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:


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.
Replied to a post by Buster Benson (@buster@medium.social)Buster Benson (@buster@medium.social) (Mastodon)
@tchambers@indieweb.social @coachtony @jeffjarvis@mastodon.social @mathowie@xoxo.zone Thanks for these links! Definitely exciting to see how this is being approached from different angles. I’m excited for this next chapter.
@buster@medium.social @tchambers@indieweb.social @coachtony@medium.social @jeffjarvis@mastodon.social @mathowie@xoxo.zone
Another example of longer posts which are folded under a “read more” type link within the Fediverse itself can be seen in the Hometown fork of Mastodon (https://github.com/hometown-fork/hometown), which is running the hcommons.social platform. The admins have upped the character limit to 1000 instead of the usual 500. Ideally those reading in other parts of the network would see the beginning of a post and a “Read more” link to read the remainder of the piece.

I often post to my own WordPress website which has a plugin to make it appear as if it were ActivityPub compatible. If I follow it via a Hometown-based (Mastodon) server, like my hcommons.social account, I see all the full short notes/replies content which are usually 1000 characters or less. For posts over that limit, there’s a “Read More >” which opens up the entirety of the article within the hcommons.social interface where I can read it in its entirety. Naturally there’s a link to the original, so I can also go back to read that if I chose.

I’ve just gone over the 1000 character limit, so I’ll post this on my own site, syndicate a copy to my hcommons.social account, and with any luck it will serve as an example of how all this might work between WordPress, a forked version of Mastodon, and Mastodon itself, as well as for testing it for reading in other parts of the Fediverse if one wished.

Screencapture of post stream seen from within hcommons.social. It features a post with over 1000 characters and displays a Read more > link at the bottom of the post to see the entire article.

Beyond this reading experience, one should also be aware of a separate user interface/interaction problem inherent in how Mastodon and potentially other parts of the Fediverse handle replies and who can see them. I’ll leave this link to explain that issue separately: https://fedi.simonwillison.net/@simon/109559268498004036. (Hopefully your instance will let you see a subsection of some of the replies to it…)

An additional benefit that one gets in bolting on ActivityPub the way it works for my WordPress site is that folks who subscribe to @chrisaldrich@boffosocko.com can see linked text natively from within Mastodon despite the fact that Mastodon doesn’t allow one to wrap text with URLs to link out.

social media (n):  /ˌsoː.ʃəl ˈmiː.di.aː/
A DDoS, usually perpetrated by surveillance capitalists, on a person’s attention preventing them from traditional sensemaking, clear thinking, learning, and generally otherwise experiencing life.
It’s not lost on me that historically multiple votes to elect a Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives like this happen when the United States is grappling with its white supremacist history and what Eddie Glaude, Jr. calls “the lie”.

Screenshot of Mastodon post from Emmanuel Mehr on Jan 05, 2023, 07:44 that reads: 
Updated tracking for historical precedent of current House Speaker voting, all cases of 6+ ballots:

16th Congress (1819-1821): 22 ballots

17th Congress (1821-1823): 12 ballots

23rd Congress (1833-1835): 10 ballots

26th Congress (1839-1841): 11 ballots

31st Congress (1849-1851): 63 ballots

34th Congress (1855-1857): 133 ballots

36th Congress (1859-1861): 44 ballots

68th Congress (1923-1925): 9 ballots

118th Congress (2023-): 6+ ballots (and counting)