With the release of various interesting text generation tools, I’m starting an experiment this and next month.

I will be posting computer generated text, prompted by my own current interests, to a separate blog and Mastodon account. For two months I will explore how such generated texts may create interaction or not with and between people, and how that feels.

There are several things that interest me.

I currently experience generated texts as often bland, as flat planes of text not hinting at any richness of experience of the author lying behind it. The texts are fully self contained, don’t acknowledge a world outside of it, let alone incorporate facets of that world within itself. In a previous posting I dubbed it an absence of ‘proof of work’.

Looking at human agency and social media dynamics, asymmetries often take agency away. It is many orders of magnitude easier to (auto)post disinformation or troll than it is for individuals to guard and defend against. Generated texts seem to introduce new asymmetries: it is much cheaper to generate reams of text and share them, than it is in terms of attention and reading for an individual person to determine if they are actually engaging with someone and intentionally expressed meaning, or are confronted with a type of output where only the prompt that created it held human intention.

If we interact with a generated text by ourselves, does that convey meaning or learning? If annotation is conversation, what does annotating generated texts mean to us? If multiple annotators interact with eachother, does new meaning emerge, does meaning shift?

Can computer generated texts be useful or meaningful objects of sociality?

Right after I came up with this, my Mastodon timeline passed me this post by Jeff Jarvis, which seems to be a good example of things to explore:


I posted this imperfect answer from GPTchat and now folks are arguing with it.

Jeff Jarvis

My computer generated counterpart in this experiment is Artslyz Not (which is me and my name, having stepped through the looking glass). Artslyz Not has a blog, and a Mastodon account. Two computer generated images show us working together and posing together for an avatar.


The generated image of a person and a humanoid robot writing texts


The generated avatar image for the Mastodon account

Newton in 1675 famously said about his work, that if he was seeing further it was by standing on the shoulders of giants.*

Doing so he acknowledged the lineage of the things he worked on, which he added his own combinatory creativity to, gaining us all very considerable new insights.

This weekend reading Chris Aldrich’s essay about the often actively ignored history of the things that make up the current wave of note making methods and tools, Newton’s turn of phrase crossed my mind again. Chris Aldrich showcases the history of something that currently is mostly discussed as building on a single person’s practice in the 1950s to 1990s, as an actually very widely used set of practices going back many centuries.

I think it is a common pattern. Repeating endlessly in bigger and smaller forms, because we’re human.
I also think the often re-used ‘shoulders of giants’ metaphor makes it worse, actively hiding any useful history of most things.

Every output is the result of processes, and building blocks that go beyond the person making the output. And most of those inputs and earlier practices are of a mundane origin. There aren’t that many giants around, that we all can stand on their shoulders for all we come up with.

Everything has a lineage, and all those lineages have something to tell you about the current state of things you’re working on. Along all those lineages knowledge and experience has been lost, not because it wasn’t useful moving forward, but because it wasn’t transferred well enough. Going back in such lineage, to use as feedback in your current practice can be tremendously valuable.
It’s something actively used as a tool of exploration in e.g. ‘the future, backwards’ exercises. In PKM, the example that triggered this posting, it is common to use your old self in that way (talking about how you’re learning from ‘previous me’ and as ‘current me’ write notes for ‘future me’) It’s even what makes Earth’s tree of life special.

It takes looking for that lineage as a first step. Yet if then all we do is scanning history’s horizon for giants that stand out, we may find none, several, or usually one nearer that will have to do as big enough and simply assume that’s where the horizon is, while overlooking everyone else that any giants and we are always building on.

Everything has a deep lineage with a story to tell. Everyone stands on everyones shoulders, of all sizes. It is shoulders all the way down.


If I have seen further it is by knowingly standing on the shoulders of Giants everyone.

Photo ‘Santa Teresa, feria del Vendrell 2019’ by Joan Grífols, license CC BY NC SA

* Most of us may recognise Newton’s 1675 phrase in a letter he wrote. Newton probably knew it was much older. But do we individually generally acknowledge it was at least 500 years old when he wrote it down, or usually attribute it to Newton?

