This post is about organizing information. More specifically, it's about ways to save notes, links, bookmarks, and why it's important to do so. This post is about "note-taking systems".
It's kind of a nerdy post. I mean you have to be kind of a nerd to take notes, to love taking notes, to be consumed with taking and making notes of your world for most of your waking hours.
Twenty or so years ago, Neil Postman declared in his book Informing Ourselves to Death that we are "drowning in information". So much is happening in the news cycle, so much content is published online every day, that I don't think anyone would argue against this idea. A quote follows:
But what started out as a liberating stream has turned into a deluge of chaos. ...matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems. ...The tie between information and action has been severed. ...It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don't know what to do with it.
Currently it may be more important than ever to have a system for storing textual, aural, and visual scraps.
For our own uses, to be sure, but also to preserve information that might be useful to others, or to communities or society as a whole. Especially in light of having a president that traffics in "alternative facts", whose supporters shout down stories about immigration raids happening across the country as "fake news".
An example of this might be how recently, hundreds of academics and hacktivists participated in numerous university-led and DIY hackathons to save environmental data from the Trump administration before it's deleted. The data will be saved at datarefuge.org. A much grander event than the simple making of a to-do list to buy eggs, milk, and bread, but I think it shows why documentation is important and how computer users can archive and share important data.
As a writer and compulsive note-taker, I am especially interested in ways to save and search my own notes, as well as the things I come across online. What was once a self-centered act of preserving the things I've done and the thoughts I've had, is now an act of asserting my own politics and person-hood. I keep notes because knowledge is power, clichés damned. I am compelled to fight to remember the million tiny things that are important in a world that seems evermore confusing and harsh. My notes are my anchors. Let us not repeat history.
So — note-taking as a politic act. Cue "Bust the Facts" by Ultramagnetic MCs.
Frankly, I don't think the term "note-taking" actually does this topic justice, but it is one that can encompass it. "System of documentation" might be a better phrase, or maybe "self-documentation" or "self-archival".
There's also the concept of "memory prosthetics", which could be defined as kind of an outsourcing of one's memory using technology. For instance, sticky notes are a kind of memory prosthetic. Books, too. Anything that you can refer to for information is a memory prosthetic. My friend and fellow School for Poetic Computation alum, Max Fowler, has created a website, memoryprosthetics.net, about the concept, and I think it's a particular way of thinking about how we collect and sort information, as well as other digital assets.
What follows are some note-taking and documentation resources created by friends or friends of friends. I include them in this post simply because I find them interesting, and hope you might too.
From Esther's own site: Esther Anatolitis is a writer, critic and curator with an abiding interest in how art creates public space in all its forms.
A friend hipped me to Anatolitis' system for indexing ones notebooks when I mentioned my own collection of 20-30 notebooks, filled up in the last 15 or so years.
Since the system can be index card-based, I'm going to leave another Ultramagnetic MCs song here, simply because it brings me joy.
Anyway, I suppose the first question regarding the index-system is: why would you need to index all of your notebooks?
Anatolitis herself admits this is no small undertaking. However, consider all of the ideas that were good enough to write down but were forgotten about in the next day, week, month, year.
For instance, in a most recent post, "What Writing Means to Me", she creates an index of all of her entries over many years regarding 'writing' and the compiled document is compelling.
V1/28.11.99 Download; redress other-directedness of consciousness; record.
V4/22-24.11.01 Desire. Intimacy.
V6/17.06.03 Comfort, explication, understanding, emotion, confidence.
V8/07.10.04 A presence, a fireplace, a pet. Self-determination.
I've yet to embark on the indexing of my own notebooks, but the prospect of doing so sounds intensely satisfying.
As a follow-up to the initial post about the index-system, Anatolitis explains why she created an analog system, as opposed to a digital indexing system.
Max was interested in how "memory prosthetics" function so he created an informal survey and invited a sampling of tech-forward NYC artists, writers, and creative technologists to share how they save and archive things online.
In his own words:
This is a website for sharing cybernetic prosthetic memory systems, aka how people organize their files, or in a broader sense how they relate to technology, ephemerality and archiving.
What follows are my takeaways from his research.
- Systems of documentation are created out of necessity. Most folks do not seem to do this sort of thing for fun. As maybe the note-loving-est geek, I can attest to this.
- Many use are.na as a way to curate links and images. It's kind of like a clean, simple "Pinterest for artists"(cringing from that simile but it's accurate). Users can collaborate via channels, which may have a topics such as "post election resources" to "deep clothing" to "vibes, moods, and memes". Via are.na, you can explore a variety of "knowledge wormholes". Charles Broskoski, interviewed by Max, states, "...there's kind of a utility in 'open-sourcing' parts of your brain that goes beyond access to information and approaches something like self-actualization(I understand if you're rolling your eyes)."
- It's useful to be deliberate in creating a folder structure in which you have access to things you need, when you need them, but it's also important to have a strategy for cold-storage/saving to portable hard drives and to the cloud. Because storage space is not infinite, files periodically need to be moved, backed up, deleted.
- Notion, Notational Velocity, and Dropbox Paper are popular cloud-based note-taking apps. I'm a big fan of Paper but may explore the others at some point. I used to use Evernote, but my heart will always be with Apple Notes. It syncs across my devices, it's simple, and I can even access it on a pc via the web.
GitBook is an open source online book-writing platform(despite the name, they're not a GitHub product — similar ethos though).
I finished my first book recently(not-so-shameless plug), and hope to start on another this year. By far THE hardest part was the formatting of the book so that it would display properly. Although GitBook is geared towards software development, you could use it to create any kind of documentation. It's a really simple, clean way to create an online, searchable book-like document. Glad to know it.
The Note-Taking/Documentation App That I Want To Build
Briefly, while we're on the topic, I'd like to describe the note-taking app that I hope to someday build. It would be clean and simple, like Dropbox Paper or Apple Notes, but it would be unique in that it would sync Facebook saved articles, Apple notes, Apple reading list articles, Medium bookmarks, web bookmarks, twitter retweets and hearts, are.na channels, spotify likes and playlists, and whatever else. Basically, it would be like Evernote in it's ability to interface with other web services but would access the APIs of all other popular, socially-facing sites.
The idea for the app came from the fact that I save all of these things to read later in different little content silos, but I never come back to them. The user experience for accessing my Facebook saves is terrible, so annoying that I've yet to go back and read anything saved there ever. And yet, I keep compulsively saving posts in the hopes that they will one day create a clean readable interface for Facebook saves.
The Obligatory "Closing Thoughts"
Should we rue/be skeptical of/lament the use of memory prosthetics? The commonly-accepted idea that technology has always been around — at least since man was able to grip hand-tools with his newly-evolved opposable thumb — is calming, I think. If man and technology have always existed symbiotically, what's the problem?
Well, there are always problems. One common pitfall in these digitally-feudal times is that our data is stored with corporations that see us as metrics, and not as individuals. The control that the administrators of user-based communities exert is more or less all-powerful. You are told that if you don't like Airbnb/Uber/the iPhone 7, you can always buy the competitors product. But what about all of the time, emotional investment, and data you've sunk into said corporation's sustained interactive experience? Sue them? Ha! Maybe they will give you a $50 credit if you are really, really upset.
I shudder to consider the prospect of porting all of my Apple Notes entries to another system if the situation merited it.
As a web-faring consumer, I'm concerned more and more with the question: "Who owns my memory? Who owns yours?".