Roaming through contexts with Roam: Distinction
Roam is expected to be the digital twin of your brain. Working with Roam is like “building a second brain”, the community echoes, after the training course of Tiago Forte by the same name.
Looking at Roam as a second brain is understandable. It is conditioned by a long history of swapping metaphors between computer science and cognitive science. At first computer science used the brain as a metaphor for the computer. This was reciprocated by cognitive science taking the computer as a metaphor for the brain. But, as Lakoff and Johnsson convincingly demonstrated, metaphors are not innocent figures of speech. And indeed, the-brain-as-a-computer was not just a metaphor. It was, and for many still is, a guiding light and a paradigm in cognitive science. As with computers, the brain was understood as both a location of the mind and as a processor of representations. Both computationalist and connectionist schools in cognitive science and philosophy of mind held this view of cognition and still do. Now, to go through all the arguments on why this is not the case is beyond the objectives of this article, but the curious ones are invited to follow them. Let’s just say that, if you are using Roam with the expectation that it will be your second brain, you might be disappointed. But here’s the good news:
Roam is even better than that.
If the smallest unit of matter is the atom, and the smallest unit of information is the bit, then what is the smallest unit of cognition? George Spencer-Brown came with a convincing answer: distinction. It’s only due to our ability to make distinctions, that we can distinguish anything from nothing, and are able to separate a thing from its background. Everything starts with a distinction.
Now, before diving into distinctions, it’s worth bringing another strand into the story and that is the influence of George Spencer-Brown on Niklas Luhmann.
The Roam user community developed an interest in Zettelkästen. This is the life-long personal knowledge management system of Niklas Luhmann. At first glance, Zettelkästen is a clever way of indexing note cards to maintain their references. However, it doesn’t only enable quick retrieval and new relations but also serendipity. For Luhmann, Zettelkästen was a communication partner and a thinking tool. He explained how he used it shortly in this video and in more detail in this paper.
Many people learned about Zettelkästen through Roam as it is indeed a contemporary platform for a similar kind of linked note-taking but with way more possibilities. Zettelkästen method is now referred to as a particular way of using Roam. At any rate, if Roam triggered some interest in Luhmann, it was entirely on what the German sociologist did to produce such an amazing volume of work with outstanding rigour and coherence. Indeed the Zettelkästen method deserves attention, but I’d like to shift it on Luhmann’s work itself as it enacts the same kind of thinking which produced the working method.
The most significant part of Luhmann’s work is his Social Systems theory. All books he wrote from the beginning of 80s to the end of his life were devoted to that. And here’s the strong link with the topic of this article: Luhmann Social System theory is heavily based on George Spencer-Brown’s calculus of indications and his concept of distinction. Keep this in mind, when reading further about distinction. It has significance on its own and is also a basis for the next post on self-reference.
George Spencer-Brown brought the idea of the distinction as the smallest unit of cognition in his book Laws of Form. The book starts with the following note:
The theme of this book is that a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in a plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance.
It sounds almost mystical. Roam also creates such an impression with its astrolabe logo.
And this mystical vibe is further enhanced by the community using #roamcult tag on Twitter.
But there is nothing mystical in Laws of Form (and neither in Roam). In Laws of Form, George Spencer-Brown developed a rigorous calculus of indications, based on the concept of containment. Everything is generated from a single operation, that of distinction.
But what has distinction and the calculus of indications to do with Roam?
They are both minimalistic yet bring forth a rich word. Every word is an indication of distinction and every phrase is an indication of another distinction within the text. But when a word or a phrase is made a reference by putting it in double brackets in Roam, it creates a container of other distinctions, which can themselves be containers of distinctions.
There can be no distinction without motive, and there can be no motive unless the contents are seen to differ in value. If a content is of value, a name can be taken to indicate this value. Thus the calling of the name can be identified with the value of the content.
In Roam, calling a name is made by clicking on an internal hyperlink.