PKM (Part 1): The Explosion

When the virus hit the planet, it induced other parallel pandemics. They did not spread through the air and did not require physical proximity. They spread online. Some were conspiracy theories, of which a good part related to the virus itself. Others were political propaganda, already successful but now more than ever, seizing the opportunity that people got more susceptible and spent more time online.

A less-known yet undeniably astonishing parallel pandemic was the explosion of Personal Knowledge Management tools. There were a dozen PKM tools by the end of 2019. Then suddenly, something happened. In the second half of 2020, there were already more than 50. New ones kept popping up almost every month in the following two years. What makes it even more bizarre is that unlike viruses, which take hours and days to spread, the development of a software tool is a combination of entrepreneurial, engineering and design activities that need much more time to produce usable output. When we add to this the time for users to learn about a tool, be attracted to it, try it, adopt it, and contribute with their feedback, this quick spread looks even more incredible.

So why the sudden interest? Was that a dormant demand? Or could it be that this breed of tools redefined themselves after a series of innovations and created an entirely new market? Was it the rise of interest in Zettelkasten that caused the rise of PKM tools, or was it the other way around?

Here are some possible causes.

Punctuated equilibrium

One is simply the nature of evolution. It’s not gradual. There are long periods of gradual change punctuated with rapid leaps. The classic example is the Cambrian explosion. The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Then, almost nothing happened for a period of time that’s way longer than what humans are equipped to imagine. Unicellular organisms appeared around 3.7 billion years ago and did not evolve much for billions of years. And then suddenly, around 540 million years ago, the seven orders that all present-day animals belong to emerged within a very short period of time. Both sponges and corals, which might be seen as primitive, and vertebrates, considered advanced, appeared within the Cambrian period.

There are plenty of such examples. It is now well established that long periods of stability are punctuated by rare events when major changes occur rapidly. The so-called “punctuated equilibrium”, as coined in Eldredge and Gould’s paper of 1972, attracted a lot of research not only by evolutionary biologists but also by complexity scientists. And it seems this phenomenon is not reserved for biological species only but also for technological ones. It is observed, for example, in the evolution of programming languages1Valverde, S., & Solé, R. V. (2015). Punctuated equilibrium in the large-scale evolution of programming languages. Journal of The Royal Society Interface, 12(107), 20150249.

The gradual evolution of PKM tools saw a surge in 2020-2022. This would not be the first such jump in the history of PKM tools. Another one occurred during the Renaissance. While the one during the Renaissance took a longer period (admittedly, the current jump has not yet stabilized, but there are signs that it is starting to), it is clearly a jump compared to the development before and after it occurred.

That evolutionary leap began when the commonplace books shifted their function from aiding memory to serving as external memory2Cevolini, A. (2018). Where Does Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index Come From? 3, 390–420. From helping to memorize to helping to forget. This reuse of an existing structure for a new function is another thing in common between biological and technological evolution. It is called exaptation. The new function of commonplace books boosted their use and triggered more innovations. In the beginning, the most significant development was in the way commonplace books were organized and indexed. This quickly led to the realization of the limitations of bound books and the need for open-ended and flexible PKM tools. Conrad Gessner, a Swiss physician and naturalist, was probably the pioneer in managing an extensive collection of individual notes in the 16th century. In the next century, Thomas Harrison invented the first known device for managing separate note slips. The “Ark of Studies”, referred to as a “machine” by its inventor (another interesting shift, this time in semantics), was a small cabinet where individual notes were attached on hooks under subject headings.

This physical detachment of separate notes is part of the overall decoupling trend that started already with the changed approach to organising commonplace books and continued after the slip-note cabinets. I’ll come back to it in the third part of this series. Here, the point was that the evolution of species and technologies is punctuated by jumps, and the one during the Renaissance and the one during the recent pandemic are, in that sense, confirmations of the theory of punctuated equilibria.

