The innovations in personal knowledge management are sparse and far between, is a phrase that has circulated in my mind the past three weeks. Chris Aldrich in his online presentation at PKM Summit expressed that notion while taking us through an interesting timeline of personal knowledge management related practices. As his talk followed that timeline, it didn’t highlight the key innovations as an overview in itself. I had arranged the session because I wanted to raise awareness that many practices we now associate with 20th century or digital origins, in fact are much older. It’s just that we tend to forget we’re standing on many shoulders, taking a recent highly visible example as original source and our historic horizon. Increased historic awareness is however something different than stating there has been hardly any notable innovation in this space over the course of millennia. Because that leads to things like asking what then are the current adjacent possible innovations, what branches might be developed further?

It all starts with a question I have for Chris however: What are the innovations you were thinking of when you said that?

Below I list some of the things that I think are real innovations in the context of personal knowledge management, in roughly chronological order. This is a list from the top of my head and notes, plus some very brief search on whether what I regard as origin of a practice is actually a more recent incarnation. I have left out most of the things regarding oral traditions, as it is not the context of my practices.

  • Narration, prehistory
  • Songlines, prehistory
  • Writing, ending prehistory
  • Annotation, classical antiquity
  • Loci method, memory palaces, classical antiquity
  • Argument analysis, classical antiquity
  • Tagging, classical antiquity
  • Concept mapping, 3rd century
  • Indexes, Middle Ages
  • Letterpress printing, renaissance
  • Paper notebooks, renaissance
  • Commonplace books, renaissance
  • Singular snippets / slips, 16th century
  • Stammbuch/Album Amicorum, 16th century
  • Pre-printed notebooks, 19th century
  • Argument mapping, 19th century
  • Standard sized index cards, 19th century
  • Sociograms/social graphs, early 20th century
  • Linking, 20th century (predigital and digital)
  • Knowledge graphs, late 20th century (1980s)
  • Digital full text search, late 20th century

Chris, what would be your list of key innovations?

A pkm practitioner working on his notes. Erasmus as painted by Holbein, public domain image.

During the PKM Summit last week I saw Zsolt Viczián do several amazing things with his Excalidraw plugin in Obsidian as part of his visual thinking efforts.
I’m very much a text person, but do recognise the role of visual elements as part of my thinking process. Shifting concepts around, thinking about connections, clustering etc. It engages the spatial parts of the brain, and humans are good at that. As most tools do either one thing or the other, when a tool can do both as just different perspectives on the same thing that draws my attention. It is why I’ve used Tinderbox and e.g. The Brain. Zsolt showed me how Excalidraw in Obsidian can do both too. Any Excalidraw-in-Obsidian image can have a regular note on the other side, and you can switch between them. All this because it’s just one note in markdown with some parts interpreted by Excalidraw and other parts by Obsidian.

A sketch of the elements needed to post my own slidedecks in a nice viewer, now that I’m no longer satisfied with how I’ve ‘brought slides home‘ the past four years.

The same file but now shown as text, where I’ve written a few tasks as part of creating the setup I’ve sketched in the image. Zsolt calls this the backside of the image. I’m more reminded of Tinderbox where you could see something as outline, as timeline, as tree map, as canvas etc. all interchangeable.

Zsolt very much gave me a great nudge to play with this more, and relearn that I do care about visual elements in my notes, and that it’s just that it wasn’t easy enough to build into my routines in making notes.

A who’s who in current personal knowledge management and tools for thought convened in Utrecht, where I was at the PKM Summit the past two days. It was loads of fun, I learned new things, and the atmosphere was great with participants from a dozen countries.
I’m a pkm practitioner, not usually given to missionary work around it, nor part of the various business models around it. I do like discussing practices and tools with others though, especially in the context of learning and agency (rather than mainly about focused productivity). And that is what I got at PKM Summit. It was my kind of conference. Where speakers were just regular participants and everybody interacted with everyone else. Where everyone of the 150 participants just geeked-out on each other’s pkm practices. Whether you’d been doing it for decades or days. There was also plenty space in the schedule for people to suggest additional sessions, an opportunity that was well used. Also by the invited speakers, who did sessions together too.

That it worked out that way wasn’t entirely a surprise to me, because I had volunteered in the run-up to help bring in speakers and curate the program with the hope of it having that effect.
That for instance Harold Jarche, Nicole van der Hoeven, Chris Aldrich, Beth McClelland and Zsolt Viczián were part of the program was a result of that. And some organisational aspects I had suggested to the organising team based on my Reboot and Open Space experiences (as participant and organiser respectively) also were adopted.
That Nick Milo would be there in person, as would David Allen of Getting Things Done fame were pleasant surprises I learned of in the days before the event.
The informal setting of Seats2Meet, the high quality of the catering, and above all the enthusiasm of the all-volunteer team (some of whom also took the opportunity to do a spontaneous session on the program), brought it all together. The meet-up that Nick Milo hosted in the evening of the first day at the Green House was fun to chat with a wide variety of people including some who weren’t at the conference.

I’m happy four of my colleagues came along and had an equally good time.

A next edition was announced for 14 and 15 March 2025. It might be hard to top the synergy and novelty of this edition though. Also because what caused surprisal and excitement this time, might become expected and the subconscious baseline next time.
Still there were plenty of people that I reached out to who couldn’t make it this time, and hopefully can be there next time. Like Beat Döbeli, Bianca Pereira and Bob Doto.
The way to pull it off once more I think lies in the strength(ening) of community. To keep building and deepening the connections made, to nudge and have space for self-organisation, and keep putting mutual learning and exploration first.

A big thank you to Lykle, Kim and Martijn, and the many volunteers around them for two great days.

Bookmarked Timeline of some of the intellectual history of pkm by Chris Aldrich

Today was the first day of the European PKM Summit in the Netherlands. With all the momentum around novel digital tools for thought, I thought it important to also create room for a discussion of the deep history of most of the methods that we are re-implementing in our current crop of tools. Especially since large groups assume there is no such history. At best in tech the origin of PKM like stuff is pinpointed to Vannevar Bush’s Memex. Whereas tagging, commonplacing, index cards all have their centuries or even millennia of history. Chris Aldrich has researched that history in great detail. And as Chris and I know each other through our IndieWeb efforts I reached out to involve him in this personal knowledge management conference.

Here’s a version of the timeline of some of the intellectual history I presented today at the PKM Summit in Utrecht.

Chris Aldrich