Snake oil serendipity?

James Stuber reminded us that

“A good carpenter doesn’t use a swiss army knife; they have a toolbox. Each tool has a job to do, and each tool does that job well.”

and I replied:

“Exactly. In particular, Swiss Army Knife tools suck when they try to cover filing, meaning making, and collaboration. My condensr.de promises only the second.”

Since then, I have been reminded of how different the jobs are that are done even with note management tools.

While the workflow I described in my new video is about just a few important notes, other usage scenarios involve a huge mass of pages:

A graph of 435 densely connected dots, colored by clusters.
This map depicts a roam user’s database (whose export file was freely downloadable), or more precisely, the 435 well-connected pages out of 1759 total pages. Obviously, no layout can visualize any reasonable gestalt here, in particular in the blue cluster in the lower right.

The motivation of such hoarding of links for later is obviously the hope for generating “future serendipitous connections”.

Is this hope justified? I feel a bit guilty that I may have suggested something similar myself: In a previous blogpost “Magic of Zettelkasten” I tried to explain the uniqueness and the surprising success of Niklas Luhmann’s approach with this very serendipity, as he found it in his huge collection of notes.

(And I almost regret having used the term ‘magic’ which attracts plenty of clicks but may sound like snake-oil promises which are currently spreading. Furthermore, what is currently being discussed as ‘zettlekasting’ does not have much in common with Luhmann’s original method, except the ‘atomicity’ of the individual ideas noted on separate index cards. For a more original version, see Daniel Luedecke’s tool rather than zettelkasten.de).

The difference, however, is that Luhmann did the organisation of his cross-references manually, and I think this is what helped him to find serendipitous insights later. I doubt that the raw mass of machine-generated full-text matches can have a similar effect. When I played with the above-shown data, I was overwhelmed with tons of “Unlinked References”, and checking them one after another, will probably be more numbing than inspiring. I know how much work it is to sift through the keyword concordances of a corpus linguistics tool like Antconc, but at least these keywords are sorted by relevance and they are promising. Maybe the next step will be to employ some AI to fulfill the sprawling desire of getting one’s outstanding ideas as effortlessly as possible — Devonthink comes to mind.

An alternative approach for getting connected ideas would be, IMHO, to be open for them directly while reading a text. However, the goals for note-taking about one’s reading are very different, and some goals seem incompatible with this openness.

When notes are taken for a literature review (as in the above-shown example), an understandable strategy is to do this mass effort as economically as possible. Maybe to the extent that the “goal is to never have to return to the full text” (source). This, IMHO, enforces a style that is very much convergent, and focussed on the text at hand rather than open for one’s own divergent associations, and it forces into wrapping and fixing and into ultimate and definitive wording rather than gradually evolving understanding.

(In fact, I am rather proud that my own tool enables just the radical opposite of this style, in that you can use provisional summarizing labels just because you can always go back quickly to the details. And as I understand McGilchrist, the wrapping and fixing and focussing is just the opposite of a broad vigilant open attention that would enable new associations to pop up.)

Similarly, when the goal is to learn, in turbo style, things to remember, one’s efforts are being directed to passively absorbing the text at hand rather than associating new ideas. A telling indicator is for me, when I see students in the train with multiple marker pens but no pencil to write margin notes or questions or disagreements. I doubt that all the ideas come later when re-reading the marked stuff. For me, reading works best when I am permanently at the ready for deciding to write (voluntarily) about what I have just learned, e.g. to blog about it.

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