Bookmarked The Two Definitions of Zettelkasten by Chris Aldrich

This is a great essay by Chris Aldrich for several reasons. Because it aims to address the absence in the current hypelet around recent personal knowledge management tools and note systems like Zettelkasten of the realisation that everything in this space has a deep rooted lineage. In response he writes about the history of commonplacing, using card collection for creative, academic or professional output. Because the essay itself is the result of the very practice it describes. In the past months I’ve been reading along with Chris’ annotations (the value of which led me to share more of my own annotations too), and reading his essay I can readily recognise things from that stream of raw material. The notes Chris made from those annotations in turn resulted in this essay. Seven thousands words in a half-day effort.

Note to self: I should create an overview for myself and here about my note taking practice through the years and their inspiration. Just to further illustrate the history Chris writes about.

Hopefully those in the space will look more closely at the well-worn cow paths of analog history in deciding how to pave our (digital) futures. [….] The hiding value proposition of the older methods can be contrasted with the incessant drumbeat of the value and productivity inherently “promised” by those describing [only] Niklas Luhmann’s system.

Chris Aldrich

Nicole van der Hoeven published one of her videos on using Obsidian on the topic of the ExcaliBrain plugin. The plugin is made by Zsolt Viczián, the same creator as the Excalidraw plugin which brings easy visualisation to Obsidian. I use Excalidraw within Obsidian with some regularity (I’m mostly text oriented).

It’s not mentioned in the video, but the ExcaliBrain plugin is clearly inspired by The Brain software, both in terms of types of links between notes, and how it shows them (even the placement of the little circles where links attach). The name suggests so too, and the plugin author names The Brain as source of inspiration in the github reposository. I used The Brain as desktop interface from 1997 until 2004-ish, and this plugin seems to bring The Brain as a visualisation layer to my notes. That alone is enough to try it out.

The plugin can both infer relationships between notes, through existing links, much as the general graph view in Obsidian does, but does so in a more navigable style. This I hope allows it to be used as a visual navigation interface to notes, something the graph view does not meaningfully, as The Brain so usefully did for me for a number of years.

You can also set explicit relationships by adding named links to your notes, for which it uses the inline data fields (yourfieldname::) that the DataView plugin makes possible. I already use that plugin so that’s not an extra step for me.
I disagree with Nicole van der Hoeven on her suggestion to comment out explicit relationships so that the plugin will visualise them but the note won’t show the links, except in edit mode.
The notes should always show all links I explicitly set, that’s the whole point of links.
Machine inferred links are a different matter, which deserve a toggle as they are suggestions made to me.
Links are my own and real work in my notes.

Setting explicit links (parent, child, friends ExcaliBrain calls them) is similar to how I already create links. When I write a new note I aim to link other notes in the way Soren Bjornstadt describes in a video of his touring his Zettelkasten. I make three links, if possible, from a new note. One to a higher level of abstraction note, one to a lower level of abstraction but more concrete note, and one to a related note at the same level. This creates ‘chains’ of 4 notes with a content-based implied order.

For example: a note on the role of public transport might link to urban mobility and the liveability of car-free city centers as higher abstration concepts, to a note on urban rail systems or bus networks as a lower abstraction level, to the German 2022 summer reduced fare scheme as an example, and to another communal public service like urban public internet as a same level but different type of note.

I strongly dislike the parent-child-sibling(-friend) vocabulary Excalibrain introduces though, as it implies an order of creation. Parents exist first, children from parents. This means for the way I described creating links in notes that abstract concepts come first. This is not how it mostly works for me. Abstract notions are often created from, intuited from, less abstratct ones. The scaffolding created by less abstract notes and concrete examples is what leads to them. Overarching concepts and insights emerge from linking lower level items. Thankfully the terms you actually use to denote such connections between notes can be freely chosen in the plugin settings. That is a design choice by Zsolt Viczián I greatly appreciate.

Nicole van der Hoeven in her run-through of ExcaliBrain also talks about this implied hierarchy, and mentions a higher level type of use, which is adding more semantics to links using the renaming options in the plugin settings. For instance to express lines of argumentation, and how material reflects on eachother (e.g. Note A reinforces / contradicts Note B). This is the type of linking that Tinderbox allows you to do visually too, which I’ve used a lot. She hasn’t used it that way herself yet she says, but suggests it’s likely the most valuable use case. I think that rings true. It’s where linking becomes the work you have to do yourself again, as opposed to lazy or automatic linking between notes.

I very much want to experiment with the ExcaliBrain plugin.