Matching variety

Another reason for the PKM’s “Cambrian explosion” might be the increased complexity of the world. Part of that complexity comes from free access to more communication platforms and protocols equipped with amplification mechanisms. An old, simple yet unchallenged measure of complexity is the number of possible system states, the variety, introduced by Ross Ashby in the 40s, together with the law of requisite variety. It stated that only variety can absorb variety. An easy way to understand the Law of Requisite Variety is when seen in terms of stimuli and responses. What is compared is the variety of the stimuli with the variety of person’s3That’s valid not only for persons but for all living beings and social systems as well as other self-regulating systems. goal and responses. For an agent to successfully deal with a situation, the variety of the responses must be equal to or greater than the variety of the stimuli divided by the variety of the goal.

And so, the increased variety in the environment made people look for ways to match that variety so that they can deal with it. There are two ways for a person, or any other agent, to match the variety of its environment: either reduce the variety of the environment or increase your own. A good PKM tool can do both. It can help to capture more information, both in terms of quantity and relevance to interest, and make it usable via appropriate classification and workflows. It can also increase the use of variety by supporting productivity, creativity, problem-solving, attention management and finding unexpected associations between different thoughts and events.

Lockdown effects

The third reason is the life changes caused by the pandemic. Some of these changes most likely contributed to motivating more people to develop and/or try out new tools. Three of these changes look especially plausible influencers: (1) more time for thinking increases the interest in tools that support it; (2) as one of the compensations for reduced physical interactions; (3) more time to learn new tools the initial steep learning curve of which might be a blocking factor in other times;

During the lockdowns, many people had more time for themselves. Those with small children probably less so. And yet, for both groups, it was time to rethink priorities, sometimes leading to quitting the current job in the process4See The Great Resignation: Why workers say they quit jobs in 2021, Pew Research Center; Empirical evidence for the “Great Resignation”, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; The Great Resignation – Factors Influencing Employees To Quit. One thing that got reevaluated was the need for more time to think. For some, this, in turn, led to experiencing how open-ended writing contributes to better thinking. A tiny minority went further and started cultivating open digital gardens 5See for a good overview of this phenomenon. where they published ideas in different stages of development in a way that invited follow-your-nose exploration. Some did it to bring early insights, provoke feedback and stimulate further development and refinement, and others believed it was simply the right thing to do.

Another lockdown effect was the increased online time. An obvious change was replacing physical meetings with online video calls, but the actual effect was much bigger. The highly reduced physical interaction sought compensation in increased online interactions. There was an increase in internet use in general6For example, the growth of the internet traffic in March 2020 was 30%. For more details, see The Internet and the Pandemic and Akamai Blog | The Building Wave of Internet Traffic. and social networks in particular which made people more vulnerable to being infected by the PKM virus. It even produced a semantic shift like the one in the seventeenth century. This time, it wasn’t from books to machines, but from PKM tools to “Tools for Thought”7Some may argue, and rightfully so, that not every PKM tool is a TfT but I’ll leave that discussion for another day., or TfT in short.

The lockdown had yet another effect, closely linked with the other two. People were more likely to make the time investment required for such tools to start paying off. Sophisticated PKM tools could not have attracted critical mass before due to the high entry barrier. They take time to learn. Even more so for those PKM tools that seduce users with their flexibility. When a tool offers different ways to use, most of which are unknown even to the tool-makers, users tend to spend more time learning from the practices of early adopters and power users. Getting inspiration or not, PKM tool users need even more time to experiment and find the best workflow for their needs.

The PKM tools exposition is a fact. It could be due to a natural surge in the evolution caused by some interacting factors, including a coping reflex for increased complexity and various lockdown effects. These seem like plausible explanations for the PKM tools explosion during the pandemic.

But maybe it is not that surprising after all. It could be that suddenly, more people understood what Michael Polanyi realized back in the 19508Polanyi, M. (2015). Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (M. J. Nye, Ed.). University of Chicago Press.

All knowledge is personal.



Next in the series: PKM (Part 2): Landscape


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