In reply to Call for Model Examples of Zettelkasten Output by Chris Aldrich

Even while on hiatus I obviously cannot ignore Chris Aldrich’s call for examples of output creation systems and the actual output created with Zettelkasten style note card systems. For two reasons. One is that I fully agree with him that having such examples publicly visible is important. The other is that I recognise his observations about the singular focus on system design and tweaking often being a timesink precluding outputs (with the loudest voices often being utterly silent on output).

Here’s a first list of outputs from my system, without the receipts though as I’m writing this away from home with limited tools. After the list I’ll make a few general observations as well.

  • I have created 2 or 3 slide decks for client internal and conference presentations from my conceptual notes. First searching for notes on the topic, and the contextual factors of where the slide deck will be used. Then gathering the findings in what I call an ’emergent outline’ (Ahrens calls them speculative outlines). Or perhaps I already have an overview of sorts in the form of an ‘elephant path’ (a map of content, or annotated topical index) which normally help me navigate.
  • I have written blogposts directly from my notes. This is now easier than before, since earlier this year I created a way of publishing to this site from my internal notes. This allows me to write in a note, linking internally or including, all within the notes environment and then push the result out to the website.
  • I created some new personal insights from new connections within my notes. Not sure if that counts towards Chris’ definition of outputs. This results in new notes where the edge, i.e. the newly found link between two notions, gets expressed as a note in its own right. The first such connection (between my notions of Maker Households and Networked Agency) happened when I was about 35 notes ‘in’.
  • For a recent panel at a conference I collated my talking points from my notes
  • I use my notes a lot in work conversations, pulling up concepts as needed. I used to do this to pull up facts and earlier meeting notes with the same participants. Now I also use this to provide richer input into the conversations themselves, including pointing to sources and references. This emerged during the many video calls in the pandemic lockdowns, where it was easy to pull up additional material on one of my screens. Now that I have more meetings in person again, I find I still do this automatically. Whatever material I mention I also link in my own meeting notes. This has been remarked upon by conversation partners as a valuable thing.
  • I have some elephant paths I regard as output in their own right. One currently important to me is the Practices elephant path. It gives an overview of things I want to approach as a practice (which I place somewhere on the spectrum between habit/routine on one end and literacy (in the Rheingoldian sense of skill plus community) on the other end. Practices are the sweet spot to me for (groups of) knowledge workers to implement fields of theory in their own daily work
  • I maintain a client website directly from my notes on EU digital and data legislation. I have conceptual notes for all the regulations involved and maintain summaries alongside them. Those summary notes are automatically synced to GitHub and then published on Github pages as well as the client’s own domain. These same summaries also serve as outline and text for my frequent presentations on this subject, where the slidedeck is kept up to date from the notes that I am certain are always up to date because they are the notes I work with daily.

Some other observations:

What constitutes output? The ‘Luhmann had 90k notes and wrote 70 books’ mantra makes for a rather daunting benchmark to be compared against. I propose we count outputs that have utility to its creator. For me then there are two types of outputs from my notes. A group that is the result of better project tracking, allowing me to pick up where I previously left of, which is a valuable ratcheting effect. Me building my own micropub tools resulted from such ratcheting in 15 minute increments. This group of outputs results from notes, but not the conceptual notes of my ‘Garden of the Forking Paths’ (ie my Zettelkasten style collection). The other group results from re-using and re-arranging the material in my ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ and the example outputs listed above follow from it. In a sense all my work is an output of my notes and my experience, and my tools have always been aiding in my work. Yet there is a qualitative difference.

I have used notes based PKM for over two decades, and in hindsight it was mostly focused on reporting conversations, project stuff, conversations with myself, and many many examples of things I thought relevant. Those I would tag extensively, and I think most of those historic tags would now be their own conceptual notes, expressing the communality of the tagged examples and material, or expressing the link/edge between two or three of the tagged source notes as a notion.

Many of my conceptual notes (now 1000+) and ideas plus non-conceptual atomic notes (another 500 or so) stem from ‘atomising’ my archive of blogposts, and my presentations of the last 10-15 years. Many notes are thus created from earlier outputs themselves.

I recognise what Stephen Downes remarked, that creating the notes is the valuable part towards pattern recognition, and making output needs further gathering of new material. In part this is because adding things to my notes is aiding memory. Once it’s noted it’s no longer novel, and in that sense looses part of the surprisal (informational worth) that led to its creation in the first place. If outputs in my own mind need to be novel, then my notes are limited in value. (This goes back to earlier conversations of the 90% is crap heuristic which I see as feeding impostor syndrom. Outputs imo highly connected to impostor syndrom.

I don’t think I have actual established processes for outputs yet, I’d like to, and I don’t yet feel outputs created suggest as-effective-as-can-be processes yet. Maybe that is because I have not been really tracking such outputs and how I created them. I have become better at starting anything with interrogating my notes first, and putting them together, before starting exploration further afield. Often I find I already have some useful things, which gives a headstart in exploring anything new: there’s something to connect new findings to.

I do not think my current notes could yield something along the lines of a book, other than the nonsense kind of a single idea padded out with anecdotes. I also feel the method of information collection isn’t good enough to base any work on academically. This goes back to the earlier remark as to what qualifies as output of good enough quality.