A Note on the Cargo Cult of Zettelkasten

Modern cargo cults can be seen in many technology and productivity spaces where people are pulled in by exaggerated (or sometimes even real claims) of productivity or the general “magic” of a technology or method.

An example is Niklas Luhmann’s use of his zettelkasten which has created a cargo cult of zettelkasten aspirants and users who read one or more of the short one page blog posts about his unreasonable productivity and try to mimic it without understanding the system, how it works, or how to make it work for them. They often spend several months collecting notes, and following the motions, but don’t realize the promised gains and may eventually give up, sometimes in shame (or as so-called “rubbish men”) while watching others still touting its use.

To prevent one’s indoctrination into the zettelkasten cult, I’ll make a few recommendations:

Distance yourself from the one or two page blog posts or the breathless YouTube delineations. Ask yourself very pointedly: what you hope to get out of such a process? What’s your goal? Does that goal align with others’ prior uses and their outcomes?

Be careful of the productivity gurus who are selling expensive courses and whose focus may not necessarily be on your particular goals. Some are selling very pointed courses, which is good, while others are selling products which may be so broad that they’ll be sure to have some success stories, but their hodge-podge mixture of methods won’t suit your particular purpose, or worse, you’ll have to experiment with pieces of their courses to discover what may suit your modes of working and hope they’ll suffice in the long run. Some are selling other productivity solutions for task management like getting things done (GTD) or bullet journals, which can be a whole other cargo cults in and of themselves. Don’t conflate these!1 The only thing worse than being in a cargo cult is being in multiple at the same time.

If you go the digital route, be extremely wary of shiny object syndrome. Everyone has a favorite tool and will advocate that it’s the one you should be using. (Often their method of use will dictate how much they love it potentially over and above the affordances of the tool itself.) All of these tools can be endlessly configured, tweaked, or extended with plugins or third party services. Everyone wants to show you their workflow and set up, lots of which is based on large amounts of work and experimentation. Ignore 99.999% of this. Most tools are converging to a similar feature set, so pick a reasonable one that seems like it’ll be around in 5 years (and which has export, just in case). Try out the very basic features for several months before you change anything. Don’t add endless plugins and widgets. You’re ultimately using a digital tool to recreate the functionality of index cards, a pencil, and a box. How complicated should this really be? Do you need to spend hundreds of hours tweaking your system to save yourself a few minutes a year? Be aware that far too many people touting the system and marketers talking about the tools are missing several thousands of years of uses of some of these basic literacy-based technologies. Don’t join their island cult, but instead figure out how the visiting culture has been doing this for ages.2 Recall Will Hunting’s admonition against cargo cults in education: “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.”3

Most people ultimately realize that the output of their own thinking is only as good as the inputs they’re consuming. Leverage this from the moment you begin and ignore the short bite-sized advice for longer form or older advice from those with experience. You’re much more likely to get more long term value out of reading Umberto Eco or Mortimer J. Adler & Charles van Doren4 than you are an equivalent amount of time reading blog posts, watching YouTube videos, or trolling social media like Reddit and Twitter.

Realize that reaching your goal is going to take honest-to-goodness actual work, though there is potential for fun. No matter how shiny or optimized your system, you’ve still got to do the daily work of reading, watching, listening and using it to create anything. Focus on this daily work and don’t get sidetracked by the minutiae of trying to shave off just a few more seconds.5 In short, don’t get caught up in the “productivity porn” of it all. Even the high priest at whose altar they worship once wrote on a slip he filed:

A ghost in the note card index? Spectators visit [my office to see my notes] and they get to see everything and nothing all at once. Ultimately, like having watched a porn movie, their disappointment is correspondingly high.
—Niklas Luhmann. “Geist im Kasten?”6

Choose only one of the following and remember you may not need to read the entire work:

Ahrens, Sönke. How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Create Space, 2017.

Allosso, Dan, and S. F. Allosso. How to Make Notes and Write. Minnesota State Pressbooks, 2022. https://minnstate.pressbooks.pub/write/.

Bernstein, Mark. Tinderbox: The Tinderbox Way. 3rd ed. Watertown, MA: Eastgate Systems, Inc., 2017. http://www.eastgate.com/Tinderbox/TinderboxWay/index.html.

Dow, Earle Wilbur. Principles of a Note-System for Historical Studies. New York: Century Company, 1924.

