PKM (Part 2): Landscape

If you look to the east, you’ll see the Outliners Forest. It is a magical place where branches and leaves can talk to each other. Trees can do that, too, using the fungal network that entangles their roots. You can hear various bird songs, but what grabs the attention is the screech of the spaced parrots.

The Outliners Forest covers part of the Markdown Valley, yet the valley stretches over a much bigger area. The soil is very fertile there. If you walk around, you can find all kinds of plants. A few knowledge streams go through the forest. The bark of some trees around the streams is chewed out by beavers who build dams further down to keep as much water area to themselves as possible before the streams flow into the river down the Markdown valley.

The river flows fast at first, but it slows down when it leaves the Markdown Valley and enters the Canvas Canyon. Intricate drawings cover the walls of the canyon. If you come closer, you’ll see that the drawings are made by the slime mould. It is a bit like the fungal networks of the Outliner Forest, but the legend has it that the slime mould is so intelligent that it can solve any problem.

White clouds cover the sky above. They resemble fluffy thought bubbles, float gently, and seem deceivingly light. Yet, everybody knows they can carry a lot and expand to cover the sky from end to end.

Weary travellers usually enter the Landscape of Personal Knowledge Management from the south, from the Lonely Elephant Savanna. It is a place where one can reflect and prepare for the wondrous adventure that awaits them in the Outliners Forest, the Markdown Valley, and the Canvas Canyon.


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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?

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Roaming through contexts with Roam: Organization

There are such kinds of tools which, when you interact with them, an organization emerges that modulates the interaction. That organization takes on a life of its own. The design and affordances of some tools for thought enable the emergence, persistence and adaptability of such an organization.

This is the fourth out of five posts of the series on Roam. The first part was about what is Roam likeThe second was about the powerful concept of distinction, and the fourth built on that to explain self-reference in Roam and why it is important. The current one is on organization. The series started in April 2020 with the intention to be published within a couple of months. That wasn’t to be as my workload tripled1pun not intended but is welcome once I realized it: it wasn’t just the volume that was three times more than before but also it was mostly work with triples  by that time. And although the productivity boost coming from Roam made it possible, cutting things was unavoidable and writing blog posts was one of the first things to go. Not go forever though, just wait patiently in the backlog.

Three things happened in the meantime. One, I gathered more experience working with Roam and more observations on how that structural coupling works. Second, my book on what makes organizations work was published in November last year. This means the current essay will be shorter than intended and the curious readers are invited to dive into more supporting arguments and details there. And third, the ecosystem changed. Now, apart from Roam, there are personal knowledge graph tools like Logseq, Athens, Obsidian, Kanopi, Codex, Foam, and Dendron, among others. They all have, in both similar and different ways, systemic properties that enable the interaction with the tool to be like with a living being.

Organization

Roam is a tool for organizing. You can use it to organize your day, project, research, knowledge, life. But there is also another organization, emerging from the interaction it2That doesn’t apply only to Roam, but also to some other PKG tools as those mentioned above.. This organization behaves as if it cares about its viability. It belongs to a class self-sustained systems, where the most typical organizations such as companies, government agencies, and NGOs belong to. Not surprisingly families, clubs, music bands, teams are also self-sustained systems of this kind. But it may seem strange to you if I put habits3Egbert, M., & Cañamero, L. (2014). Habit-based Regulation of Essential Variables. Artificial Life Conference Proceedings 14. MIT Press. and emotions4Colombetti, G. (2014). The feeling body: Affective science meets the enactive mind. The MIT Press. in the same class. There are good reasons to do so. Some say hurricanes are something like that too. A friend of mine also sees some dishes as self-sustained systems.

Self-sustained organizations emerge also in simple situations when we are trying to pass each other in a narrow corridor, but that lasts only seconds. Or during meetings. We tend to see meetings only as events. But they are social species, having a mind of their own, emerging from the complex dynamic of intentions, preferences, agendas, personalities, emotions, egos, and tribes, acting within the constraints of norms, rituals, and rules. This interplay between enabling conditing and constraints is always present in self-sustained organizations.

Do you need to interact with a software application for personal knowledge management to enable a self-sustained organization to emerge? No. Luhmann saw his Zettelkasten – not a software, just indexed cards in boxes – as his thinking partner:

As a result of extensive work with this technique, a kind of secondary memory will arise, an alter ego with who we can constantly communicate. It proves to be similar to our own memory in that it does not have a thoroughly constructed order of its entirety, not hierarchy, and most certainly no linear structure like a book. Just because of this, it gets its own life, independent of its author.

 

Does it happen only when you interact with tools for thought like Roam? Certainly not. It will be a matter of future research to find out when this happens, how, and when interacting with what sort of applications. A type of application that most likely belong to this class are videogames.

[G]ameplay is argued as being the achievement of dyadic and reciprocal coupling between a player and the game. In this reciprocity, gameplay arises as autonomous organization that is both self-sustaining and precarious. Coordination and exploration are offered as constitutive principles of videogame gameplay.

The viability of all these autonomous organizations, habits, emotions, teams, companies, and the one emerging when we interact with interconnected notes, depends on three essential balances. Continue reading

  • 1
    pun not intended but is welcome once I realized it: it wasn’t just the volume that was three times more than before but also it was mostly work with triples 
  • 2
    That doesn’t apply only to Roam, but also to some other PKG tools as those mentioned above.
  • 3
    Egbert, M., & Cañamero, L. (2014). Habit-based Regulation of Essential Variables. Artificial Life Conference Proceedings 14. MIT Press.
  • 4
    Colombetti, G. (2014). The feeling body: Affective science meets the enactive mind. The MIT Press.