A screenshot after activating ExcaliBrain of the vicinity of a single note

I’ve now added over 100 annotations using Hypothes.is (h.), almost all within the last month. This includes a few non-public ones. Two weeks ago I wrote down some early impressions, to which I’m now adding some additional observations.

  1. 100 annotations (in a month) don’t seem like a lot to me, if h. is a regular tool in one’s browsing habit. H. says they have 1 million users, that have made 40 million annotations to over 2 million articles (their API returns 2.187.262 results as I write this). H. has been in existence for a decade. These numbers average out to 20 annotations to 2 articles per user. This to me suggests that the mode is 1 annotation to 1 article by a user and then silence. My 100 annotations spread out over 30 articles, accumulated over a handful of weeks is then already well above average, even though I am a new and beginning user. My introduction to h. was through Chris Aldrich, whose stream of annotations I follow daily with interest. He recently passed 10.000 annotations! That’s 100 times as many as mine, and apparently also an outlier to the h. team itself: they sent him a congratulatory package. H.’s marketing director has 1348 public annotations over almost 6 years, its founder 1200 in a decade. Remi Kalir, co-author of the (readworthy!) Annotation book, has 800 in six years. That does not seem that much from what I would expect to be power users. My blogging friend Heinz has some 750 annotations in three years. Fellow IndieWeb netizen Maya some 1800 in a year and a half. Those last two numbers, even if they differ by a factor 5 or so in average annotations/month, feel like what I’d expect as a regular range for routine users.
  2. The book Annotation I mentioned makes a lot of social annotation, where distributed conversations result beyond the core interaction of an annotator with an author through an original text. Such social annotation requires sharing. H. provides that sharing functionality and positions itself explicitly as a social tool ("Annotate the web, with anyone, anywhere" "Engage your students with social annotation"). The numbers above show that such social interaction around an annotated text within h. will be very rare in the public facing part of h., in the closed (safer) surroundings of classroom use interaction might be much more prominent. Users like me, or Heinz, Maya and Chris whom I named/linked above, will then be motivated by something else than the social aspects of h. If and when such interaction does happen (as it tends to do if you mutually follow eachothers annotations) it is a pleasant addition, not h.’s central benefit.
  3. What is odd to me is that when you do indeed engage into social interaction on h., that interaction cannot be found through the web interface of my annotations. Once I comment, it disappears out of sight, unless I remember what I reacted to and go back to that annotation by another user directly, to find my comment underneath. It does show up in the RSS feed of my annotations, and my Hypothes.is-to-Obsidian plugin also captures them through the API. Just not in the web interface.
  4. Despite the social nature of h., discovery is very difficult. Purposefully ‘finding the others’ is mostly impossible. This is both an effect of the web-interface functionality, as well as I suspect because of the relatively sparse network of users (see observation 1). There’s no direct way of connecting or searching for users. The social object is the annotation, and you need to find others only through annotations you encounter. I’ve searched for tags and terms I am interested in, but those do not surface regular users easily. I’ve collated a list of a dozen currently active or somewhat active annotators, and half a dozen who used to be or are sporadically active. I also added annotations of my own blogposts to my blog, and I actively follow (through an RSS feed) any new annotation of my blogposts. If you use h., I’d be interested to hear about it.
  5. Annotations are the first step of getting useful insights into my notes. This makes it a prerequisite to be able to capture annotations in my note making tool Obsidian, otherwise Hypothes.is is just another silo you’re wasting time on. Luckily h. isn’t meant as a silo and has an API. Using the API and the Hypothes.is-to-Obsidian plugin all my annotations are available to me locally. However, what I do locally with those notes does not get reflected back to h., meaning that you can’t really work through annotations locally until you’ve annotated an entire article or paper in the browser, otherwise sync issues may occur. I also find that having the individual annotations (including the annotated text, in one file), not the full text (the stuff I didn’t annotate), feels impractical at times as it cuts away a lot of context. It’s easily retrievable by visiting the url now, but maybe not over time (so I save web archive links too as an annotation). I also grab a local markdown copy of full articles if they are of higher interest to me. Using h. in the browser creates another inbox in this regard (having to return to a thing to finish annotation or for context), and I obviously don’t need more inboxes to keep track of.
  6. In response to not saving entire articles in my notes environment, I have started marking online articles I haven’t annotated yet at least with a note that contains the motivation and first associations I normally save with a full article. This is in the same spot as where I add a web archive link, as page note. I’ve tried that in recent days and that seems to work well. That way I do have a general note in my local system that contains the motivation for looking in more detail at an article.
  7. The API also supports sending annotations and updates to h. from e.g. my local system. Would this be potentially better for my workflow? Firefox and the h. add-on don’t always work flawlessly, not all docs can be opened, or the form stops working until I restart Firefox. This too points in the direction of annotating locally and sending annotations to h. for sharing through the API. Is there anyone already doing this? Built their own client, or using h. ‘headless’? Is there anyone who runs their own h. instance locally? If I could send things through the API, that might also include the Kindle highlights I pull in to my local system.
  8. In the same category of integrating h. into my pkm workflows, falls the interaction between h. and Zotero, especially now that Zotero has its own storage of annotations of PDFs in my library. It might be of interest to be able to share those annotations, for a more complete overview of what I’m annotating. Either directly from Zotero, or by way of my notes in Obsidian (Zotero annotatins end up there in the end)
  9. These first 100 annotations I made in the browser, using an add-on. Annotating in the browser takes some getting used to, as I try to get myself out of my browser more usually. I don’t always fully realise I can return to an article for later annotation. Any time the sense I have to finish annotating an article surfaces, that is friction I can do without. Apart from that, it is a pleasant experience to annotate like this. And that pleasure is key to keep annotating. Being able to better integrate my h. use with Obsidian and Zotero would likely increase the pleasure of doing it.
  10. Another path of integration to think about is sharing annotated links from h. to my blog or the other way around. I blog links with a general annotation at times (example). These bloggable links I could grab from h. where I bookmark things in similar ways (example), usually to annotate further later on. I notice myself thinking I should do both, but unless I could do that simultaneously I won’t do such a thing twice.