Eco, Umberto. How to Write a Thesis. Translated by Caterina Mongiat Farina and Geoff Farina. 1977. Reprint, Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2015. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/how-write-thesis.

Gessner, Konrad. Pandectarum Sive Partitionum Universalium. 1st Edition. Zurich: Christoph Froschauer, 1548.

Goutor, Jacques. The Card-File System of Note-Taking. Approaching Ontario’s Past 3. Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1980. http://archive.org/details/cardfilesystemof0000gout.

Sertillanges, Antonin Gilbert, and Mary Ryan. The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. First English Edition, Fifth printing. 1921. Reprint, Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1960. http://archive.org/details/a.d.sertillangestheintellectuallife.

Webb, Sidney, and Beatrice Webb. Methods of Social Study. London; New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1932. http://archive.org/details/b31357891.

Weinberg, Gerald M. Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method. New York, N.Y: Dorset House, 2005.


Footnotes

  1. Aldrich, Chris. “Zettelkasten Overreach.” BoffoSocko (blog), February 5, 2022. https://boffosocko.com/2022/02/05/zettelkasten-overreach/.↩︎
  2. Blair, Ann M. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age. Yale University Press, 2010. https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300165395/too-much-know.↩︎
  3. Good Will Hunting. Miramax, Lawrence Bender Productions, 1998.↩︎
  4. Adler, Mortimer J., and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading. Revised and Updated edition. 1940. Reprint, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.↩︎
  5. Munroe, Randall. “Is It Worth the Time?” Web comic. xkcd, April 29, 2013. https://xkcd.com/1205/.↩︎
  6. Luhmann, Niklas. ZKII 9/8,3. Niklas Luhmann-Archiv. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://niklas-luhmann-archiv.de/bestand/zettelkasten/zettel/ZK_2_NB_9-8-3_V. (Personal translation from German with context added.)↩︎
A or commonplace provides a catalytic surface to which ideas in the “solution of life” can more easily adhere to speed their reaction with ideas you’ve already seen and collected.
Once combined via linking, further thinking and writing, they can be released as novel ideas for everyone to use.
I suspect that it’s by design, but I’m noticing that there’s a well curated “Getting Started” tab on https://zettelkasten.de/, but there’s absolutely no sign of any documentation about “Finishing”. Would someone just slip me into a box when I’m done?
📖 A new incarnation of Dan Allosso’s Obsidian Book Club begins this coming weekend with David Graeber’s last book Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia (2023). If you’re interested in history, anthropology, or our conceptualizations of freedom, racism, and erasure, this is sure to be your cup of tea. Come join us.

Replied to a thread by Donna Yates and Shawn Graham (archaeo.social)
For the past few weeks I've been working hard to bring a modified system into my academic life via . Obsidian (or knowledge management) tips, tricks, plugins, etc very welcome.
@Drdonnayates@archaeo.social I'd say, ignore the temptation to install all the plugins, until you get the feel of things. And even then, keep it minimal. Otherwise I at least get distracted in pursuit of The One True System instead of just using the damned thing. You might find some use in the materials re Obsidian I use with my students, https://shawngraham.github.io/hist1900
@electricarchaeo@scholar.social OH do I so want the one true system...I want it.
@Drdonnayates@archaeo.social @electricarchaeo@scholar.social
Shawn’s admonition to keep things simple is valuable. I’m hoping to go through his excellent looking class materials shortly.

I rely heavily on Hypothes.is for digital annotation and transport it all into Obsidian using https://boffosocko.com/2021/07/08/hypothes-is-obsidian-hypothesidian-for-easier-note-taking-and-formatting/

@natalie@hcommons.social recently wrote up an excellent overview for dovetailing with Zotero, which I’d done previously and love: https://nataliekraneiss.com/your-academic-reading-list-in-obsidian/

If you really want to go down the rabbit hole: https://boffosocko.com/research/zettelkasten-commonplace-books-and-note-taking-collection/

If it provides some reassurance, though I’ve not gotten into the specifics I’m reasonably certain that Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, among many others, had significant practices.

If you go beyond basic notes, I’ll have something on to do list functionality shortly, but our friend @kfitz@hcommons.social had something here recently: https://kfitz.info/tasks-matter/

If you’ve not found it yet, Obsidian has a Discord with a specific channel for academia.

