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Personal Knowledge Management is Bullshit

7 minutes read

Knowledge is a brute force attack, not a bureaucratic spider web.

Personal Knowledge Management (“PKM”) is a trendy new term for techniques and applications designed to manage information.

Everyone is overloaded with information thanks to the digital revolution, so—the PKM people tell us—we need new software and systems to survive and thrive. So far, so good. I agree with this intuition.

The problem is that market demand for solutions is tremendous, while the underlying problem is stubbornly intractable.

The Bull in the China Shop

First, a great proportion of the variance in “knowledge management” effectiveness across individuals is genetic. Individuals blessed with high degrees of industriousness and orderliness will build sophisticated media diets, note-taking systems, and automated archiving pipelines much more effectively than those less blessed with these traits.

Next, these naturally organized people realize they’re sitting on a valuable commodity, which they can sell to less industrious and orderly people. Some random nerd who just loves organizing all his little files decides to christen his idiosyncratic personal routine with a catchy name, package it as the best method for helping anyone get organized, and then thousands of less organized people pay him to learn it.

To be clear, I think this can work, at the margin, for some people, so I’m not coming after the basic idea of organized people helping less organized people for a fee. I’m just pointing at the bull in the china shop, namely that most of the variance between individuals is genetic and relatively invulnerable to intervention. It is probably marginally amenable to intervention, but "probably marginally amenable to intervention" does not make for great marketing copy, so the reality projected by PKM influencers is substantially distorted.

Get Your Knowledge Graph Away From Me

Other forms of ludicrous reality distortion abound in this new “discipline.”

Another great example is the concept of the Knowledge Graph.

Popularized especially by Roam Research, a Knowledge Graph refers to the whole web of connections between ideas or notes. Knowledge Graphs are built with “bi-directional links” or backlinks between notes (an equally trendy software motif in the PKM world), where any given word in one document can link to another document (and also become visible in that other document.)

The sex appeal of the Knowledge Graph derives from the fantasy of not having to decide what’s most important.

The Knowledge Graph says you don’t have to use your conviction and will to execute risky and time-consuming, linear projects (which will fail if your conviction is wrong). All you have to do is take cute little notes all the time, and the hard work is magically done for you!

Not only will the graph tell you what’s most important (the more incoming backlinks, the more central the idea), the graph even seems to provide its own composition. You see, knowledge is a web. Knowledge isn’t hierarchical and linear. Knowledge is hyperlinked, “that’s like, it’s ontology, man.

Here is just one random and representative example of the Knowledge Graph ideology.

I find that for the most part I try to avoid any sort of hierarchy of my documents, preferring them to live at the same level of weight, letting the number of incoming links determine their value…

That sounds amazing, doesn't it? Too bad it's totally implausible.

The problem with the Knowledge Graph ideology is that everything in your mind is already situated in a graph structure. That is precisely the problem. It’s big and complicated, with way too many connections everywhere. There’s no good in replicating that web in digital form.

I submit that you are unlikely to author anything very profound or forceful, so long as you are possessed by the Knowledge Graph ideology. It is in the interest of many people, however, to spread this ideology merely because software excels at generating graphs and software can be sold. And then courses can be offered to alleviate the pain of overly complicated knowledge graphs!

Cut a Line Through Your Graph

The point of writing—and what the greatest authors have always done—is to cut through the knowledge graph with a bold and forceful line.

Almost anyone you know and respect as a writer is known and respected because they're able to muster brute, linear willfulness. Even if they use Roam Research or whatever, if they're actually publishing a real body of work, then it's their brute linear willfulness despite the handicapping of knowledge graph overwhelm.

Every person into PKM will say: But what about Luhmann and his Zettelkasten note-taking system? Many writers have devised lots of little systems, and the fact that everyone into PKM mentions this one guy supports my argument. What percentage of history's greatest and most prolific writers did not use a Zettelkasten? More than 99%, probably. Luhmann is an exception that proves the rule.