Attempting to understand the ‘Noosphere’ and Subconscious tooling that Gordon Brander is developing results in several questions. Brander proposes a new ‘low level infrastructure’ (subconscious) for sharing stuff across the internet, which should result in us thinking together on a global scale (the noosphere).

I’ve followed the recent Render conference on ‘tools for thought’ where Gordon Brander presented Noosphere and Subconscious. In the wake of it I joined the Discord server around this topic, and read the ‘Noosphere Explainer‘. Brander’s Render talk roughly follows that same document.

Brander says: The internet is already a tool for thought, so we should make it better at it. The tools at our disposal to deal with this new voluminous information environment haven’t reached their potential yet. Learning to think together at planetary scale is a needed ingredient to address global issues. There are many interesting tools out there, but they’re all silos of SaaS. They’re silos because of same origin policy which prevents cross-site/host/domain/port sourcing of material. Subconscious is meant to solve that by providing a ‘protocol for thoughts’.

This leaves me with a range of questions.

  • Subconscious is meant to solve same origin policy. SOP however seems to be a client (i.e. browser) enforced thing, focused on (java)scripts, and otherwise e.g. ignores HTML. Apps are/can be viewers like browsers are viewers. So why isn’t the web suitable, with the app or a tweaked browser on top? Why a whole new ‘infrastructure’ over the internet? That sounds like it wants to solve a whole lot more than same origin to remove the bias towards silos. What are those additional things?
  • The intended target is to make the internet a better tool for thought. Such thoughts are text based it seems so what does Subsoncsious do in contrast to current text based thoughts shared that e.g. the web doesn’t?
  • Assuming Subconscious does what it intends, how do we get from a ‘low level infrastructure’ to the stated overarching aim of thinking together globally? I see texts, that may or not be expressed thoughts, being linked and shared like web resources, how do we get to ‘thinking together’ from there? The talk at Render paid tribute to that at the beginning but doesn’t show how it would be done (and the invocation of the Xanadu project at the start might well be meaningful in that sense), not even in any ‘and then the magic happens to get to the finish line’ fashion. Is the magic supposed to be emergent, like I and others assumed the web and social software would do 20-30 years ago? Is it enough to merely have a ‘protocol for thoughts’? What about non-infrastructure type decision and consensus building tools like Liquid Feedback or Audrey Tang’s quadratic voting in vTaiwan? Those are geared to action, and seem more immediately useful towards solving global issues, don’t they?

I’ll be hanging out in the Discord server, you can too (invite link), and going through Gordon Brander’s earlier postings, to see if I can better understand what this is about.