious advantage - a "user" only needs to open a TiddlyWiki file in any web browser, and away they go. You could also structure an summary/opening page to explain what is going on.

  • @taurusnoises said:
    Could it be that due in part to the rapid increase in interest in zettelkasten over the past two years, the speed at which ideas and opinions about zettelkasten are shared, and the genuine lack of source material on the methodology in English that we are living in an environment of misinformation?

    I through in my biased "I agree".

    There might be an issue with translating German into English that sparked some of the difficulties to grasp the essence of the Zettelkasten Method. I read Sönke Ahrens's book in German. When his work got more and more fame it was strange to me how it got interpreted. It took a while for me to get a feeling for the flow of interpretation.

    In German, his book read to me as a more lengthy version of Luhmann's article. I don't think that the types of notes were ever intended to be taken as concepts to be used as if they are deliberately designed but to just have words for what you are writing down in the different stages.

    I am a Zettler

  • edited February 23

    @sfast

    "In German, his book read to me as a more lengthy version of Luhmann's article. I don't think that the types of notes were ever intended to be taken as concepts to be used as if they are deliberately designed but to just have words for what you are writing down in the different stages."

    Somehow I got that impression as well, even without knowing German. Once I was able to source some of Arehns' ideas back to Luhmann, it really seemed like an honest read-through of Luhmann's principles laid out in the article.

    What I've really found interesting is how many people emphasize Ahrens' descriptions of the kinds of notes he lists, and not Ahrens' emphasis on the Zettelkasten being a writing tool/partner. This alps points back to Luhmann's article, which is focused much more on the writing aspect, and, like you said, talks only in passing about the kinds of notes. That was the big, and I thought obvious, take away from me. That the Zettelkasten was/is a tool for writing. Call the notes whatever you want.

  • @taurusnoises Good to hear -- I continue to be confused about how quickly two juxtaposed nouns like "literature" + "note" became a thing. It's on a similar level of weirdness of someone writing "You should put clean clothes into the wardrobe" and suddenly "Clean Clothes" becomes a new thing on the interwebs.

    In German, it's very easy to re-combine nouns as most internet users probably know from "is there a German word for..." questions :) The literal translation into English as nouns, "literature note", appeared to have more heft than "note from literature/from reading".

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

  • edited February 23

    @ctietze said:
    The literal translation into English as nouns, "literature note", appeared to have more heft than "note from literature/from reading".

    I don't see myself special in this regard, but that seemed really obvious to me in Ahrens' book. These are just notes the source of which is some form of media. This was so apparent that I actually set the concept of the lit note aside, because, to me, the source of the idea did not require a new "kind" of note. It was just a note. Some note come from thoughts. Some come from books, media, etc. The only difference is that within the notes, I'll put a reference to the source if there is one.

    I'm forgetting now. Did Ahrens capitalize "Literature Note" in his book? If he did, tsk tsk. If not, then maybe you can ask him to change every instance in some new edition where it says lit note to say instead "note where the source is some form of media." I'm pretty sure he even says that.

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