Problems of a Digital Zettelkasten

I don’t think we can emulate the exact Zettelkasten system Luhmann used inside a digital environment.

The system is not just about writing atomic notes, taking reference notes, linking and connecting notes. While all of this is useful and can really make your pursuit of knowledge and wisdom immersive, it does not fully match with what Luhmann was doing.

They key constraint, Luhmann’s Zettelkasten had perhaps is its biggest strength as well. Luhmann himself is also a part of his system and thus how he interacts with the system also plays an important role in making it work. The scope for physical interaction in his system is an additional medium that lets him think spatially and connect his notes from a physical plane. This interaction is what we lack when we are creating a digital Zettelkasten.

I can see Luhmann creating a permanent note and thinking where he should put it. As he is thinking he can physically go through various index notes and find a place to add the note. For him the act of adding a note is not an abstract task, it is a physical task. Compared to this adding a permanent note in Obsidian is not a physical task, it is abstract and it is too easy in a way. When it is easy, we never think too much about it. That is why I think digital Zettelkasten might not be as effective as a physical Zettelkasten.

Adding an extra layer of interaction (the physical mode) can force us to think more about the connections we make. The same physical constraints has also made Luhmann summarise his ideas into compact snippets. Luxury of digital space takes away the need for us to summarise our ideas which in turn becomes a crutch as the number notes we have starts to grow.

So far we have discussed the role physical space and interaction plays while creating notes and placing them inside the Zettelkasten. Now the physicality also plays an important role in extracting notes and then creating new ideas from it. While we can sort of emulate that in the digital space by opening multiple notes at the same time, the ease by which we can rearrange notes is a physical space is unparalleled. To arrive at something new we sometimes need to force ourselves to see things in a completely new perspective. Notes in a physical space allow us to do that without any limitation. Spatial rearrangement helps us come up with new creative connections.

Then what is the best way for us to implement a Zettelkasten system that remains close to, in terms of function, with Luhmann’s physical Zettelkasten? I propose a Zettelkasten note taking app that is built for ipad and emulates the same constraints present in the physical Zettelkasten. I imagine we can write our permanent notes in it, and then use the touch input to find a place for the note to fit it. This will also require a explorable visualisation of existing index notes and chain of ideas. May be I should create a wire frame to fully explain this idea.

Another interesting question to ask is how a Zettelkasten type system can be creates using current AR/VR technologies.

Otherwise, you will have to set your own constraints while working in apps like Obsidian. This makes me think about How to set up an Ideal Zettelkasten using Obsidian.

Return to Zettelkasten or Home Note

Hey there, my name is Rahul Rajeev and thank you for taking the time to read through my digital garden. This garden is a raw reflection of my explorations - so all the information shared here are versions of my own experiences and assumptions.

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