Photograph of my current refurbished zettelkasten

I have been on a journey pretty much my entire life to learn. And that has also required focusing on learning how to learn. Lately, I’ve gotten a great boost by making a determined study of two areas: AI, and zettelkästen. Since the primary AI programs I use are ChatGPT-4 for discussions, and an index-card-based zettelkasten,* I refer to them as the Oracle & the Zettelkasten.

Coming to The Zettelkasten

It’s easiest for me to explain the Oracle & the Zettelkasten by starting with the zettelkasten I’m using.

I won’t get into the detailed history — or even the details of setting up and working with one — for the zettelkästen. There are excellent pieces here, and here. Here’s a book.** Dig in yourself, and you’ll also find a lot of related systemic approaches that look similar to zettelkästen.

Turns out, the zettelkästen and related ideas have a long, long, long history. Worthy of at least three instances of the word “long.” Numerous famous scientists, philosophers, and other authors throughout history have relied upon them. (I’m not going to list any here. If you’re interested, the Oracle and/or Google can help.)

So, in my case, I’m trying to use a Luhmann-type system. Index cards, cross-links, indices, etc.

I first thought about building one myself. So I looked around, ordered appropriate hardware, wood, etc., and even drew up some plans.

a rendered drawing of a drawer from my plan for a zettelkasten.
One drawer from my zettelkasten design

Then, one day, Bunny Chafowitz brought me a gift that was destined for the dump. (I could not believe they were going to throw this away.)

my zettelkasten before refurbishing
My Zettelkasten Before Refurbishing

After a little paint job (not the best, but it works), I have my new zettelkasten.

Photograph of my current refurbished zettelkasten
My Current Zettelkasten

Truth be told, until I did this, I just had a basic box I got off Amazon.

Cardboard box used as my first zettelkasten
My first “real” zettelkasten, which was just a cardboard box.

I said I would skip details, and so I shall. Maybe some other day when I’m more experienced with using it, I’ll write more about the “how” (and “why”) of a zettelkasten.

For now, suffice it to say that — at least the way I’m doing it — a zettelkasten is essentially a box of notes, written on index cards, and using a system that allows for organization and cross-linking of the cards one-to-another. Think of it like “hyperlinks” for paper. (In fact, if I recall correctly, this article talks about a possible tenuous connection between an old Apple program called Hypercard, and zettelkasten.)

And therein lies the rub. The Big Issue™ that I’ve had with getting my zettelkasten going is where to put cards, and the best way to create links.

The Oracle

When AI was getting traction (again) the last couple years, infiltrating practically everything, I was irritated. The claims seemed like b.s. (Most still do.)

AI was going to be transformative. Our world would never be the same. Jobs were going to be lost. Maybe Skynet was finally here.

Consequently, everyone was putting AI into everything!

And it irritated me that even our legal research tools were not safe. Lawyers were getting into trouble over AI “hallucinations.” The last thing I wanted was for some AI — some “fake intelligence” — to corrupt my normal legal research methods.

Then, one day, I met the Oracle of the Oracle & the Zettelkasten.

The Oracle is ChatGPT-4. I don’t want this post to go on too long. So, as with the Zettelkasten, I’ll leave out a lot of details.

What I really want to get to is that the Oracle — as it has with so many other problems I’ve brought it recently — helped me figure out how to solve some of my Zettelkasten problems.

I can think of no better way to show you than to actually show you. So I’m going to give you a look at a brief snippet of conversation — part of a much longer one — where I was trying to resolve how I wanted to create my numbering system for a couple portions of the zettelkasten.

The Oracle Speaks of the Zettelkasten

Here is the snippet I mentioned in the last section:

Me:

Now I’m a little worried about my structure. This is what has made getting myself really well started with the zettelkasten so difficult. I know I should just “start” and “let it grow.” But I also want to make sure I’m making the best plan for growth. So, maybe just have Cartoon 1 (1315/1), Cartoon 2 (1315/2), Cartoon 3 (1315/10) is not the best plan. Same with Case Law. Some cases are going to be more closely related, and should go together. So Case 1 (5596/1), and Case 2 (5596/2) might not be closely related. But one day I come up with a Case X that is closely related to 5596/1, but there are no numbers for it. Am I missing a level of some kind that can accommodate this issue?

ChatGPT:

It’s a common concern when starting a Zettelkasten to want to plan for every eventuality, but part of the strength of the system is indeed its adaptability over time. However, your concern about closely related ideas and the structural space for them is valid. In the Luhmann-style Zettelkasten, flexibility is key, and his solution was to use alphanumeric codes that allow for infinite branching without the need for renumbering.

Here’s a refined approach that incorporates the flexibility you’re looking for:

  • Alphanumeric Suffixes: Rather than strictly numerical identifiers, you could introduce letters to create more room for related notes. For example:
  • 5596/1A: A case closely related to 5596/1.
  • 5596/1B: Another case closely related to 5596/1.
  • 5596/2: A case not closely related to 5596/1.
  • 5596/2A: A case closely related to 5596/2.

And similarly for political cartoons:

  • 1315/1: First political cartoon.
  • 1315/2: Second political cartoon, not closely related to the first.
  • 1315/1A: A cartoon closely related to 1315/1.
  • 1315/1B: Another cartoon closely related to 1315/1.

This system allows you to expand sideways (adding closely related thoughts to a specific idea) as well as forward (moving on to new ideas).

Here are some additional tips:

  1. Leave Room for Expansion: Instead of sequentially numbering each new case or cartoon, you can leave gaps, as you mentioned, to give yourself room to add related items later.
  2. Create Sub-categories for Broad Themes: If you know certain themes will have many entries, start them with their own sub-category from the beginning. For example, if you expect many cartoons about elections, they could start at 1315/1000.
  3. Don’t Worry About Perfection: You can always reorganize a Zettelkasten. While it’s a bit more cumbersome with a physical system compared to a digital one, it’s still possible. The key is to get started and learn as you go.
  4. Remember the Index: Use your main index to keep track of where things are, rather than relying on finding the perfect place for each note from the outset. Your indexes are powerful tools for managing the complexity of your system.

Remember, the system is there to serve you, not the other way around. As you work with your Zettelkasten, you’ll find the rhythm and method that works best for you.

I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed. Yeah, once the Oracle explained this, I realized I already knew it. I had read about it elsewhere. But, I had forgotten.

Moving on with The Oracle & the Zettelkasten

With that last little bit of administrivia out of the way, I’m really looking forward to starting to work with my zettelkasten on a daily basis.

I’m already using Bibcards, which are just cards to keep track of what are sometimes called “literature notes” by other writers. Bibcards are used while reading — which is also a little different for zettelkastenmeisteren.***

I feel like now, thanks to the Oracle’s help with the Zettelkasten, I can get on with the task of converting more of my bibcard notes into actual main notes.

Let the linking — and the thinking — begin!


*”Zettelkasten” is the singular form of “zettelkästen,” which is a German word that translates to either “notebox” or “slipbox,” depending on which brand of English you prefer.

**I am an Amazon Associate, so if you use my link to get the book, supposedly I’ll get a few pennies.

***According to what little I know of German, this should be “slip box masters” or “note box masters,” depending on which version of English you’re translating into.

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