OT: Mapping thoughts, Memex & Zettelkasten.

Off Topic are posts where I talk about the human side of things.

Vannevar Bush, As We May Think

Have you read Vannevar Bush's article As We May Think? In that article he discusses an interesting concept:

"A System becoming an extension of human knowledge and memory which may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility."

Now this might not seem groundbreaking to us for we have Computers, Internet and Search Engines (Google, DDG, etc.). However it's important to know that Hypertext, which is the backbone of internet, was created thanks to the inspiration taken from Memex, which is the name of the system Bush proposed.

Deeper principle at play

It is known that many a people have read and been inspired by Memex over the years. Yet there are others who knew nothing about Memex and yet came up with similar systems. I think there's a deeper principle at play here.

The need to organize and connect ideas, to create a material representation of our mental map of thoughts and abstractions seems to be a constant pursuit for human beings.

Software Systems

Let me start by giving a few software examples:

  • World Wide Web
  • Project Xanadu
  • Wikipedia
  • Roam Research
  • Obsidian
  • Org Mode (Emacs)
  • etc

If you are looking for a software to help you record your ideas, I think all options in the list from (personal) Wikipedia onwards are good.

But personally I have come to dislike them and sometimes prefer the tactile nature of writing with paper & pen.

Physical Systems

So what do we have in the non-computer/physical world?

  • Bullet Journal (Popular example in our modern world)
  • Zettelkasten
  • I am sure there are other systems that I am not aware of.


Personally one system I found quite effective is Zettelkasten.


Zettelkasten is the modern name given to the system as described by Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), who had a very productive lifetime by publishing numerous books in record time with deep ideas and concepts.

I don't think Luhmann was aware of Memex but the idea is pretty similar yet powered by analog "technologies".

What I found even more interesting is that this system was "pioneered by Conrad Gessner (1516–1565) (wiki quote)" and there are known instances throughout the history.


Here's a bare bones summary:

  • You need a stack of index cards and slip boxes to hold the cards.
  • Every time you have an idea/thought to note, write it on an index card.
  • Keep the text short.
  • Write an "address" or "id" on the card based on where it sits in the hierarchy/graph/network.
  • You can connect or refer to other notes for new insight.


I found two posts that explain the rules of Zettelkasten is greater detail.

I started by first reading the lesswrong.com article and later on made my way to the article by Luhmann.

I found the method described by lesswrong.com a bit harder to implement when starting out. I was able to get the spirit of the system by reading Luhmann's article and thus devised my own system which I found easier to get started with.


If you weren't aware of these systems (offline & online), hope you learned something new and they help you with your merry work!

So what's my system you wonder?

I will get into it in a later post. :)