The concept of the Knowledge Graph deserves the classification of bullshit because its allure derives primarily from the false impression that it can mechanistically deliver—or substitute for—the brute, linear willfulness that defines all non-trivial writing.

If it doesn’t work, one might retort, then why have so many people adopted it? Why do so many people sing its praises?

A Signalling Theory of PKM

The reason Knowledge Graphs and other PKM memes are so trendy is that, by publicizing one’s overwrought Knowledge Management System, people think they are showing off their big brains. Perhaps for some people, it sincerely feels like intellectual progress to externalize one’s overgrown web of ideas and one’s arcane system of browser extensions.

I mean, c’mon... You know that Knowledge Graphs are bullshit signaling devices as soon as you look at one of these horrendous things.

The single most widely shared marketing image for Roam Research

I tried using Roam for about two weeks once. I used Roam and only Roam, diligently. After only two weeks, my knowledge graph was utterly unintelligible and distressing. It's called combinatorial explosion. Sure, you could say that I just didn’t learn to use it correctly (and link me to a paid course, no doubt). You could also just say combinatorial explosion is a bitch, and the goal of any thinking man should be to avoid it.

That people show off these illegible globs in public only makes sense from a signaling perspective: They are saying, “look at how many nodes I have in my brain, amazing nodes, I have so many nodes that a peon such as yourself can’t even guess what’s going on here!”

Showing these off for any other reason? I just don’t buy it; they reveal nothing. They can be aesthetic, perhaps. In which case, that corroborates my theory. You’re not accumulating knowledge and insight—you’re drawing pretty pictures. Apps and courses that help you make these pretty pictures are not helping you to advance your knowledge or to write increasingly insightful works.

I would grant that perhaps the placebo belief in a novel and revolutionary system may, at the margin, motivate some individuals to write more than they would otherwise and review their notes more often than they would otherwise. This is possibly a non-trivial contribution to human welfare.

Digital Obesity and the Oppression of Memory

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.

In the words of Deleuze,

I have no "reserve knowledge" (aucun savoir de réserve)... Everything that I learn, I learn for a particular task, and once it’s done, I immediately forget it, so that if ten years later, I have to—and this gives me great joy—if I have to get involved with something close to or directly within the same subject, I would have to start again from zero, except in certain very rare cases... (The ABC Primer)

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

There exists a minimal collection of software and web services which is certainly a boon for the vita contemplativa, but fancy and trademarked systems often do more harm than good. In fact, concern with software solutions and the disposition to manage arcane technical systems are both inversely correlated with the kind of spirit that tends to produce significant creative and intellectual work.

Obsession with retaining every little idea you've ever had is a kind of digital hoarding. Just as physical hoarders are often physically obese, digital hoarders are often digitally obese.

Some people are physically skinny but digitally fat. They byte too many pixels and their soul becomes heavy with memory. (source)

In intellectual history, the coin of the realm is the singular written work. The singular written work is a brute force attack, not a bureaucratic spider web. It is preciously rare—always has been and always will be. The ability to create singular written works is mostly impervious to education and technical supplementation; it is overwhelmingly what we used to call gifted or God-given and today call either genetic or inspired.

Software tools and courses can aid intellectual advancement and productivity at certain margins, for some people, but we should be more explicit about what exactly they can help, how they can help, and whom they can help. For the right person, at the right time, a modest software improvement or a modest educational intervention that increases productivity or quality by 10% might very well be worth thousands of dollars. But the current discourse has gotten out of hand.

The current state of “Personal Knowledge Management” is mostly bullshit, made possible in the short term by the magnitude of the problem and the widespread, felt need for a solution. The deep and urgent sense that we’re all drowning in information and distraction has created a massive market for anything that claims to solve this problem. In this context, it is natural for wildly overstated claims and trendy fashions to proliferate, however divorced from reality they might be.

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