Replied to a post by Romain LarueRomain Larue (Piaille)
Nous avons tous pris des notes durant nos cours, nos réunions ou pendant la lecture d’un livre. Mais que deviennent ces notes ? Est-ce qu’il n’existe pas un moyen de les rendre durable dans le temps et surtout de les utiliser de façon efficace? Cette méthode c’est le ZETTELKASTEN, une technique inventée par NIKLAS LUHMANN pour organiser ses notes et ses observations pour en faire des livres et des articles denses et riches. https://youtu.be/1ycG6ojNPq8 #efficacité #organisation #ecrire
@ctietze @romainlarue@piaille.fr
Pourquoi ne pas utiliser la méthode des fiches de Roland Barthes? 😁 #FichierBoîte
https://hypothes.is/users/chrisaldrich?q=tag%3A%27fichier+bo%C3%AEte%27

On The Interdisciplinarity of Zettelkasten: Card Numbering, Topical Headings, and Indices

As humans we’re terrifically spectacular at separating things based on perceived categories. The Dewey Decimal System systematically separates mathematics and history into disparate and distinct locations, but your zettelkasten shouldn’t force this by overthinking categories. Perhaps the overlap of math and history is exactly the interdisciplinary topic you’re working toward? If this is the case, just put cards into the slip box closest to their nearest related intellectual neighbor—and by this I mean nearest related to your way of thinking, not to Melvil Dewey’s or anyone else. Over time, through growth and branching, ideas will fill in the interstitial spaces and neighboring ideas will slowly percolate and intermix. Your interests will slowly emerge into various bunches of cards in your box. Things you may have intially thought were important can separate away and end up on sparse branches while other areas flourish. If you make the (false) choice to separate math and history into different “sections” it will be much harder for them to grow and intertwine in an organic and truly interdisciplinary way. Universities have done this sort of separation for hundreds of years and as a result, their engineering faculty can be buildings or even entire campuses away from their medical faculty who now want to work together in new and exciting interdisciplinary ways. This creates a physical barrier to more efficient and productive innovation and creativity. It’s your zettelkasten, so put those ideas right next to each other from the start so they can do the work of serendipity and surprise for you. Do not artificially separate your favorite ideas. Let them mix and mingle and see what comes out of them.

If you feel the need to categorize and separate them in such a surgical fashion, then let your index be the place where this happens. This is what indices are for! Put the locations into the index to create the semantic separation. Math related material gets indexed under “M” and history under “H”. Now those ideas can be mixed up in your box, but they’re still findable. DO NOT USE OR CONSIDER YOUR NUMBERS AS TOPICAL HEADINGS!!! Don’t make the fatal mistake of thinking this. The numbers are just that, numbers. They are there solely for you to be able to easily find the geographic location of individual cards quickly or perhaps recreate an order if you remove and mix a bunch for fun or (heaven forfend) accidentally tip your box out onto the floor. Each part has of the system has its job: the numbers allow you to find things where you expect them to be and the index does the work of tracking and separating topics if you need that.

The broader zettelkasten, tools for thought, and creativity community does a terrible job of explaining the “why” portion of what is going on here with respect to Luhmann’s set up. Your zettelkasten is a crucible of ideas placed in juxtaposition with each other. Traversing through them and allowing them to collide in interesting and random ways is part of what will create a pre-programmed serendipity, surprise, and combinatorial creativity for your ideas. They help you to become more fruitful, inventive, and creative.

Broadly the same thing is happening with respect to the structure of commonplace books. There one needs to do more work of randomly reading through and revisiting portions to cause the work or serendipity and admixture, but the end results are roughly the same. With a Luhmann-esque zettelkasten, it’s a bit easier for your favorite ideas to accumulate into one place (or neighborhood) for easier growth because you can move them around and juxtapose them as you add them rather than traversing from page 57 in one notebook to page 532 in another.

If you use your numbers as topical or category headings you’ll artificially create dreadful neighborhoods for your ideas to live in. You want a diversity of ideas mixing together to create new ideas. To get a sense of this visually, play the game Parable of the Polygons in which one categorizes and separates (or doesn’t) triangles and squares. The game created by Vi Hart and Nicky Case based on the research of Thomas Schelling (Dynamic Models of Segregation, 1971) provides a solid and visual example of the sort of statistical mechanics going on with ideas in your zettelkasten when they’re categorized rigidly. If you rigidly categorize ideas and separate them, you’ll drastically minimize the chance of creating the sort of useful serendipity of intermixed and innovative ideas. A zettelkasten isn’t simply the aggregation repository many use it for—it’s a rumination device, a serendipity engine, a creativity accelerator. To get the best and most of this effect, one must carefully help to structure their card index to generate it.

