In 2018, musician and writer Claire L. Evans spoke at the XOXO Festival sharing some of the stories that she tells more fully in her book, Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. It was from this presentation that I first learned about the Microcosm system – a working hypertext system that predated the world wide web.
I learned from Evans that the Microcosm system – like the world wide web – offered links between documents and media – but unlike the World Wide Web – the links between objects were not stored in the documents themselves but in a separate system. Not only did this extra infrastructure ensure that the reader would never be presented a broken link, but the system allowed for multiple sets of different links that could connect files together. This meant that a beginner could be provided a different experience from say, a domain expert.
It was a system that was more aligned to Vannevar Bush’s original vision of MEMEX – an environment in which the reader and not the author who makes the most associations between documents.
Crucially, Microcosm offered bi-directional linking.
“The system we were working on at Southampton Microcosm [the pre-web hypermedia system developed in the 1980s] had very sophisticated two way linking,” says Dame Wendy Hall, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton. “It was very prescient of the Semantic Web – you used the links to describe why you were making that relationship between those two data objects.”How Google warped the hyperlink, WIRED UK, Sophie Charara, 26 March 2019
Recently, I’ve became interested in new-to-me note taking software because some of my favourite newsletter writers wouldn’t stop talking about how much better their lives had improved now that they had adopted Notion or Roam or Obsidian to their lives. Unable to restrain my curiosity any longer, I moved my to do lists and other notes to Notion and I watched a lot of YouTube videos on how to best build my system.
On September 16th, I wrote a blog post called Noting well about these systems and how they fit into a model called The Digital Garden.
On September 17th, Notion introduced bi-directional Linking to their system.
Once you have a note-taking system such as Notion, Obsidian, or Roam Research, or other system that uses bi-directional linking, now you can build your second brain.
You will learn how to capture, organize, and share your ideas and insights using digital notes, with a systematic approach and tools that you trust to support creative breakthroughs in your work
Or you can spend $13.99 USD for the print version of How to take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.
This is the step-by-step guide on how to set up and understand the principle behind the note-taking system that enabled Luhmann to become one of the most productive and systematic scholars of all time. But most importantly, it enabled him to do it with ease. He famously said: “I never force myself to do anything I don’t feel like.” Luhmann’s system is often misunderstood and rarely well explained (especially in English). This book aims to make this powerful tool accessible to everyone with an interest in reading, thinking and writing. It is especially helpful for students and academics of the social sciences and humanities and nonfiction writers.
I opted to spend the $13.99.
You may opt to watch this video instead:
Both the Building a Second Brain and the Smart Notes systems are means to encourage better note taking for learning, and by demanding that the user immediately paraphrases what they’ve just learned, they end up creating an environment where excerpts can easily be found and brought together into a linear text.
From what I can understand, the major difference between the Build a Second Brain method of notes taking and the Smart Notes method, is that while the Smart Notes method encourages the reader to connect captured ideas together as growing lines of thought, the BASB method encourages the reader to file ideas into new or existing Projects.
It is not surprising that newsletter writers, podcasters, YouTubers, and other content creators have gravitated to these note taking systems since they are built for “borrowed creativity”, “intermediate packets”, and “idea recycling”.
The video above is from Ali Abdaal who largely makes videos about productivity. In another video, Ali flexed that he makes more money from his passive income sources of YouTube Adsense and Skillshare than his day job as a junior doctor in the UK.
Is it surprising then to learn that the creator of the BASB of note-taking situates that work in a larger context of being a Full-Stack Freelancer?
Is it just me or does this sound a little too much like a ponzi scheme or multi-level marketing system in which each influencer sells the promise of productivity systems through sponcon-paying videos on Adsense-paying YouTube channels to gather enough of an audience to drive the viewer to Skillshare?
It almost makes me worried for Academia.
Luckily Ali has a Skillshare course on stoicism for that worry.
For the record, I was surprised how much I was inspired by the promise of the Smart Notes system as described by Sönke Ahrens.
I used my own version of it to develop this very blog post:
I am trying to take smart notes on my readings going forward. I wish I had started earlier. Much earlier.
I was not a great undergraduate student. I felt like I immediately forgot everything I learned in class after I wrote the final exam, even in courses that I had excelled in. What I learned never felt like my own. It felt like I was being asked to memorize textbooks rather than than build my own sense of understanding and ask my own questions. What if, I wonder, what if I had otherwise imagined my undergraduate degree as a time to build up a zettelkasten to call my own?
There’s another reason why I am gravitating to the smart notes system.
I have been writing on the web (otherwise known as blogging) for over 20 years. I recognize that many times I feel inspired to share some insight that occurred only because I had stumbled on a connection between 2 or 3 disparate ideas within the span of a week or two. But I’m a middle aged woman now and I’ve forgotten more than I can even remember. I don’t write blog posts that mention an amazing essay I’ve bookmarked seven years ago, because I’ve forgotten that I’ve even read it.
I’m not doing this for a future career in making Skillshare videos. I’m not even doing it for this blog. I’m doing this for myself because there is a particular quiet joy that comes from reading and writing and learning and sharing.