Thoughts on managing knowledge

Vannevar Bush would be angry with us.

Christoph Labacher
Jun 24, 2016 · 4 min read

A record, if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.

While having tried many options, I still have not found a note taking solution I am completely happy with, one that I feel like I can safely pour all my thoughts into. One were they are safely stored and — above all — are ready to be consulted again. What Vannevar Bush said in his essay “As We May Think” in 1945 still holds up today — a document is only as good as it is usable and “using” it usually means not the composition, but the consumption of its content.

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. […]

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.

Note taking apps are still mostly text editors — and some are great at that — but fail to be true knowledge management solutions. This is mostly, as Bush recognized before they even existed, because they are based on wrong metaphors of organization. They copied the flawed ways of analog file management: Documents are regarded as separate, segregated entities, organized by somewhat arbitrary rules: Sometimes in folder structures, sometimes just as lists, sorted by alphabet or when they last changed. It makes it hard to find documents corresponding to a specific topic, but also to adequately depict the pluralism of knowledge.

This kind of document management fails to represent much of the intercontextuality that is inherent to knowledge. Luckily Bush also proposed a solution that has become a common reality by now: Hypertext.

Interestingly, considering how comfortable document composition has become, Hypertext is still nor widely used (public webpages are an obvious exception, but they are just a small fraction of all documents created) and creating it is cumbersome: If you are able to add links into your document at all they are optimized for links to other webpages, not your own knowledge. You have to type out URLs and keep them up to date. What we are wasting with this is the opportunity to create truly interconnected trains of thoughts. To make information easily traceable and findable and enable us to think more creatively by being able to understand where our thought come from.

If all of this was too much of high-level gibberish for you, fear no more, here are some concrete ideas. This is how I imagine a perfect note taking solution:

1. Documents are written as Hypertext.

2. It is easy to link between documents. An easy solution would be auto completing the title of you existing documents when you start to type a link. Making it possible to create links to documents by dragging them onto selected text may be a fast solution too.

3. Documents are grouped with tags. The tags can be manually introduced, but are also proposed based on the content of the documents (using keyword extraction) and your existing tags.

4. Each tag has its own page. It is more than just a search term or a filter: It can be seen as an entity reflecting a topic, much like a category. This makes it easy to find all documents related to a topic.

5. This is the most important point: While you look at a document, topically related documents are presented to you — even when they are not explicitly linked to. This should happen too as you are writing the document, making it easy to create links to other documents.

6. The start page not only shows you which documents you worked on most recently, but also which documents are relevant to these documents and so on.

A knowledge management solution that works this way would allow you to create a network of your thoughts/documents/knowledge, that can be easily navigated and is more reflective of the actual structure of knowledge.

This is still very much a process of thought, and by no means a finished proposal. I just wanted to get some ideas out there, because I feel like we are wasting much resources by creating a vast amount of information, but spending little time figuring out how to use it.

Quotes are taken from “Vannevar Bush — As We May Think”.

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