It’s much harder to know what happens when you mix anthropology with complexity theory if they’re in separate parts of your mental library, but if those are the things that get you going, then definitely put them right next to each other in your slip box. See what happens. If they’re interesting and useful and they’ve got explicit numerical locators and are cross referenced in your index, they are unlikely to get lost. Be experimental occasionally. Don’t put that card on Henry David Thoreau in the section on writers, nature, or Concord, Massachusetts—especially if those aren’t interesting to you. Besides, everyone has already worn down those associative trails, paved them, and re-paved them. Instead put him next to your work on innovation and pencils because it’s much easier to become a writer, philosopher, and intellectual when your family’s successful pencil manufacturing business can pay for you to attend Harvard and your house was always full of writing instruments from a young age. Now you’ve got something interesting and creative. (And if you really must, you can always link the card numerically to the other transcendentalists across the way.)

In case they didn’t hear it in the back, I’ll shout it again:

ACTIVELY WORK AGAINST YOUR NATURAL URGE TO USE YOUR ZETTELKASTEN NUMBERS AS TOPICAL HEADINGS! MIX IT UP INSTEAD.

Featured image by Michael Treu from Pixabay

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Replied to a post by Natalie (hcommons.social)
I started the second week of "Programming 101: An Introduction to for Educators" on #FutureLearn and wrote a small quiz about Arabic verbs: https://github.com/kranatalie/Introduction-to-Python/blob/main/arabic-quiz-bot.py It was fun again and I'm actually a little proud! Would really like to recommend the course again. It's the perfect gentle introduction for me that doesn't overwhelm but still teaches enough to get an idea of what's possible. Looking forward to the final challenge this week: Building commands into your bot. Let's try this! https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/programming-101
@natalie, Thanks for the recommendation, this looks great! It looks like it may be a good companion to the Santa Fe Institute’s (free) Foundations & Applications of Humanities Analytics https://www.complexityexplorer.org/courses/162-foundations-applications-of-humanities-analytics which starts on Jan 17. #DigitalHumanities 

 

Reposted a post by Ryan RandallRyan Randall (hcommons.social)
Earnest but still solidifying take:
The ever-rising popularity of personal knowledge management tools indexes the need for liberal arts approaches. Particularly, but not exclusively, in STEM education.
When people widely reinvent the concept/practice of commonplace books without building on centuries of prior knowledge (currently institutionalized in fields like library & information studies, English, rhetoric & composition, or media & communication studies), that's not "innovation."
Instead, we're seeing some unfortunate combination of lost knowledge, missed opportunities, and capitalism selectively forgetting in order to manufacture a market.
Replied to Return to Blogging by Christopher Long (cplong.org)
A new year brings new calls for a return to personal blogging as an antidote to the toxic and extractive systems of social media.
@cplong @sramsay
IndieWeb, blogging, fountain pens?!? I almost hate to mention it for the rabbit hole it may become, but you’ll get a bit of all three here: https://micro.blog/discover/pens. Happy New Year!
Replied to How to Set up and Maintain Your Academic Reading List in Obsidian by Natalie Kraneiss (Field Notes)
The combination of Zotero (with the Better BibTeX plugin) and Obsidian with the Citation and Projects plugins are the perfect way for me as a PhD student to keep track of the literature to be read and already read.
This is excellent! I’d already had the majority of it set up and I was going to spend some time this week to write some custom code with Dataview to do this, but apparently there’s a reasonably flexible plugin that will get me 95% of what I’m sure to want without any work! Thanks Natalie.

Incidentally, I spent a chunk of yesterday looking at S.D. Goitein’s note taking process (zettelkasten) in his work on the Cairo Geniza, specifically with respect to:

Zinger, Oded. “Finding a Fragment in a Pile of Geniza: A Practical Guide to Collections, Editions, and Resources.” Jewish History 32, no. 2 (December 1, 2019): 279–309. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10835-019-09314-6.
 
Princeton Geniza Lab. “Goitein’s Index Cards,” 2022. https://genizalab.princeton.edu/resources/goiteins-index-cards.