Garbage Heap

I don't know about you, but I've bounced off of personal knowledge management tools like crazy. Wikis? Digital gardens? Zettelkasten systems? Nothing sticks.

A recent piece brought this to the forefront for me: “Personal Knowledge Management is Bullshit” from Justin Murphy (source). There's a passage I'd like to focus on:

The most important thing about writing is discovering novel and non-trivial truths, and determining which of your truths is most important—then imposing order, hierarchy, and linearity—through judgment, decisiveness, and will. To produce meaningful work, and then forget about it, so you can move on to another and hopefully greater act of linear will.

A perpetually expanding web of hyperlinked notes is not impressive but oppressive. It’s not useful, and it’s not illuminating.

The idea of the ever expanding knowledge graph as oppressive flies in the face of the current climate that holds the bi-directional link as the lingua franca for many popular software tools & systems. It reminds me of a short story from Jorge Luis Borges called “Funes, His Memory.” In the story, a man acquires near superhuman memory after a horse riding accident. Borges describes this memory in lush detail. Here's a couple examples (translation by Andrew Hurley):

With one quick look, you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbeled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Río Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho.


Not only was it difficult for him to see that the generic symbol “dog” took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the “dog” of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog of three-fifteen, seen frontally.

But towards the end of the story, the narrator is suspicious of Funes' prodigious mnemonics:

He had effortlessly learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars [...]

Funes' memory is a never ending accumulation of specifics, never allowing for those specifics to be removed or for generalities to take their place. One new thing after another after another after another. Funes even goes so far as to tell the narrator, “My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.”

Without the ability to generalize and abstract away his memories, Funes is left with a garbage heap that keeps piling up. “Funes, His Memory” is a story not of a gifted individual but a cursed one, trapped in an endless web of memories with no way out. A nightmare.

Do we risk creating such a nightmare for ourselves with a perpetually expanding web of hyperlinked notes? How do we prevent such a garbage heap from accumulating in the first place?