Tiago, I’ve started into an advanced copy of your forthcoming book and at the end of the introduction you have a footnote:

Other popular terms for such a system include Zettelkasten (meaning “slipbox” in German, coined by influential sociologist Niklas Luhmann), Memex (a word invented by American inventor Vannevar Bush), and digital garden (named by popular online creator Anne-Laure Le Cunff)

Please know that the zettelkasten and its traditions existed prior to Niklas Luhmann. He neither invented them nor coined their name. It’s a commonly repeated myth on the internet that he did and there’s ample evidence of their extensive use prior to his well known example. I’ve documented some brief history on Wikipedia to this effect should you need it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zettelkasten

The earliest concept of a digital garden stems from Mark Bernstein’s essay Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas in 1998. This torch was picked up by academic Mike Caulfield in a 2015 keynote/article The Garden and The Stream: A Technopastoral.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s first mention of “digital garden” was on April 21, 2020

Which occurred just after Maggie Appleton’s mention on 2020-04-15

And several days after Justin Tadlock’s article on 2020-04-17 

Before this there was Joel Hooks by at least 2020-02-04 , though he had been thinking about it in late 2019.

He was predated by Tom Critchlow on 2018-10-18 who credits Mike Caulfield’s article from 2015-10-17 as an influence.

Archive.org has versions of the phrase going back into the early 2000’s: https://web.archive.org/web/*/%22digital%20garden%22

Hopefully you’re able to make the edits prior to publication, or at least in an available errata.

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

7 thoughts on “”

  1. @chrisaldrich I tend to think of Luhmann’s use of “Zettelkasten” as similar to Apple’s relationship to MP3 players. He didn’t invent it but may as well have. Also, has the term become specific to Luhmann’s method of linking notes (which afaik he did develop)? The pedantic debates on “productivity” forums make me think so. But yeah, writing “popularized by” rather than “coined by” would be better.

  2. @jack I call availability bias. Those who make this argument did all their learning about the idea from Twitter, social media, or reading one or more of the thousand blog posts that only go a quarter inch deep into the topic and repeat the myth without any attribution at all. It seems an afront to the system itself, which is underlaid by research and asking questions, and Luhmann’s memory to make such a claim. If we’re all going to do this exercise, then let’s at least get it right.

    Luhmann didn’t do much to popularize the system. I’d argue that it was years of posts on Manfred Kuehn’s blog Taking Note, which dates back to 2007, and the 2013 exhibition “Zettelkästen. Machines of Fantasy” at the Museum of Modern Literature, Marbach am Neckar that did much of the heavy lifting for the re-popularization of the topic as well as zettelkasten.de (which dates to early 2014).

    The addressing system that Luhmann used for his cards goes back to the 1770’s Vienna city addresses and conscription system which was heavily used and even legislated by the government at the time. It might bear notice that in 1780, Vienna’s library also unveiled the first index card based card catalog file for books, just a few years after Carl Linnaeus’ standardization of the slip or index card. Over 1,000 of Linnaeus’s precursors to the modern index card containing information collected from books and other publications and measuring five by three inches are now housed at the Linnean Society of London. Luhmann didn’t invent much, if anything, in his system, he was taught it by someone.

    The real loss is that these methods were slowly lost over time and not passed down or even across into the digital realm. What I find the worst in the whole ecosystem is that the “influencers” like Forte are writing about it with so little knowledge of its traditions (at least he credits the idea of the commonplace book). One of the few actual resources that he quotes is Annie Murphy Paul’s The Extended Mind. Sadly he must have missed the part where she indicates that imitation is a far superior and more successful strategy than innovation. Imitation is the entire reason for these note taking methods’ success. I find it even more deplorable that the influencers in the space are using marketing neologisms like “second brain” and “maps of content”, which they’re turning into brand words to sell systems that can be got for free for just a bit of reading. Forte has a relatively sophisticated website/sales funnel for selling a $1,500 course, and obviously he’s following the pattern that if you want to be viewed as an expert in something, then you have to publish a book about it. His rhetorical pathos plays out reasonably well, but part of my point is that he’s trying to build ethos in his nattering on about his experience in the area. It’s here where he falls short. He speaks of his years of hard won experience, when he might have gotten it all in just a few weeks of reading and expanded from there. To his students (Good) Will Hunting might say they dropped $1,500 “on a fuckin’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.” My feeling is that if he’s going to hold himself up as an expert who’s studied and practiced the space for years, then he should at least get the surface historical facts right. Otherwise, he’s just spreading the same F.U.D. as all the other hucksters. It also speaks to the potential quality of his system that in an area he’s focused on for years that he can’t use it to create a higher quality text. His book shouldn’t go out into the world and only serve to misinform people who are being sold the opposite.

    The whole enterprise is reminiscent of the flimflam artist Marcus Dwight Larrowe aka Silas Holmes alias Dr. Alphonse Loisette who sold an incredibly expensive memory course across America in the 1880s—Mark Twain was a student who gave him a testimonial. George S. Fellows wrote a book exposing his fraud which garnered enough attention to warrant a review in the then nascent journal Science. I think that 134 years on that we could and should be doing better. I see too many people online trying to re-invent a system that was generally perfected centuries ago. Let’s jump past that work and see what new affordances we can get out of the digitization part which didn’t exist then.

    1. Nhan says:

      Your criticism is so good! Thank you for your write-up. You’ve helped me understand a lot more about the traditions of the Zettelkasten system.

  3. @chrisaldrich This is brilliant, thanks so much. I completely agree. Personally, I have lost the will to worry about correcting it, and I have come to believe that the whole “Second brain” enterprise is lost in SEO battles and influencers, as you suggest. I think Forte is selling a $1,500 shortcut. But to where? I’m happy you’re fighting the good fight! And this is nothing but yes: “It also speaks to the potential quality of his system that in an area he’s focused on for years that he can’t use it to create a higher quality text. His book shouldn’t go out into the world and only serve to misinform people who are being sold the opposite.”

  4. Tiago Forte says:

    Thanks for this Chris. I’ve had my team make the corrections in the online endnotes for the book, which you can see here:



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